Saturday, February 18, 2012


I know not a great deal about cars save what is the minimum required to keep me from harm. Yet on Christmas Day, when the veritable plague of hail descended upon Melbourne, denting all metal in its path, I knew that I had to remove my mode of conveyance from my aunt’s front yard, where it waited stoically for the conclusion of the family feast, to a place of greater safety.
Navigating the torrents of water collecting in the dips and hollows of the area was a task fraught with difficulty and it was with some relief that I finally pulled into a service station. The hail had increased in intensity now and was pounding on the asphalt with fury. I stepped out of my car and watched nonchalantly as a battered, pock-marked corolla, looking more like the surface of the moon pulled up beside me. Seeing me, the driver wound down the window to reveal the moustachioed countenance of a friend. “Po, po.. This is nothing. You should see what happened to my son’s car,” he exclaimed. «Χαραμίστηκε.» And I told him not to buy it. But what do you expect from kids these days. He doesn’t listen. Σήκωσε μπαϊράκι.»
As he enumerated the manifold ways in which his son had aggrieved him, I mused upon the non-Greek words that punctuated his sentences. Verily, there are a plethora of Turkish words, many ultimately of Persian or Arabic origin that punctuate and augment the Modern Greek vocabulary. Χαραμίστηκε, is derived from the Arabic word haram, which means forbidden. If something is forbidden, it cannot be used and is thus useless – thus the meaning of the Greek verb. Bayrak of course, means flag and to raise the flag, is to assert yourself.
Though Turkish loanwords are fewer than they were before, owing to the advent of other linguistic influences such as English or French, the almost constant contact the Greek people have had with the Turkish language, since the invasion of Asia Minor in 1071, has entrenched a good deal of vocabulary into the Greek language. In regional dialects of Greek, especially regions that were under Turkish rule as late as 1913, such as Epirus, Macedonia and the Aegean Islands, the presence of Turkish words for everyday objects would render much traditional speech unintelligible to one fluent only in the formal tongue. Thus, while visiting the island of Samos, if someone was to ask you: “Μ’ φέρν’ς απ’ τειγκδά στου γκατούν’ του μπαγκράτς τσ’ αμπλάζιμ;» it is highly unlikely that you would understand this to mean: “Can you bring me my aunt’s bucket from that corner?” because all of the substantive words in the sentence are Turkish. Bagraç would be rendered in Greek as κουβάς, but even this word is a Turkish loan, from the word kova. Similarly, I had to go to Greek school in order to learn that the Greek word for sock was not τσουράπι, from the Turkish çorap but κάλτσα, as until that time, my grandfather would always beg me: «Φόρα τα τσουράπια’ς. Τα πόδια’ς μπουζ είνι.» Buz of course, means ice in Turkish. As such, it is fascinating that diverse regional Greek dialects are influenced by the dialect or idiolect of the variety of Turkish they come into contact with.
Sometimes, as the use of ‘haram’ suggests, Turkish Greek loanwords come to develop different nuances of meaning and phonology than their original ‘donor’ word, exemplifying the process of linguistic assimilation. A few days after the Christmas hail storm, I found myself perched precariously upon the frame of my pergola with my father, attempting to replace the hail shattered fibre glass roof. “Make sure you line up the screws. We don’t want to be taken for a bunch of «ατζαμήδες.» An ατζαμής in Greek, is a clumsy amateur. The original Arabic root word “ajami”, literally meaning mute, was originally used as a reference to denote those whom Arabs in the Arabian peninsula viewed as “alien” or barbarian including all of the peoples with whom the Arabs had contact including Persians, Greeks and Ethiopians. It is easy to see how a foreigner who knows nothing, can be seen as an amateur. Similarly, the word ραχάτι, which is synonymous with laziness or sloth, literally means comfort in Arabic, though one can appreciate the logical progression of one meaning to the other. The word τεμπελιά, from tembel, is also borrowed from Turkish, leading one of my Greek school teachers to assert that a Turkish word had to be used, as the concept of laziness was unknown to the Greeks and was only introduced during Turkish occupation. This is a most ridiculous, but thoroughly amusing theory. Νταλαβέρι, meaning a transaction, is also a Turkish import. However, dalavere, the original root word, denotes a trick or some sort of deceit, which could be a consequence of a transaction. Do we blame a Turkish counterpart of my Greek school teacher for asking why Greeks would use the word ‘deception,’ in order to denote a transaction…? Similarly, it bears asking why the word karyola, which means bed in Turkish, has evolved in Greek, into an insult for women. Maybe some things are better left alone…
The use, or rather of Islamic expressions by some Greeks can actually be quite startling among Middle Eastern Christians, who conscious of the need to preserve their own specific identity, avoid such phrases. The other day, I was accosted in church by an aunt who demanded to know when I would stop being foolish and apply myself to the production of children. Having advised her that I would concern myself with the subject as soon as reasonably practicable, upon which she exclaimed “Mashallah,” moving both hands over her mouth as she did so, in a manner reminiscent of Islamic prayer. However, Mashallah, in its Islamic sense, cannot be used in this context. As the present perfect expression of God’s will accentuating the essential Islamic doctrine of belief in destiny, ie. “God has willed it,” it is generally said upon hearing good news. Instead, the correct expression to be used is “Inshallah,” said when speaking about plans and events expected to occur in the future, which is not used in Greek at all.
The number of loan-words from Turkish are countless, yet Turkish has also influenced Greek grammar as well. On many Aegean islands which house populations of refugees, there is a tendency to place the verb at the end of the sentence, a construction which is mandatory in Turkish. The morphology of modern Greek has also been influenced by Turkish suffixes such as -li ie παραλής, μουστακαλής, or even, Karamanlis. –ci is also a common suffix, used in such Greek words as τενεκετζής, ταξιτζής, κουλουρτζής, as well as –lik, in such words as χαρτζιλίκι, δασκαλίκι, προεδριλίκι.
Calques, referring to the borrow a word or phrase from another language while translating its components can also be found in Greek from Turkish, though their identification depends on one’s level of fluency in both language. It would surprise many to discover that stereotypical greek phrases are actually translations from the Turkish: “βάζω στο χέρι … (Turkish: ele gec irmek), έρχεται στο κεφάλι μου … (Turkish: bas ιna gelior), πάτησε πόδι (Turkish: ayak diredi), έμεινε στη μέση (Turkish. yarιda kaldι), βρίσκω τον μπελά μου (Turkish. bela sι bulmak) and many more besides. Other expressions, such as αναντάμ παπαντάμ, (from father to son), or Τσάτρα πάτρα, (any which way), and Τσακίρ κέφι, (a state of tipsiness) are imported from Turkish wholesale and are used unchanged.
The presence of Turkish and other Middle Eastern words in the Greek language, rather serving as a debasing agent, according to common prejudice, augments and enriches it. Further it helps to foster an understanding of a mentality and the social and historical context under which Greek society evolved over centuries, as well as to provide valuable inroads into the Middle Eastern word. Without offering the ability to draw upon the idiomatic expressions and vocabulary that can colour and add infinite nuances to our speech that can only be granted through such loan-words, our language would be infinitely poorer. Further, the vast majority of these loan-words have been Hellenised, given that they have been assimilated within the Greek grammar and are able to be declined. This is in marked contrast with English loan-words, which are inserted wholesale into Greek text, without transliteration and therefore, offer nothing to Greek other than an insulting allegation as to the poverty of that language.
Yet despair not, kardasides. For if the Greek language has borrowed freely from our Turkish linguistic kouvardades, it has certainly returned the compliment, if one considers the plethora of Greek words peppering Turkish everyday speech. Let us rejoice then, in our linguistic mousafirides, who arrived on our tongues as guests and now, are here to stay.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 February 2012