Learning Greek

I love learning Greek. It’s the first language I have learnt since school. True, I did dabble with Arabic at one stage and would have gone on with it, if the evening class I was in hadn’t folded. I loved getting to grips with the script and (to someone used to European languages) the counter-intuitive direction of travel of the words on the page.  I briefly dipped my toe in the deep waters of Japanese and, had I pursued a different path, might have gone on to study it intensively.

I wonder sometimes what the attraction is of learning another language, particularly when once again I am struggling to get my head round irregular verbs. For me, it’s something to do with having another window on the world and looking at the world through the lens of another culture.

A desire to learn Greek came from my first visit to the country, 4 short years ago. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t communicate, it made me want to learn the language. I looked around for an evening class and found one right on my door step. It provided a great grounding in the language, but after a year I needed something more intensive and one-to-one, so I found my current tutor, Maria, who is Greek.

It has its frustrations though. As it’s not a major league language, it does not have great selection of language learning texts. There are numerous books around, but many are aimed at the learner who just wants to be able to say a few words on holiday. I wanted a deeper engagement with it than that. There’s a great grammar book (Greek  – an essential grammar of the Modern Language by Holton, Mackridge and Philippaki-Warburton) which is very detailed, but nothing for the intermediate learner. Nothing very much on verbs. There are Greek texts for foreign learners of the language, but they tend to be all in Greek. I recently bought an excellent Greek book on verbs which came from Athens.

One of the big gaps though is in language listening material. I have no evidence to back this up, other than my own experience, but my perception is that Greek is spoken very fast. So it’s hard to find material that helps my understanding of the spoken language. My tutor and I have, off and on, been watching a Greek comedy, called A Greek woman in the harem. I find it very hard to hear the words, let alone understand them, but repeated listening does make some of it clearer. Greek TV and radio programmes are available on the internet, but again the machine-gun speed of delivery makes it virtually inaccessible.  

That’s why I like songs and poems on You Tube. It’s easier to find the words and follow along. I find it really helps me remember words and grammar.

Of course, there’s no substitute for going to the country and having some total immersion. I’d like to be able to go there in September, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, back to my books!

The Tetrarchs in Venice

DCF 1.0

I first came across this statue over 40 years ago on my first trip to Venice and remember being so struck by it that I took a photograph of it with my primitive camera. That picture disappeared a long time ago, but on a more recent trip I was drawn back to try and capture the statue again.

It depicts a critical moment in Byzantine history, the point in the late third century when Diocletian split the Roman empire into eastern and western halves, each half with its own senior and junior emperor.This fatal split was to lead to centuries of bitter clashes, as successive emperors and upstarts sought to gain control of the whole empire.

The statue is not particularly well executed, but the colour of the stone from which it is carved makes it stand out from its more restrained setting. It is made out of porphyry, a rare stone, which no doubt due to its colour and scarcity was used for imperial sculpture. The split in the empire seems to be depicted by the wall that separates the two sets of emperors and, at some point, the left foot of the right hand figure has been replaced in a completely different stone.

What I find poignant about it is that it was taken, along with many other treasures, from Byzantium by the Venetians during the sacking of the city in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade. Many of those treasures were kept in the Tesoro in St Mark’s until in their turn they were looted by Napoleon and taken to Paris. The statue of the Tetrarchs sits embedded into the wall between St Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, while Haghia Sofia in Istanbul still  holds the simple tomb marker of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge who instigated the Fourth Crusade and turned it against Byzantium.. Why did they put the Tetrarchs here though?   

Scenes from Ithaka


One of the things that helps me to learn Greek is listening to songs and reading poems. It’s a useful way of learning words and, even though poetic language often uses contorted syntax, a good aide-memoire for grammar points. Over and above that though is the short cut it provides to the culture of the country, what it celebrates and values, its feelings, its way of thinking and how it expresses itself.


I’ve even been known to take a poem or the text of a song with me on holiday to Greece to commit to memory. One I’ve tried to learn is Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, but at the moment it’s just too long and its language a bit too much of a stretch for my level of Greek. It is a beautiful poem though and like many poems that draw you in, there’s something mysterious about it, something that you can’t quite grasp no matter how many times you read it, something elusive like Ithaca itself for Odysseus.

Ithaka 2

My Greek tutor, Maria, tells me that this is one of the first poems that Greek children learn at school. I can’t think of a better one to start the journey of life and learning.

Ithaka 3

For me too it evokes Greece in the summer: sea shading from light to dark blue and emerald, ozone and its salty tang, cloudless azure skies, blinding light, fierce heat. Standing on harbours, looking into clear water, watching yachts, cruisers, fishing boats come and go, each on their own journey of discovery, you get a sense of what the search for Ithaca means in the poem.

Ithaka 4


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translation by Edmund Keeley / Philip Sherrard

Ithaka 5