Greek is one of Europe’s oldest languages and has a rich history of over 3500 years. From its earliest beginnings in Mycenae it spread via the conquests of Alexander the Great and eventually became the lingua franca of the ancient Mediterranean world where it was used by diverse linguistic groups for commerce and trade. The New Testament is written almost entirely in Greek and it’s very likely that Jesus spoke Greek. Later, it was the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantium.
During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment eras the Greek lexicon was called into service for the description and explanation of new ideas. Today, it’s impossible to study the sciences or speak an Indo-European language without encountering Greek words.
Greek is not only an old language, it’s a hard language. The alphabet is different and there are at least six ways to write the sound “ee” as in “eat.” They have two letters for “o”, the familiar “o” but also “ω” is an “o”. Scratching your head?
If that weren’t challenging enough, accents are hugely important; embarrassing misunderstandings can arise from their improper use. For example, the word θέα (accent on the ‘ε’) means view, as in “I want a room with a view.” But if you move the accent to the end of the word θεά (accent on the ‘α’) you’ll be saying “I want a room with goddesses” which probably won’t win you any friends at the reception desk. Another example with a more logical connection is the word for work, δουλειά (accent on the last ‘a’). Move the accent forward to the first syllable, as in δούλεια (accent on the ‘u’) and it means slavery.
Given its difficulty, you’ll endear yourself to many Greeks if you say a few greetings and ask for simple things in Greek. Accented syllables below are capitalized.
|Informal hello||YA-sou||γειά σου|
|Formal hello||YA-sas||γειά σας|
|Big||may GAL oh||μεγάλο|
|Open (like a shop)||ah neek TOE||ανοιχτό|
|Left||ah rees ter AH||αριστερά|
|Straight ahead||ef THEE a||ευθεία|
|Up||ay PAN oh||επάνω|
|Nice, pretty||or AY ah||ωραία|
|Many, a lot||PAH ra pol EE||πάρα πολλοί|
|Sail Boat||SKA fos||σκάφος|
|Ferry Boat||PLEE oh||πλοίο|
|Toilet||same as French||toilette|
|Ice cream||pago TOE||παγωτό|
|Watermelon||kar POU zee||καρπούζι|
(e.g. black coffee)
|Sugar||ZA ha ree||ζάχαρη|
|No sugar||OH hee ZA ha ree||όχι ζάχαρη|
|Bicycle||po THEE la toe||ποδήλατο|
|Children||pay thee AH||παιδιά|
|Hotel||xeno tho HEE oh||ξενοδοχείο|
|I like||moo ar AIS si||μου αρέσει|
|I want||THEL oh||θέλω|
|My name is||me LE nay||με λένε|
|kiosk||per EEP tero||περίπτερο|
|beach||para LEE ah||παραλία|
|town square||pla TEE ah||πλατεία|
|4||TESS er ah||τέσσερα|
|20||EE ko si||είκοσι|
|50||pen IN da||πενήντα|
The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell
Published in 1978, Durrell offers a half century’s worth of insights, as this tender excerpt demonstrates: “(Naxos and Paros) seem to coexist in the mind as being of comparable charm and magnitude. But there are several radical differences . . . If Naxos is a vivid parrot, then Paros is a white dove. You wake earlier in Naxos, but you sleep deeper in Paros.”
Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
At Lawrence Durrell’s urging, American author Henry Miller spent six months roaming around Greece in 1939. It took a world war to force him to leave the country with which he became intoxicated and characterized as “a holy land.” Many critics consider Colossus of Maroussi Miller’s finest work of “literature.”
Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace
An award-winning American writer spends a year in Greece and offers up a fascinating insider’s look at the psychology of a country which exists uneasily between the West and the East. Fun reading.
North of Ithaka: A Journey Home Through a Family’s Extraordinary Past by Eleni Gage
A New Yorker travels to her grandmother’s northern Greek village to rebuild the family home where a tragedy and crime occurred during the Greek civil war. The house’s reconstruction acts as a catharsis for the family to bury its bitter memories. The author’s father, Nicolas Gage, wrote the bestseller Eleni which initially detailed the catastrophe.
Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage
Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas, Greece’s most famous modern lovers, come to life in this titillating but faithful account about very wealthy Greeks and their often very tragic lives. Avoid this book if you can’t bear to read Jackie O get trashed.
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
Kazantzakis is Greece’s most famous writer and this is his most celebrated book. A British newspaper, The Guardian, included Zorba the Greek in the 100 best novels ever written. Set in Crete, the landscape, plants, animals, sea and mountains are described with fierce intimacy. The protagonist, Alexis Zorba, is a simple Cretan man with a passion for living life to its fullest, and from him the reader learns many basic lessons of life.
Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey by Bruce Clark
When the Ottoman Empire was picked apart after World War I, the powers that be determined that 1.5 million Greeks living in Turkey for centuries must be removed to Greece and one-half mission Turks living in Greece had to leave the land where they had lived for centuries. Clark contends that the forced expulsions set a template for other transfers after WWII in Europe, India and Palestine. His intense but sensitive depiction of the catastrophe highlights the cost of politically expedient policies.
Ghosts on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for his Empire by James Romm
Romm has written a scholarly book for non-scholars that bursts with intrigue, mystery and larger than life rivalries. When Alexander the Great died, an unusual compromise resulted in a joint rule of the empire by his mentally incapacitated brother and infant son. Both needed guardians. Who would control the royal family and throne?
The Summer of My Greek Taverna: A Memoir by Tom Stone
A resident of the island of Patmos for 22 years, the author’s problems start when he gets roped into relocating to Crete to run a seaside taverna. This memoir is fun reading and includes some of Stone’s prized culinary recipes from his Greek kitchen.
Mediterranean Hot and Spicy by Aglaia Kremazi
Ms. Kremazi has written four delightful Greek and Mediterranean cookbooks full of mouth-watering recipes designed to make even the gods on Olympus swoon: The Foods of Greece, Mediterranean Hot and Spicy, The Foods of the Greek Islands and The Mediterranean Pantry. If your baklava techniques are a bit rusty Ms. Kremazi will be happy to give you cooking lessons at her cooking school Artisanal on the beautiful Cyclades island of Kea.
Plato at Olympia by Stephen G. Miller (for children)
The author, a distinguished American archaeologist, fictionalizes a story of Plato as a youth and his desire to partake in the Olympic Games. Youngsters – and adults, too — will savor the illuminating picture Miller paints of Athens in the 4th century BC, a cameo appearance by Socrates, references to historical events, and descriptions of Olympic Games, customs, sayings, and daily life in Ancient Greece. Lovely illustrations by Athena Stamatis.
Greek Gods and Heroes by Robert Graves
The famous British poet invented novel interpretations of the Greek myths and his book continues to dominate the English language market in this field. Indeed, since its 1955 publication Greek Gods and Heroes has never been out of print. Here Graves presents the most popular myths in an accessible, non-scholarly form. He was particularly inspired by matriarchies and goddess cultures.