It's all Greek to me! Learning a new language

The challenges posed by an alternative alphabet
14 May 2024

Interview with 

Regina Karousou Fokas


Greek flag


Chris Smith has a crack at learning Greek. He was supposed to meet his teacher - Regina Karousou Fokas at the University of Cambridge - in-person, but there was a very good reason that he couldn’t…

Regina - Because I don't want you to have what I have! A long forgotten friend but ever present: Covid.

Chris - And that's a Latin name, isn't it? Of course, 'coronavirus.' Corona: crown, virus: poison in Latin. That's come to visit you today so we're trying to do this lesson on Zoom. Do you normally teach over Zoom?

Regina - Well it was a very steep learning curve during the years of Covid because from one day to the next we had to transfer all our teaching online. Initially, I thought that would be impossible, but actually it is not impossible. So yes, I still teach from time to time on Zoom or online. And of course many meetings are carried out online, so it's something that is part of our lives, now.

Chris - This is going to be a really good test for me because I have never tried to learn modern Greek. My encounter with the Greek alphabet was at school trying to do ancient Greek, and I really struggled. I have to admit that I saw all the letters, but I kept trying to turn the Greek sounds into English letters, if you see what I mean. The Alpha's obvious because 'A' for 'alpha', 'B' for 'beta,' but some of the letters like 'hora,' you'd say that, but it looks like a letter 'X' and I kept wanting to say 'X' instead of 'hora'. Is that something that some people just naturally can get? Because I can't do it.

Regina - I'm sure you can if you give it a little bit of a try and concentrate on the sound to letter correspondence for a little more than five minutes. The alphabet is different from the Latin alphabet. But then again, it's not completely different. There are letters, as you say, that are the same. This is, again, not by coincidence because the Greek alphabet gave rise to many alphabets in Europe. Latin is one of them. There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. Some of them are completely different, but others are similar. They are pronounced similarly, like, 'Ah' or like 'Oh' as you mentioned, or like the letter 'v' that is the sound corresponding to 'N' in English. So these are close friends, but there are also what we call false friends: letters that look alike in the Greek alphabet and the English alphabet but then the pronunciation is completely different.

Chris - I'm in your hands Regina. So get me actually saying something that sounds half decent and then point out the pitfalls as to how I should try and attack speaking and getting to grips with a language I've never tried to get to grips with.

Regina - Learning to read Greek is actually not difficult because the alphabet is what we call transparent. So, a letter corresponds to a sound and that sound is stable wherever that letter is found in the word. It's not like English or French where there are letters or strings of letters that you actually don't end up pronouncing when you read the word.

Chris - You mean like 'row' and 'row' where they're spelled exactly the same way, but they completely confuse the hell out of foreigners because, unless you know the context and know the language, you say them wrong.

Regina - Exactly.

Chris - Like Leicester Square in London completely kills many tourists, doesn't it?

Regina - Exactly. Or Peterborough or things like that. In Greek, what you see is what you get. Greek words tend to be long, especially if you compare them with other European languages. That has its explanation as to why they are longer, but it's not uncommon to have words that could be eight syllables long. Knowing where to stress the word is very helpful, particularly for the purposes of someone learning the language. So there is the word 'kamilopardaliamil' that I always write on the board for my students when we start reading and writing and you have to persevere reading every single syllable. You can't get away with rushing your way through the word. Every syllable, every letter has to be sounded out and you have to know as well where to put your stress and be absolutely correct.

Chris - Does that affect the ability of a person, a listener, to pick up on the meaning? Because if you are forced to speak and enunciate properly to get those stresses right, does that stop people doing what I have a tendency to do, especially if I've had too much coffee, to go really fast, swallow bits of words and make it hard for people who don't naturally and natively speak English sometimes to understand?

Regina - It does happen. Learners of Greek do complain that we speak very fast. It's natural. We all do that in our native language. From the listener's point of view, encoding natural speech could be a problem. On the other hand, if you do know that you can't miss anything out, then your brain starts working in other ways as well. This is one of the best things about learning another language: you train your brain to be more agile and actually be flexible and accept differences that can be extended to other parts of your life as well.

Chris - You need to teach me some Greek. So I was thinking, why don't we start with 'The Naked Scientist?' Because I can tell you in French it's 'le scientifique nu,' which doesn't have quite the same ring to it. But what would it be in Greek?

Regina - So in the singular, that would be 'o gymnós epistímonas'

Chris - 'Yim-noss epi-stim-in-os'

Chris - Is there any masculine and feminine in Greek?

Regina - I was going to go there. If a female scientist is who we are talking about, then that would be 'gymní epistímonas' So there will be a difference at the ending of the adjective. In that particular noun, however, of 'scientist' the gender is neutral. So it's for both male and female people.

Chris - The 'the' and the 'A,' is that intrinsic to the noun? Because, because we would say 'The Naked Scientist' and have a word for 'the', but is that intrinsic in Greek?

Regina - You do.

Chris - So what would be the word? What would I say?

Regina - There is a difference in the gender. 'o gymnós epistímonas' for a man and 'i gymní epistímona' for a lady. There are three genders in Greek; masculine, feminine, and neuter. The article, as you mentioned, that was a grave omission from my part when you first asked me the question. The article has to be present there.

Chris - Why is that the convention?

Regina - The definite article is part and parcel of the word that can't be omitted.

Chris - Well, I'm pleased to say it's no longer all Greek to me. Thank you very much, Regina.

Regina - Good. I expect you in my classes next year, then.

Chris - Do you think I've got potential?

Regina - Oh yes.


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