Learning Greek


A mosaic at Sepphoris I saw this summer

A couple years ago, I posted here about my experience learning German, the first foreign language I’ve ever seriously tried to learn. Even though I’m far from my goal of being fluent by the end of my college career, I’m still reviewing and learning, and I’m excited to be in a conversation class in the fall. I got so excited about German that I decided to start on a couple more languages – Latin and Greek – since I want to continue studying classics in grad school.

What is the difference between modern Greek and ancient Greek? Ancient Greek is much different from modern Greek. I’ve done a very small amount of research to learn just how different, and it seems like the difference between ancient and modern Greek, according to some website, is like the difference between English and Latin. Much more of a difference than I had thought. Some words are mutually intelligible – I can guess, for example, that the Latin rosa means “rose” – but other times I might guess incorrectly but have related meanings – I wouldn’t be able to simply guess that domus means “house” though I would recognize the derivative “domestic” or “domicile.” From what I gather, the relationship between ancient and modern Greek is similar. Modern Greek speakers can pick out words with varying degrees of difficulty.

Learning Greek is really interesting. It’s also one of the most difficult undertakings I’ve begun in college. First, there’s an entirely difficult alphabet. It’s not difficult to internalize, but it adds an extra layer of decoding to every exercise. Then, Greek, like Latin, is also an inflected language, and full of participles and dozens of forms of verbs that I still don’t recognize, even just after a single semester.

Even though ancient Greek is not a modern language, I still have taken some things away that remind me that language and culture tightly intertwined. I never that language has a profound effect on the way we think until I started learning different languages. “Shame” and “modesty” in Greek are the same word, and shame seems to have a positive connotation rather than negative. Groups of people are not “they” but rather “hes” or “shes” in a sense, and if a group is made up of a hundred females and a single male, the group is still a group of “hes.” Epicene nouns are nouns that have a masculine gender, but their articles can simply be changed to feminine to indicate that the thing in question is feminine. From these things, what are the implications about gender in Greek culture? I’m fascinated to think about things like this, and I’m learning to apply the same mode of thinking in examining modern American culture and other cultures I encounter.


Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal

Imagine if instead of a football game, the OU-TX rivalry centered around a spelling bee. That would be awesome, and I would totally watch it. Similarly, a rivalry between Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium is embodied in Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal, an annual dictation-slash-spelling bee hosted by two major newspapers. The participants are not children either; they are journalists, writers, politicians, rappers, athletes, and comic-strip artists. To top it all off, the Groot Dictee (pronounced khrote dic-tay) is hosted in the Dutch equivalent of the Senate, the Eerste Kamer.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching and playing along. I did quite a bit worse than the average, and far worse than the best. The participants were divided into teams and the errors of each were averaged: Dutch celebrities (25 errors), readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (15), Flemish celebrities (21), and readers of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen (12). Overall, the Flemish outperformed the Dutch, and the newspaper readers bested the celebrities. However, the Dutch author Gustaaf Peck had the lowest individual celebrity score (12) and Volkskrant reader Roberto LaRocca had the lowest score of all (6). Depending on how you count multiple errors in a word, I had around 31 errors. But I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the words I did know. In fact, being Anglophone meant that some of the harder words for the participants were cognates I could spell.

After the general round, the person from each group with the lowest score was chosen for a final round, which more closely resembled American spelling bees. A word was read out, and the first team to misspell a word lost. The Flemish reader, Marco Sanders, won with balalaikaspeelster, which means balalaikaplayer and which I happened to get right as well. However, he said in an interview that he did not consider himself the winner, since he had one more error in the dictee.

Overall, I found this to be a very exciting display of language mastery. The text itself, written by Adrianus van der Heijden, concerned the flood of English loanwords in Dutch. His disapproval fell less on individual words, some of which he used in the dictee itself, than on the mixing of English and Dutch: Dunglish. He described this linguistic situation as a continuation of British colonialism, a sort of belated battle in the Anglo-Dutch wars that undermines the national style. You can find the full text here. I look forward to next year’s Groot Dictee.

Poetry Club: الطائر الطالب

This past Friday was the Arabic Talent Show, kicking off the beginning of the end of the semester for me. Each time I go, I realize how at home I am at OU. As usual, it was great to see what the other students have been working on, as well as the fruits of my own labor.  Since I was in Poetry Club this semester, I wrote a short poem and read it at the show. Enjoy! (The English translation is below)

ولدَ طائرٌ في شجرة

في شجرة في وسطِ الجامعة

عندما كبر بدأ الدرسةَ

مثل كل الطيورِ الصغيرة

من الشباكِ درس العربيةَ

كان هناك حروف وكلمات جديدة

والطائر كان طالبٌ فعلاً سعيد


فبدأ الطائرُ ان يكتبَ

ان يكتبَ على الارض الحروفَ

ثم جاء المطار فجرفها

جرفها بقسوة شديدة

اراد ان يتكلم مع الطلابِ الاخرين

ولكن لا احد استمعَ اليهِ

اراد ان يقرأ الفَ ليلةٍ وليلة

ولكنه شعر بثقل الكباب بكل محولة


الطائرُ الطالبً شعر بالحزن

ثم سمع شيئاً سعيداً اخيراً

في اللغةِ العربيةِ اغنيةُ جميلة

وغنى الطائرُ سعيداً في الشجرة


There once was a bird born in a tree

Born in the middle of a university

When he grew up he began his studies

Just like all the other little birdies

He studied Arabic perched in a window

Learning so many new letters and words

And the little student bird was thoroughly happy


The bird began writing the letters on the ground

But they were washed away when the rain came down

He wanted to talk with the other students in the class

But they didn’t listen; they just walked past

He wanted to read A Thousand and One Nights

But the book felt heavier each time he tried


The student bird felt very sad

But at last heard something that made him glad

In the Arabic language a beautiful song

And the bird in the tree happily sang along


Poem and translation my own, with thanks to Sophie Le, the Poetry Club, and Ustaaz Barakat

First Days in Quetzaltenango

My sister and I arrived in Guatemala last Monday and took the bus from the capital to Quetzaltenango.
We arrived rather later than anticipated due to a lost suitcase, which I only recently recovered, only to find that it was damaged beyond further use. We are staying with a host family a less than two minute walk away from Guatemalensis Spanish School. We eat all three meals with them. Only one woman and her daughter live there, but some of her family joins her for part of the day. It’s a great opportunity to get a peek at Guatemalan life, try the food, and work on our listening and speaking.

I’m really enjoying the school. The directors and teachers have been very kind and helpful, both in familiarizing us with the city and language and in persistently trying to get my bag back. We have class every weekday from 8 to 1, with a break in the middle. They also organize excursions for us to learn more about Guatemala and practice our Spanish.

As some of you may know, I have not officially studied Spanish before. I knew bits and pieces of vocabulary and grammar from various looks at the language, handy bilingual signs, and helping my sister practice. But I would not say I knew the language. Apparently I knew more than I realized, and the constant immersion and practice is making me put all those pieces together and actually use the language. I am far from elegant, and sometimes it turns out that I am actually speaking French, but I at least can get my point across and understand when the teachers speak slowly.

So far we have had three excursions. The first was to the center of the city, where there is a very old cathedral, a central park, and several government buildings, most of which have gardens in the middle. The cathedral and some of the columns in the park have been affected by earthquakes thanks to the volcanoes. I find it amusing that I went from Oklahoma, with fracking induced earthquakes and tornadoes, to Guatemala with more earthquakes and volcanoes. Even my teacher was familiar with the tornadoes in Oklahoma.

We also walked through one of the city’s markets, La Democracia. It is a large market located both under a permanent structure and in the streets. They sell everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and candles. I enjoy learning about new types of fruit, such as the five types of mangoes. Some of these are quite huge. Quetzaltenango trades its vegetables for fruit from the coast, where it is more tropical.

Last Thursday, we took a trip to a nearby village, San Andre Xecul, which is home to the oldest church in Central America. Like many of the villages, it is primarily inhabited by the Maya, and the mix of religions was quite obvious. The designs on the church included both God, Mary and Jesus and the jaguars that are part of the Mayan creation story. Higher up, another church from the same time period sits next to a Mayan altar. Even the name is a mix of cultures: San Andre was added by the Spanish, and Xecul is from two words meaning low and blanket, referring to the clouds that blanket the mountain.

Also in San Andre Xecul, we visited a home where a family dyes cotton thread. Dyed thread is one of the main industries of the village. The colors are very bright: red, orange, lime green, sky blue. The whole family works there. In fact, it is primarily the job of the brothers of the lady who showed us around to dye the thread, since it involves a lot of strength. They work early in the morning, from 4 to 8, so the thread can dry before the afternoon rains. The thread is packaged and sold in the city and in neighboring towns.

In talking with the director, who lead our excursion, we learned both about Guatemala’s past and present. Under Spanish rule, the Mayans were slaves. During this time, the markets started. Before that, the Mayans used a bartering system. But they needed money to pay taxes to the Spanish, and the Spanish wanted to buy things instead of working. The taxes were eventually the downfall of the Spanish, since neither their descendants nor the Mayan leaders wanted to keep paying them and joined together for independence.

The area of Guatemala surrounding San Andre Xecul has seen many people immigrate to the United States. Many men and women leave carrying only a small backpack. Many of these die along the way, and others return because of the difficulty of life in the US. Others are captured and sent back, while still others stay for years before returning, if they ever do. This is obviously extremely difficult for the families. The Guatemalan government erected a statue to these immigrants, particularly those who die during the journey. I was particularly struck by how many are deported: 30,000 last year and two planes each week this year. After hearing immigration discussed so much from a US perspective, it was interesting and sobering to hear about it from a Guatemalan perspective.

While it is somewhat overwhelming to be completely immersed, I am enjoying learning so much about the language and culture.