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It's All Greek to Me!

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"This could be Los Angeles!" Monica exclaimed as our friend Marios drove us through the busy streets of downtown Athens, Greece. The big buildings, the wide streets, the traffic all seemed so familiar - a typical modern city in an industrialized "first world" country.

"Only one thing makes it perfectly clear that we are NOT in California," I pointed out the obvious. "All the signs are in GREEK! It's like we're driving down the biggest fraternity and sorority row in the world!"

"Yeah, or we're lost in a giant math equation!" she said.

I always thought of Greek as an ancient, "classical" language spoken by men in togas. Only absentminded university professors in bow ties really know it these days, right? But here's Marios, with his ponytail and blue jeans, leading us through this chaotic city where the signs mean little more to me than an exploded calculus book!

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Jasmine and Kavitha with our Greek friend, Marios
"Do you use these letters for your calculus, too?" I asked Marios. "You know, 'delta' means 'change in' and 'sigma' means 'sum of'?"

"Yes, of course!" He answered in his Greek accent. "Epsilon equals 'M' times something squared, right."

"Well, no, we just use 'E' for that! It must be really confusing!" Monica said.

"No, it's not confusing! It's my language."

"So, wait. Can you read Homer's 'Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' in their original form?" I wondered. Those books were written around 750 BC!

He admitted that he couldn't, even though he had to study "Ancient Greek" in high school, it's still very difficult. It is the oldest European language, after all. Linguists think its spoken form began 4000 years ago, with writing starting about 3000 years ago! And then there's "Old Greek," he explained to us, which is newer and easier than classical Greek, but still isn't the Modern Greek that is spoken today.

Then Monica did something amazing. "nos...noskomeio?" she said. "Does that sign say 'noskomio'?"

Marios looked up and said "noskomio," with a better accent, but still the same word. "Yeah, that means 'hospital'."

She read a street sign in Greek! My mouth dropped in amazement. "How did you do that!?"

"It's easy. I've studied a lot of math, so I know the sounds. It's just nu-oh-sigma-oh-kappa-oh-mu-epsilon-I-oh. Nuskomeio!"

Aa - Alpha
Bb - Beta
Gg - Gamma
Dd - Delta
Ee - Epsilon
Zz - Zeta
Hh - Eta
Qq - Theta
Ii - Iota
Kk - Kappa
Ll - Lambda
Mm - Mu
Nn - Nu
Xx - Xi
Oo - Omikron
Pp - Pi
Rr - Rho
Ss - Sigma
Tt - Tau
Uu - Upsilon
Ff - Phi
Cc - Chi
Yy - Psi
Ww - Omega
Check out this web site. It has all the Greek letters, names and pronunciation.
Marios laughed at how she pronounced the Greek letters, but, basically, she was on the right track. From then on out, it was like a game. I felt like a kid with a secret code. Sometimes we would figure out a word, and it would just sound like gibberish--to us, anyway. But often, it would make perfect sense! There are a lot of words in English that are derived from Greek, you know.

Let's start with the name of a bus stop we went to: Where is "Acropolis"? The answer, of course, is the Acropolis! If you figured it out--or even if you didn't-you can move on to the Greek Challenge below. Next time someone says "I dunno. It's all Greek to me," you can tell them. "Ha! Greek is easy. You must mean Japanese!"

Bonus Question: By the face on the 100 Drachma coin, it says "Megas Alexandros." Who is it? (Click here to see if your answer is right).

Now let's see what other Greek words you can sound out. All of these words have been adopted from Greek into English and definitions have been given as hints.

If you need more help, you can check out LEXICON: Greek-English-Greek dictionary which will translate words for you.

drama - a composition, in prose or poetry, that shows a picture of human life, or depicts a series of grave or humorous actions
democratos - a form of government in which the supreme power is retained and directly exercised by the people
theatros - a building in which dramatic performances or spectacles are exhibited for the amusement of spectators
odyssey - an epic poem attributed to Homer, which describes the return of Ulysses to Ithaca after the siege of Troy
Olympic - the greatest of the national festivals of the ancient Greeks, consisting of athletic games and races, dedicated to Olympian Zeus, celebrated once in four years at Olympia, and continuing five days -or- a modified revival of the ancient Olympian games, consisting of international athletic games, races, etc., now held once in four years, the first having been at Athens in 1896.
galaktik(os) - pertaining to a galaxy or to the Milky Way
logiki - the science of correct and reliable inference, or a particular method of reasoning
outop(os) - an imaginary and indefinitely remote place
par·deigma - an ideal model, pattern, or clear and good example of something
ana-lein - to loosen up, or to break into pieces
ego - the self of any person
mÈthodos - a way of doing something according with a definite plan

How did you do?! Click here to find out!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - Barcelona, City of Innovation: A Reflection on Our Times
Jasmine - "Just Ask Jazz": How To Find The God or Goddess In You!
Kavitha - The Story of the Odyssey
Monica - Displaying the Work of Antoni Gaudi
Making a Difference - The Plight of the Whale

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