A few years ago, in the Frankfurt airport on the way home from Greece, I bought a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “The Common Reader,” which includes her essay “On Not Knowing Greek.” I already had the book at home, but I was impressed that anything by Woolf was considered airport reading. When I was about ten years old, my father, a pragmatic man, had refused to let me study Latin, and for some reason I assumed that “On Not Knowing Greek” was about how Woolf’s father, too, had prevented his daughter from studying a dead language. I pictured young Virginia Stephen sulking in a room of her own, an indecipherable alphabet streaming through her consciousness, while her father and her brother, downstairs in the library, feasted on Plato and Aristotle.
Well, apparently I had read only the title of the essay. Of course Virginia Woolf knew Greek. She started studying ancient Greek for fun, at home, when she was about fifteen, later taking classes at King’s College London while her brother Thoby was studying at Cambridge. Though she did not enter the academy, she had private tutorials for several years with Miss Janet Case, who, as a student at Cambridge, had played Athena in an 1885 production of “The Eumenides” of Aeschylus. For Woolf, “not knowing Greek” meant that it was impossible truly to know what the playwright meant, partly because we don’t know what the ancient language sounded like. “We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English,” she writes. In Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” for instance, the first utterance of Cassandra—the seer brought to Mycenae from Troy as war booty, fated never to be believed—is not just untranslatable but unintelligible: ὀτοτοτοτοι̑ is not even a word, just inarticulate syllables that represent the barbarian princess’s howl of despair. “The naked cry,” Woolf calls it. Both the chorus and Clytemnestra compare Cassandra’s lament to birdsong. The best an English translation can do is to transliterate the Greek letters—“Ototototoi”—or go with something like “Woe is me!” or “Alas!” For these reasons, Woolf writes, reading Greek in translation is “useless.” Woolf did not know Greek the way bees do not know pollen.
I never did get around to Latin, and came to Greek only when I was in my thirties. Compared with Woolf, I was an overgrown child with a set of wooden alphabet blocks. Fortunately, I like blocks, and I love the alphabet. The English alphabet is descended, via the Latin, from the Greek alphabet, which, according to Herodotus, was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet in the time of Cadmus. The Phoenicians were seagoing traders from the eastern Mediterranean, who needed a system of writing to keep track of the merchandise they ferried throughout the ancient world. Cadmus, a prince of Phoenicia, was the legendary founder of Thebes, a city peopled by warriors who sprang up after he sowed the earth with the teeth of a dragon, on instructions from Athena. Aeschylus had a different version of events, attributing the alphabet to Prometheus: writing, like fire, was a gift from the gods. Letters were sacred. Inscribed randomly on a shard of pottery, even without being arranged into a name or a coherent thought, they could be presented as an offering at the temple of Zeus.
The Greeks’ genius was to take the Phoenician alphabet, which consisted of twenty-two consonants, and add vowels to it. Alpha was adapted from aleph, the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet, the sound of which was barely a sound at all—it was more like the brief redirection of breath known to linguists as a glottal stop. It creates the hitch in “uh-oh.” Other Phoenician “gutturals” gave the Greeks names for some of their vowels. The Greek eta looks like our letter “H” and today represents a long “e” sound (ee), as opposed to the short “e” sound of epsilon. Ayin, which was round like an eye, became omicron—literally, “small O.” Later, the Greeks added upsilon, which probably had the sound of “u” (oo) but has evolved into an “e” (ee) sound in modern Greek. They rounded out the alphabet with omega (Ω), “big O,” the shape of which is open at the end. The Greek alphabet is infinite.
The Greeks also added consonants for sounds they needed that the Phoenicians didn’t have. Like many Americans, I didn’t encounter Greek until I went to college and was puzzled by the symbols attached to the façades of fraternity houses: a gigantic X (chi), a bold Ψ (psi), an impenetrable Φ (phi). In modern Greek, phi sounds like “f,” but it is usually transliterated from ancient Greek as “ph.” Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, was Philippos in Greek: lover (phílos) of horses (híppos). Psi, which may be my favorite letter, can be found at the beginning of every English word that is a variant of “psyche”: “psychology,” “psychotherapy,” “psychiatry,” “psychoanalyst,” “psychosomatic,” “psychopath,” “psychopharmacopoeia”—all relatives of Psyche, the lover of Eros, who was the son of Aphrodite. Psi looks like a trident, attribute of Poseidon, god of the sea, and it is the first letter in the modern-Greek word for “fish”: ψάρι (psári).
Chi, which looks like an “X,” is most often transliterated as a hard “ch,” as in “chaos.” The trickster of the Greek alphabet, it is not the same as our English “X”—no way. For that, the Greeks have the letter xi (Ξ). Speakers of English sometimes have trouble knowing how to pronounce Greek-derived words with “ch” in them—“chalcedony,” “chiropodist,” “chimera”—because “ch” also represents the sound in such English words as “church” and “cheese.” Greeks often struggle to pronounce our soft “ch,” which is why, in the Greek-diner skits on the old “Saturday Night Live,” John Belushi calls out, “Tseezbourger. Tseezbourger. Tseezbourger.”
The character “X” has a nonalphabetical use that is common to both languages. According to “Scribes and Scholars,” a 1968 study by L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson of how Greek and Roman literature was preserved and transmitted through the ages, one of the ways that scholars at the Library of Alexandria notated a point of textual interest was by writing the letter chi in the margin. In the early eighties, when I was working as a sort of scribe in the collating department of The New Yorker, the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, would sometimes pencil an X with a circle around it in the margin of a galley proof to indicate a query that he wanted us to carry over to the next version of the piece. The query might be important, but he did not yet have enough information to address it. We scribes would circle it in blue and copy it onto the next day’s proof, to remind Mr. Shawn to ask the author about it. If the collator put the query directly into the piece, or if the editor tried to make a fix without being sure what the author meant, there was a danger of corrupting the text.
“Just a head scratch today, Carl.”
It is conceivable that X is the original, maybe even the aboriginal, written mark. X marks the spot, its crossed bars creating a fixed point. X is also the traditional signature of an illiterate, so it is both precise and general: anyone can use it to make one’s mark. It may be the most useful symbol of all. How did the Phoenicians get along without it?
After my father’s refusal to let me study Latin with the nuns in Catholic school, my taste for dead languages lay dormant until around 1982 A.D., when I had been at The New Yorker for about four years. One weekend, I saw “Time Bandits” in a theatre on the Upper East Side. In the film, directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, and starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, a band of time-travelling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past. One scene, set in ancient Greece, featured Sean Connery in a cameo as Agamemnon. He was duelling with a warrior who wore the head of a bull and looked like the Minotaur. The landscape was so stark and arid, and so enhanced by the mighty figure of Sean Connery in armor, that I wanted to go there right away.
My boss at the time, Ed Stringham, the head of the collating department, was famous at the office for his eccentric schedule and rigorous course of studies. He came in at about noon and held court from a tattered armchair by the window (kept firmly closed), smoking cigarettes and drinking takeout coffee. When I told him I wanted to go to Greece, he got all excited. There was a map of Europe on the wall, and he showed me where he had gone on his first trip to Greece. He’d taken a cruise, he said, apologetically, to get an overview: Athens, Piraeus, Crete, Santorini, Rhodes, Constantinople. He pointed out Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain, a peninsula reserved for Orthodox monks, where no female, not even a hen, was welcome. Then he plucked a slim paperback off a nearby shelf—“A Modern Greek Reader for Beginners,” by J. T. Pring—bent over it till his eyes were inches from the page, and started to translate.
“You can read that?” I said, astonished. It had never occurred to me that a person could become literate in a language that was written in a different alphabet. Before long, Ed had become my mentor in all things Greek. There were two major forms of the modern language: demotic, which is the people’s language, and Katharevousa, puristic Greek, which was devised by some intellectual Greeks in the early nineteenth century to yoke the modern language to its glorious past. Until the nineteen-seventies, Katharevousa was the official language of Greece, used in legal documents and news reporting, although people rarely spoke it. Ed encouraged me to find a class in demotic Greek. In those days, The New Yorker routinely covered the tuition for employees who studied a subject with some bearing on their work. So I registered at N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing Education for a class in modern Greek.
The first words I learned were ílios, “sun,” and eucharistó, “thank you.” To remember words in a foreign language, you make associations with your own tongue, and it thrilled me to realize that the Greek ílios had come into English as Helios. What in English is the sun god is, in Greek, the everyday word for the sun. Greek seemed to exalt the everyday. In eucharistó, I recognized Eucharist, the bread and wine that miraculously become the body and blood of Christ. In Greece, this word—pronounced “efkharisto”—gets tossed around several times an hour. The English “thank you” does not carry the reciprocal meaning of a gift both granted and received in the sense that glows out of Eucharist: the prefix eu, as in Eugenia (wellborn) or “euphemism” (nice, kind, gentle phrase), plus cháris, from which come “charisma” and “charism” (used by religious communities to mean a particular vocation or gift). The Greek term is an exchange of grace.
In that first class, one night a week at N.Y.U., I learned the Greek words for food and for numbers and for the seasons. The words for the seasons are especially beautiful in modern Greek. Spring is ánoixi, from the verb ανοίγω, “open, uncork”—the year opens. Summer is kalokaíri: “good weather.” Phthinóporo is the fall, suggestive of the last harvest and overripe fruit (the consonant cluster at the beginning, “phth,” at first seems rude to an English speaker, as if you were spitting out a cherry pit). Winter, kheimónas, is a time of storms and of scraping by till spring.
Ed and I commiserated over the confusion that reigns between the Greek for “yes” and “no.” The German ja and nein have a clear resemblance to “yes” and “no.” The French oui and the Italian sì and the Spanish sí come easily enough, and all the Romance languages—even Portuguese—rely on the basic sound of no: no, non, não. But the Greek for “yes” is nai (ναι), which sounds like “no” or “nah,” a negative, while the word for “no” is όχι, which sounds like “O.K.” Why must life be so cruel? Sometimes when I’m travelling I can’t seem to get out the right word for “yes” in the country I’m in and I cycle through the whole litany: ja, oui, sì, nai, yes. Όχι is fun to say, once you get used to it. A child sometimes draws out the first syllable—óooχι, on a falling note—in protest. Greek-Americans call October 28th, the day Greece effectively entered the Second World War, Όχι Day, for the refusal by Ioannis Metaxas, the Prime Minister, to let Mussolini’s troops enter the country from Albania.
The word “mentor,” meaning counsellor or teacher, comes to us directly from Homer. Athena appears in Book II of the Odyssey as Mentor, a friend to whom Odysseus entrusted the care of his son when he left Ithaca for Troy. As I got deeper into Greek, I found another mentor in Dorothy Gregory, a professor at Barnard who agreed to tutor me in modern Greek. Dorothy gave me a lot of vocabulary, but the words that stuck were those she used conversationally, in direct address, like the time I arrived panting and she asked, “Διψάς;” (Dipsás?) I knew that a dipsomaniac was someone with an insatiable thirst, but to hear Dorothy use the verb διψάω in the second-person singular present tense and match it with my parched throat felt like a revelation.
I sometimes wonder what Dorothy Gregory thought when she saw me off on my maiden voyage to Greece. She didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go at Easter, and when I got there I did feel alienated. Easter (Pascha) is a big family holiday, and I was a total stranger, a xéni. Dorothy would have cringed if she had heard me trying to keep up my end of the Easter greeting: “Christ is risen,” a person says, and you are supposed to respond, “Truly He is risen,” but I got the ending on my adverb wrong and said, “Really? He is?”
In Greece, jumping from island to island, I made up in five weeks for a childhood confined largely to Ohio. It was while travelling in the Aegean that I decided I would study classical Greek when I got home so that I could read everything written by the Greeks who had crossed this sea before me. On returning to New York, I registered for an elementary class in ancient Greek at Columbia University and blithely submitted the bill to the magazine’s new executive editor, Tony Gibbs. To my disbelief, he turned me down, saying that ancient Greek was not relevant to my job. After a year in collating, I had moved to the copy desk, and so I started a dossier of sorts, keeping a list of words from the Greek that cropped up in The New Yorker, everything from “pi” to “ophthalmologist,” which is often misspelled with a “p” instead of a “ph.” John McPhee was then in his geology period, and from his work I learned the word “autochthonous” (autós, “self,” plus chthón, “earth”), which means something like “self-generated from the earth” and contains a tricky consonant cluster in the transliteration of chi (χ) and theta (θ). To reinforce my petition, Eleanor Gould, whose cool intelligence made her something of an oracle to the editors, wrote a letter to Gibbs stating that her own knowledge of the language might not be current enough to save us from “ignorant mistakes.” I showed the document to my friend John Bennet, an editor, who said, “You’re using a cannon to shoot a flea.” Tony Gibbs was persuaded.
Anyone who doubts the value of studying a dead language should tune in to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It is broadcast live on ESPN, like an Olympic event, with color commentary by lexicographers and up-close-and-personal interviews with the contestants. These élite athletes of orthography routinely spell Greek-derived words, many of which I didn’t even know existed, much less what they meant or how to spell them. The 2018 competition tapped a reservoir of exotic Greek: “ephyra,” “pareidolia,” “ooporphyrin,” “lochetic,” “ecchymosis,” “ochronosis,” “gnomonics” (the art of making sundials), “propylaeum” (which means something like “foregate,” as in the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis). “Pareidolia” is the all-too-human tendency to discern an image in some unexpected place; Webster’s Unabridged, citing the New Scientist, gives as an example “the face of the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich.”
“Ooporphyrin” I figured had something to do with an egg (ὠόν) and the color purple (porphyry, the deep-red stone): a reference to some fabulous creature that lays purple eggs? Close. It is the characteristic pigment of brown eggshells. The champion won on the word “koinonia.” This I had a bead on, because I knew that Koine was the word for Biblical Greek. Koine is the common tongue, like lingua franca. So koinonia is the shared spirit in a community of believers. The bee pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a former champion, offered alternative pronunciations of “koinonia,” one with the “oi” of classical Greek and one with the “ee” of the modern language. A boy progressed to the next round on “Mnemosyne”—Memory, mother of the Muses, who gave us the mnemonic device and who ought to be the presiding deity of spelling bees.
“Which show that only I like do you want to fall asleep to?”
When the English-speaking world needs to name something, it turns to ancient languages. Many words referring to nature come from Greek: “ocean,” “dolphin,” “hippopotamus,” “peony,” “elephant.” Some of the words that come from ancient Greek (and survive in modern Greek) are for exotic creatures. “Octopus” is from the Greek: ὀκτώ (eight) + πούς (foot) = eight-legger. Like the octopus, the medusa, or jellyfish, is one of the original sea monsters. So is the seahorse—híppos (horse) + kámpos (sea monster), which lends its name to the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped part of the brain’s temporal lobe. “Narcissus” (nárkissos) was the ancient-Greek word for the flower, native to southern Europe, that we commonly call the daffodil. The word “narcissus” is related to the Greek nárke, or torpor, numbness, a narcotic quality; it comes from the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who became entranced by his own reflection. He is the timeless personification of the flower, accounting for its existence. The hyacinth is another flower with a myth attached: Hyacinthus was a Greek youth beloved of Apollo, who killed him accidentally. From the boy’s blood sprang flowers.
George Orwell lamented the tendency to overlay classical names on common English flowers. He writes that “a snapdragon is now called an antirrhinum, a word no one can spell”—let alone pronounce—“without consulting a dictionary,” and that “forget-me-nots are coming more and more to be called myosotis.” Orwell adds, “I don’t think it a good augury for the future of the English language that ‘marigold’ should be dropped in favour of ‘calendula.’ ” I agree that something is lost when pinks are called “dianthus.” And yet there is something irresistible about Greek roots. For a long time, I went around thinking that words like “otorhinolaryngologist” (ear-nose-and-throat doctor, diminished in English to E.N.T.) and “orthodontist” were Greek, and they are, but not in the sense that ancient Greeks consulted nose specialists or wore metal braces on their teeth. Those English words were put together from Greek parts—little linguistic Frankenstein’s monsters—as the specialties came into being. Perhaps the Greek words create a comforting distance between us and our bodies. Would you rather have tennis elbow or epicondylitis? Water on the brain or hydrocephalus? A doctor might call someone a hemophiliac, whereas a mother would bemoan a bleeder. The Greek terms ennoble the ailments, even if they don’t make them go away.
In the years after my first trip to Greece, I swung between modern Greek and ancient Greek, cramming modern Greek before a trip, returning to ancient Greek when I got home. I moved to Astoria, the Greek-American neighborhood in Queens, where, sitting at a table early in the morning, I consumed Thucydides, with my Greek text and my spiral notebooks and my abridged Liddell and Scott—the Greek-English lexicon essential to classicists. I worked night shifts on the copy desk so that I could take undergraduate courses at Columbia, where I was the class nerd. In my second year of classes, reading Sophocles’ “Antigone” with Professor Laura Slatkin, I copied the Greek text painstakingly into my notebook, observing every diacritical mark, and covered the facing page with vocabulary notes—verbs with their principal parts, nouns with their genders and genitives. It was enthralling to see the meaning emerge, to observe the subtle uses of tense and aspect and mood, and feel the force of the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call “function words” and which are known in Greek grammar as particles.
Particles help make a language a language. They give it currency and connect you to the person you’re speaking with. English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech: like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough . . . know what I mean? Just sayin’. Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language. But we have relied on such little words since antiquity. Reading Plato’s Apology in my second semester of Elementary Greek, I was amazed at how much nuance these syllables give to Socrates’ speech—they act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions.
One of the simplest particles, still in use in modern Greek, is καί, a conjunction meaning “and” and an adverb meaning “even, also, too.” When the ancient Greeks rolled out a list, they would repeat καί between the items, and this repetitive “and” would have no more weight than a serial comma. Καί ἐγώ is sometimes translated as a modest demurral, “I on my part”; today, we might be tempted to render it “IMHO.” Καί has also been translated as “pray,” to stress the word that follows, as in “Pray, you try to explain particles.” Καί “often has an emphasis which is difficult to render,” the classicist Herbert Weir Smyth writes. Τι καί (literally, “what and”) can mean, in polite terms, “What on earth?” or, in saltier terms, “What the fuck?”
Smyth devoted forty pages of his 1920 book “Greek Grammar” to particles; he wrote that they “often resist translation by separate words, which in English are frequently overemphatic and cumbersome in comparison with the light and delicate nature of the Greek originals.” In 1934, another scholar, J. D. Denniston, added to particle lore with a six-hundred-page book on the subject. It is (and I bet Virginia Woolf would agree) impossible to find an English translation of Plato that captures the charm of Socrates’ casual manner of speaking. The scholar James M. Redfield comes close. Socrates, who is on trial for corrupting the youth, begins his defense with the Greek εἶεν—“well,” “good,” or, in Redfield’s translation, “O.K.”
Of course, this difficulty has not stopped anyone who falls under the spell of Greek from attempting her own translation, which is part of what keeps the language alive. One of the things I most love about Homer lives on as a source of endless controversy among classicists: his use of epithets. In modern Greek, epítheto means “adjective,” but Homeric epithets are loaded, often thrillingly ambiguous, and can act as a catalyst for drama. Achilles is “swift-footed,” and the constant reminder of his supremacy on the field increases the terror of the scene in which he chases shining-helmed Hector around the citadel of Troy. Polýtropos, the epithet most often associated with Odysseus, contains the words for “many” and “turn” and has been translated in countless ways, everything from “ingenious and resourceful” to “wily and manipulative.” The epithet both inspires and eludes translators and gives Odysseus a mercurial character, which colors his adventures and suggests that the man of many turnings was something of a sneak.
The epithet “wine-dark sea” has often confused readers—did Homer mean red, white, or rosé? And why would any of these describe the color of the sea? The words have led some scholars and scientists to speculate that the ancient Greeks simply didn’t see blue. The standard epithet for Athena is another mystery. Homer describes her repeatedly as glaukópis (γλαυκω̑πις). That “op” is familiar from “optic”—of the eye—and glaukós carries a range of meanings, one of them traditionally “gray.” The writer Caroline Alexander, who translated the Iliad, initially used “gray-eyed” as the epithet for Athena, concurring with Richmond Lattimore’s canonical 1951 translation. But, after further study, she changed her translation to “gleaming-eyed.” Searching Liddell and Scott, Alexander told me, she came across an instance in which Homer used a related verb to describe a lion’s eyes; eyes can shine, but they cannot gray (only hair does that). Alexander thinks of Athena’s eyes, evocatively, as “gleaming like wet stones.” In an entry in “The Homer Encyclopedia,” my former teacher Laura Slatkin suggests “silvery-eyed.” Robert Fagles, late of Princeton, goes with “bright-eyed goddess,” which suggests enthusiasm. Christopher Logue, a master of anachronisms whose translations of the Iliad are collected in “War Music,” experimented with “the prussic glare,” which sounds alchemical, and “ash-eyed,” which has a matte quality. Emily Wilson, in her recent translation of the Odyssey, seems to have ransacked the thesaurus for Athena: she gives her “twinkling eyes,” “glowing eyes,” “shining eyes,” “glinting eyes,” “sparkling eyes.” The goddess is “clear-eyed,” “owl-eyed,” “bright-eyed,” “sharp-sighted.” Her eyes are “aglow,” “steely.” At one point, Wilson even has her wink.
What strikes me most is that Athena looks mortals in the eye. She levels with them through her gaze. As Virginia Woolf suggests in her remarks on Aeschylus, knowing Greek sometimes takes a leap of intuition. On my first trip, crisscrossing the Aegean, I was nursing an ouzo in a small glass, and staring into the water, when I suddenly understood the meaning of Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” Homer wasn’t saying that the sea was the color of wine. He was saying that the sea had the depths found in a cup of wine: that it was mysterious, hypnotic, dangerous. It drew you in, and you could lose yourself in it. ♦
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