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How I Fell in Love with Greek

 David Alan Black 

I fell in love for the first time in the 5th grade. I recall it was the first day of the new school year at Kainalu Elementary School. My social studies teacher entered the classroom and uttered this utterly incomprehensible sentence: "Cómo está usted?" I was intoxicated. It was love at first sight. That day I learned there were languages other than English and Hawaiian Pidgin.

As it happened, Spanish and I broke up after the 5th grade. No Spanish was offered in the 6th grade, and in fact no foreign languages were required at my intermediate and high schools. The next language I fell in love with was Greek. By then I was a student at Biola, and my 4 semesters of Greek were the beginning of a lifetime obsession with foreign languages. As I got older I began to teach myself languages in earnest, beginning with those languages that one was expected to know prior to arriving in Basel for doctoral studies -- for me this meant French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and, of course, German. Eventually it dawned on me that anything can be said in about 6,000 other ways, with completely different words and grammar. It's not an accident that the science of linguistics caught my attention in those days. Human language is a vast ocean of discovery. Today, my aim in teaching Greek is to help my students see just how fascinating language study is -- how languages change, how they mix, how they process thought. Languages are like cloud formations, inherently transitory. A few hundred years ago, double negatives were considered good grammar in English, "silly" meant "innocent," and verbs were fully conjugated (the way they still are in Spanish and German). English started out like Greek and Latin with noun cases and verb endings but eventually said "Enough is enough." When I began my studies in Basel in 1980, I thought I knew German. I quickly found out that, as soon as I stepped outside the classroom, I couldn't understand a word anybody said. They were speaking German of course -- or at least what they called German. In fact, there is no default "German," just like there is no default English. The Pidgin we grew up speaking in Hawai'i -- despite all of its "mistakes" -- stands equal to any other language in the qualitative sense. Once you understand this, the difficulties disappear. In Basel German, it's as simple as leaning Mir gange for Wir gehen. In Hawaiian Pidgin, it's basically the same thing. Dey stay run means They are running. "Stay" is simply a preverbal marker indicating progressive action, which is marked in English by the "-ing" suffix. 'A'ole pilikia! (No problem.)

If you think about it, my Greek students are learning so much more than Greek. Today's Greek is tomorrow's Spanish or German or Russian or Mandarin. By studying one language you begin to develop a grid for the study of other languages. So, in addition to German German, I had to learn Basel German when I lived in Switzerland. And yet even Basel German is not used by all German-speaking Swiss. Living in Basel, you just got accustomed to speaking both the standard dialect and the non-standard one. Linguists call this being diglossic. Ditto for when I'm in Hawai'i. I just switch to Pidgin.

I've often noticed how German seems to be much more "transparent" than English. "Succession" is "Row-following" (Reihenfolge), "vocabulary" is "Word-treasury" (Wortschatz), and "pork" is "Pig-flesh" (Schweinfleisch). Then again, German can be deceptive: the German noun Gift means "poison" in English. In Spanish, the infinitive is one word -- comer -- not two like in English ("to eat"). Germans say "I know that he a good student is," but in English this is somewhat of a Yoda-ism. Even "Denglisch" -- German plus English -- retains its German original. "Mein Leben ist eine awesome-story" makes sense only when you realize that the feminine article "eine" is used because the German word for "story" (Geschichte) is feminine. Or how about this? In English we say "I'm bathing," but in French or German you must mark the reflexive overtly ("Je me lave," "Ich wasche mich").

I could go on and on about language learning and language loving. Next Monday I'll begin my 44th year of teaching Greek. Who knows what will happen. Maybe, like that boy in the 5th grade, somebody will fall in love for the first time.

December 31, 2019

David Alan Black is the editor of

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