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Hellenish oddities

From:Oskar Gudlaugsson <hr_oskar@...>
Date:Wednesday, November 22, 2000, 2:04
Couple of months ago I posted some questions on Attic Greek, which I
started learning back then, mostly on its weird asymetric vowel system.
After studying more Greek, and today having taken a peek at Modern Greek, I
must say this language makes me wonder.

I always approach language courses with skepticism. The nature of languages
is so often misconceived, no less by the various authors of language
courses. I start by skipping to the pronunciation guide, which says a good
deal about the book's linguistic accuracy; I've seen so many language
courses for English people describe [E:] or [e:] as "the long 'a' as
in 'date' or 'nay", even in serious books written by professors. So that's
always a giveaway. Overall, I distrust books that avoid using IPA at all
costs (instead using inaccurate approximations to anomalous English vowels;
I've seen a book describe one vowel sound with a 7-8 line paragraph, for
some central vowel in Rumanian). The "'a' as in Southern British 'father'"
line is the one thing that makes me wish non-English language courses were
more abundant.

To stick to my point, I have not found the Greek language courses I use
completely trustworthy, though it's not bad. I'm reading Maurice Balme's &
Gilbert Lawall's "Athenaze" for Attic Greek. It's fairly accurate, though
in the pronunciation guide it described Greek [k] as a normal 'k', but
[k^h] as "k-h (as in kit; emphatically pronounced)"; which annoyed the
nitpicker me, who hates pseudo-phonetic terms like "emphatic"
and "soft/hard", not to mention that there's no [k] in standard English,
just [k^h].

Anyway, I'll make another attempt at getting to the point now...

So, Greek's weird; some points:

* the stress pattern seems so horribly chaotic to me; 3-4 syllable words
could have the stress just about anywhere, first and ultimate syllables
included. Reading two long words in a row with their stresses on opposing
ends feels really spooky to me.
* what's with the bulky diphthong endings?
* what's with initial [ps] and [ts]? Even worse, initial [zd]!
* Those initials are nothing compared to the [p^ht^h], or later [fT], in
words like 'phthong'. That word has in fact become a fashion word among me
and my linguistic friends, for being the most ridiculous syllable we know
of (though with heavy competition from Icelandic [vErmstl^0]).
* indeed, the vowel system is rather void of back vowels, supposedly
because Attic Greek was in a transition stage.
* languages with a flair for the middle or passive voices aren't
necessarily strange, but Attic Greek's really taking it far, IMO! After the
book introduced the middle voice and deponent verbs, I've hardly seen a
single new active verb. Just about any verbal concept seems to have its
deponent verb; wonder what this love of passiveness says about the Greek
* just like Icelandic (which I wouldn't claim to be any more "normal"),
Greek likes to have verbs taking dative and genitive for no apparent
reason. Well, of course there's an explanation, but it's still a silly use
of cases.

Okay, so today I read through a course for Modern Greek, hoping to get to
know some juicy sound changes and simplifications of morphology. Well, now
it really got spooky! Apparently, 2500 years of sound changes seemed to
yield only this, in my quick glance:

* all diphthongs simplified, a record number merging with /i/ (I read 11
somewhere, probably including vowel length).
* vowel length distinction dropped.
* vowel system stabilized to a boringly standard 5 cardinal triangle.
* only one row of stops retained, /p t k/; voiced and aspirated rows
becoming voiced and unvoiced fricatives.
* a few final n's dropped.
* the infamous initials mentioned above were miraculously retained,
according to this Teach Yourself course (which I mistrusted heavily).
* orthographic initials <mp> <nt> <gk> pronounced [b d g]...I haven't seen
any initial [mp]'s or such in my book of Ancient Greek, so I'm presuming
the nasals are just a spelling trick; the sample words given were all loan-
words, so I thought voiced stops could be an import to accommodate the new
words. Or just old voiced stops preserved by some environmental factor; I
don't know why, but in any case Modern Greek does seem to have two rows of
stops after all. Experts here will tell me the answer.
* chaotic stress pattern remains; perhaps I just fail to see the pattern in

Also, I couldn't see any sense in the few changes to the morphology; I
noticed some "indefinite" form (supposedly similar to infinitive), but its
endings were not like those of the Ancient Greek infinitive endings. I'm
probably not yet learned enough in the language to know where they're
coming from.

In any case, to explain my ranting on bad language courses above, I really
didn't trust that Modern Greek book's representation. 'When it just doesn't
seem realistic', I think to myself, 'the book's gotta be lying'. That is to
say, the books don't always represent the realities of everyday speech. I
won't believe today's Greeks say [psi] until I hear them say it. The book
was written by a Greek, and I hear they're very prescriptive over there, so
I'm not sure what to believe...

BTW, they don't want to be called 'Greeks', right? Perhaps we should be
politically correct and call them "Hellens", or even "Eleni", and call the
language "Hellenish" :) Just a thought.

Answers and clarifications would be welcome, thank you for your time,