Sounds like Greek to me

The Greek language is far richer than French or Italian, but it's much more challenging to master.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Ancient Ruins: Tourists visit the Acropolis, the famous archaeological site in Athens.

Not long ago, I found myself on a long ocean voyage, traveling to three continents in 22 days, which meant that most of our time was spent at sea.

The fact that our ship had never before left the calm confines of the Mediterranean became immediately evident as soon as we hit the open water. The tiny thing shuddered its way down the coast of Spain and on to Africa before crawling across the Atlantic to Brazil.

I tried to read, but found it difficult and soon had a lot of free time. This led to my love affair with everything Greek – I'm talking about the language.

It all started with the gorgeous sounds emanating from our crew. Have you ever listened to spoken, modern Greek? It pearls right over you, far richer than French or Italian – the usual contenders for most lovely language.

Greek is a crocheted language, an afghan of sound: large bright squares of color covering you with their tonal warmth. It's soothing and energizing at the same time. I wanted to wrap my tongue around these sounds too. Ha!

You know that expression, "sounds like Greek to me?" Ever wonder why it isn't Polish or Arabic or Chinese, languages surely more difficult and even poorer in cognates? I mean, why Greek?

I soon found out.

Naively, I assumed that Greek would just nestle down comfortably among the English, German, French, and Italian I had already learned.

It couldn't be that bad, right? What about all those geo-, psycho-, hydro- words we know derive from Greek?

Unfortunately, that leaves another couple hundred thousand words that either don't sound remotely like anything else, or, worse, sound like something familiar but aren't. Take dendro, the root for words with tree. In Italian, a similar sound means "inside." The Greek for inside, "mesa," sounds like the word "half" or "table" in Romance languages. "Table," while we're at it, turns out to be "trapezi." Don't ask. "Appidi" isn't an apple, it's a pear, which can also be an "achladi."

Back in New York, I signed up at Berlitz, a foreign language school. These people, I figured, have taught deafer ears than mine and, indeed, if you have corporate sponsorship, Berlitz is great. But for a private student, a two-hour lesson runs just over $300. At that rate, it would cost me about a six-months' salary to learn how to order a cup of coffee. In all fairness, I should give my teacher a plug: Perfectly fluent in Polish as well as Greek, she taught Meryl Streep her Polish for "Sophie's Choice."

Reluctantly, because it was as expensive as staying at the Ritz, I decided to leave Berlitz. My new teacher teaches the old-fashioned way: You earn the right to speak by first memorizing and writing everything.

First on the list, this means memorizing fables and irregular verbs. It also means that you can rattle off a convincing yarn without being able to actually say anything, as I recently discovered on my first stay in Greece, where new acquaintances were stunned by my shining vocabulary and penmanship. "How can you write like this and not talk?" Easy.

Consider a nice useful word like melon, which is roughly that in German, French, and Italian. Here, it's "peponi," or, if it's watermelon you want, "karpousi" (why not "hydropeponi" at least?). Mastering the alphabet is a snap in the scheme of things. It won't take more than a lesson or two. The real trick is inventing mnemonic devices to anchor those strange syllables. For pirouni, "fork," try pierces-your-food. Meijarevo, "I cook," sticks in the mind as my, a rave, oh. And "he/she agrees" turns out to sound and be spelled just like symphony.

The word that sounds like "then" means "not," while the word for "then," tóte, is not a carry-all and looks just like toté, which means "never." The other word for "then" is metá, which looks like "half." "Yes" is "nah," which is German slang for "no." You get the picture. Even your "geo-" root becomes "ye" in spoken parlance, as in "oh ye of little faith."

But I am hopeful, even though Greek verbs give new meaning to the term irregular. In most languages there's some thread of continuity, as in "see, saw, will see." The Greek for this trio is vleppo, eetha, tha tho. "Drink, drank, will drink" is peeno, eepia, tha pio. And "say, said, will say" comes in as layo, eepa, tha po. Now try memorizing some 20 of these in all persons, singular and plural. The tongue reels while the mind boggles.

No quarter is given to learning basics, either. Say you're studying French. In no time at all you can at least ask the waiter if the tip is included: "service compris" is the operative phrase. In Greek this inflates to: seem be ree lem va non te ke ta po sos ta. But the reaction is worth the work. When I tried this out the first time, the owner of the small eating establishment came rushing out and insisted that my whole meal was "compris" and that they wouldn't take a drachma.

So, I'm struggling along, keeping the faith, but it looks like I'll be crocheting for a long time.

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