Δεντρολίβανο says the packet on the table. And I, of course, know that this says DENTROLIBANO, pronounced in my head in a clear southern, English accent, every syllable delineated.
I do not know what Δεντρολίβανο is, and have to look further down the packet to realise that it is ROSEMARY.
I studied dead languages at school. (And, for reasons, a bit at University too).
Most of our peers didn’t understand why we’d do Greek. It seemed pointless, even more dead than Latin, and there was the hassle of a whole new alphabet to learn.
To me, it seemed obvious: someone gives you the chance to read words written over two thousand years ago. Wouldn’t you say yes? Wouldn’t you at least be curious?
Here is what I am left with:
- ten years of Latin lets me stumble through gravestones and churches around the world, just enough vocabulary to decipher a decent amount (bar the eccentricities of Church Latin), and I can probably still scan poetry if I had to. It is exciting to look at stone, and see something come to life.
- three years of Greek leaves me with a mere handful of words, practically no grammar, but I still know the alphabet.
What this translates to is: I can read road signs. It takes me longer than I’d like, which can be distracting when I’m driving, and there’s usually a romanisation underneath. But: I can read road signs!
I can read lots of other things too, speak them out loud, say them excitedly as we walk by or browse a menu.
I can speak the letters, and for every word that I recognise, either through old muscle memory of vocabulary, or, more likely, because it’s pretty similar to something in another language, there are a hundred more that I have no idea what they mean. (Like the Latin in churches, I fare better at the ancient sites – a few words in the stone at Messene, but mainly names, gods, goddesses, and my favourite of all, the long list of all the wrestlers at the Palaestra. At the pace I read it, it sounds like a classroom register).
And I definitely, absolutely, cannot pronounce it, as shopkeepers and restaurant staff across the Peloponnese can attest.
It’s not really DENTROLIBANO; it’s ‘dentrolivano’, spoken softly, with that beta becoming more like a soft ‘v’ in modern Greek pronunciation.
In my head, Greek is pronounced with the lugubrious tenor of my classics teacher. “ζῷον”, he says: “zdaw-ohn”, that omega extended with the lips in a perfect oh. (Zoon, “animal”, and off into zoological and so forth we go).
Dead languages read like history, but they sound like your classics teacher; all these ancient men and women (but mainly men) thousands of miles away, speaking in a plummy classroom accent where you can hear every letter and especially the endings of the words to catch their declension.
This is not what Greek sounds like any more, because Greek is not a dead language.
I knew this in theory, but I was really not prepared for how pretty it would be: those same characters spoken by tripping, delicate, mediterranean voices, breathy on the chis (but less on the breathings which I can’t see any more), all manner of rough edges smoothed, all those syllables neatly danced around. “ευχαριστώ!”, “thank you”; we get the Eucharist, the giving of thanks, from this, but here it is “ef’hristo!”, an everyday word that I find myself saying a great deal, somewhat apologetic at my lack of the rest of the language.
(We go to a chemist for some eye drops, which we manage to acquire between us, the chemist, the people in the queue and the chemist’s friends who hang out in the shop. I hear the old lady grumble something about Ελληνικά, and I want to say “Yes, I know! I’m annoyed I don’t speak Greek, you’re annoyed I don’t speak Greek, we’re all annoyed I don’t speak Greek!”. What I really say is: “ευχαριστώ!”)
Betas have become soft vs, upsilons are somewhere between an english “f” and “v”, the etas I say like “air” are now “ee”. It all makes sense when you think about it, but it is upside down to me. (My partner’s Greek colleague at work sighs when she tells him I studied Ancient Greek – “we had to do that at school, I hated it – it’s all backwards!” So we both agree on that, then).
But it’s alive, floating, bubbling. I think back to Xenophon’s Persian Expedition – Anabasis IV, my set text at 16, written around 2400 years before I was taught it – and imagine all those men standing in the snow, marching on the spot in bare feet to keep warm (and in preference to the un-tanned sandals that froze to their colleagues’ feet), chattering in this rolling, living language. I have to admit, it makes more sense now.
I know better what their faces look like, and what their tongues sound like.