It's Greek to Me
The prevalence of Greek in Greece (that will make sense once you start reading)
Some fun facts about the Greek language
My experience with language in other countries compared to Greece
A building covered in graffiti, Athens
The languages you encounter when you travel abroad is part of what gives a place character, what makes the experience unique. It’s all part of the cultural emersion . . . for better or worse. As great as a new language may be, not being able to communicate or comprehend can contribute to culture shock, one of the negative side effects of life abroad. In my experience, though, I’d never been to a place that didn’t speak English. After all, even if English wasn’t one of the official languages, it’s become the lingua franca, a global common tongue.
That said, I figured that if North Africa and the Middle East were filled with English-speakers, Greece probably would be too, especially considering it was a European country. However, after arriving in Athens, I quickly realized that English wasn’t the name of the game in most situations.
Before we continue, though, you should know that this is a rather short post, one without any grand words of wisdom. This is simply a summary of my observations and experiences with language in Athens, something I wanted to write about because it was so different than my experiences with language in the other countries, I’d wound up in.
So, let’s begin.
Everything was in Greek
A street in Athens with graffiti on the wall of a business
On one hand, this is a “no duh” kind of comment; of course everything was in Greek! However, it’s like I mentioned earlier: I thought English would be present more often than it ultimately was. I also thought that if not English, there was bound to be some other language coupled with Greek. For example, Moroccan products listed things in French and Arabic, Qatari products listed things in Arabic and English, and even American products often have English and Spanish on them. In Greece, however, everything was in Greek; it wasn’t a very multilinguistic atmosphere.
I learned that the Greek language is nearly 3000 years old
If you’re looking for some fun facts, check out Nestor’s Cup, an inscribed cup with one of the oldest examples of Greek written language. The inscription is a sort of lyrical joke.
If you’re looking for an even older fun fact, do a search for Linear A and Linear B, the written languages that preceded Greek. I find it really interesting from a historical and art historical perspective.
I also learned that “Greece” is actually derived from the Latin word “Graecia”. In contrast, Greece in Greek is actually “Hellas” or “Hellada”, which is means Greek people are “Hellenes”. This also explains why the official name of Greece is the Hellenic Republic.
It was a bizarre picking up an American candy bar and seeing the entire label written in Greek and only Greek.
Graffiti on some rocks at the Acropolis
Looking at the written Greek language was a unique experience. My English-reading eyes were used to looking at foreign languages like Spanish or even French languages where you often find familiar words in part because all three languages use the same letters and make similar sounds. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are languages like Arabic where I can look at it and only see shapes because it uses different symbols to represent sounds and it’s read from right to left. Greek, though, was stuck somewhere in between; it was like looking at a scrambled code, where it looks a little familiar and yet is completely unreadable.
The only time I consistently saw English pop up was in the graffiti
It was displacing to walk down the street and be surrounded by an unfamiliar visible and audible language. In America, I was naturally always surrounded by English. Then in Qatar, I always had English to read, usually had English to speak, and heard a variety of Arabic, South Asian, and Southeast Asian languages while out & about. Greece, however, offered a blanket of exclusively Greek.
Everyone knew what “vegetarian” meant, though.
I had an interesting moment where a guy thought I understood Greek,. You see, I got a leather bracelet made for my dad, one where you could get metal wire wrapped around it to spell out something, like a name. The craftsman told me to write what I wanted spelled on a piece of paper, and so I did: I wrote “ΑΦΑ”. That’s Alpha Phi Alpha, my father’s fraternity. The craftsman was so surprised, smiling and saying, “This is Greek. You know this is Greek? You know Greek?!” And I’m like… No, I only know eight letters.
With the history of the Greek language, it was kind of funny seeing it written on everything, trashcans included.