It’s (Literally) All Greek to Me: New Attempts at an Old Language

Greece is just familiar and just foreign enough to be bewildering sometimes.

Ancient Greek: so old-school

When I was planning this leg of my trip, I thought I’d be way more prepared than most Americans. Yes, Greek is not only a challenging language but also a whole different alphabet. But I studied Ancient Greek! I’ll be cruising right through this, no problem. *shrugs confidently*

Traveling solo in Greece
Old but beautiful but also old.

Turns out, expecting your Ancient Greek knowledge to help you with modern Greek is like studying Chaucer’s Olde English and trying to use that in America.

Not happening.

So what’s a modern woman to do?

Even my Ancient Greek tattoo has caused confusion here. Also as it happens, most of my studies were reading Plato, and very few people here or anywhere go about their days discussing beauty and wisdom and shooting arrows at the enemy (shooting an arrow was actually one of the first verbs we learned, and it has yet to come up in any language in daily life).

But! My vague knowledge of the Greek alphabet is useful, and it’s not too hard to pick up yourself.

Getting around here is 10 times easier if you can decipher the signs on the buses, towns, and restaurants. It’s very difficult at first, because not only is it a different alphabet, but the letters look like ours but are often very different. ρ is actually r. ν is n. There are three versions of e (and one of them is sometimes a u). Everything is upside down.

Greek language for tourists
Welcome to your Airbnb and thank Athena for Google Translate.

So I practice! Every sign I see here, every bus I get on, every menu I study, I make myself figure out what I think the Greek characters mean and then peep the English to see if I’m right (the Google Translate app is amazing for this). And now I’m… adequate!

Aim for competence, not fluency

Being here for a month doesn’t lend itself to deep language immersion, especially where so many people speak such excellent English. It is a little easier being here in the off-season, since there are fewer tourists and more locals around, meaning more chances to chat a bit.

But you can practice the basics every day: hello, goodbye, please, thanks, yes and no. It’s just polite to at least try a little of the language of the country you’re in, after all.

But maybe leave the ancient languages at home (even the Romans would be very confused if I tried to speak Latin to them).

As I did in France though, try. Try badly, try awkwardly, but try to embrace everything about the country that’s taking you in right now. Travel is about getting out of your comfort zone and into a new world.

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