Friday, 22 May 2009

Living the Life Bilingual: Part 2

After mastering the intricacies of the Greek alphabet, one of the biggest challenges for a Brit learning Greek is getting your head around the fact that EVERYTHING has a sex.

Maybe it says something about the Mediterranean temperament versus the classical British stiff upper lip (sometimes the only stiff thing to be found on cold days) but somehow I doubt it. After all, Germans also class everything as male, female or neuter.

I just don’t know why chairs, saucepans, doors, curtains and toilets are all female. Nor why (grammatically, at least) all cats, owls, tortoises and whales are too.

Dogs, of course, are male.

OK, I guess it could be argued that cats are clearly female (mysterious, enigmatic and obsessed with cleanliness), and dogs are obviously male (love of balls and a one-track mind when on heat). But I still don’t get what makes a chair female. Or a toilet or that matter.

Though I’ve been here for 20 years, I still sometimes fall into the 'xeni' (foreign) habit of using the third, neutral gender in places where it shouldn’t go. Sometimes, it is simply ignorance or laziness on my part. Other times, however, I just cannot bring myself to refer to something as female when it so clearly is NOT.

We used to share our home with a big, ginger tom who took great pride in presenting us with an impressive pair of furry balls at every opportunity (apparently, the height of good manners among cats). Sorry, but when evidence to the contrary is so literally ‘in my face’, I just could not refer to him in the female terms of ‘gata’ or ‘gatoula’. For me, Maxi will always be a ‘gatos’ or ‘gataros’ – no matter how often my mother-in-law tries to put me right.

Another problem is knowing when to use of the plural or the singular. In English we talk about a pair of trousers or a pair of pants, but in Greek they are singular – ‘panteloni’ and ‘vraki’.

But when Greeks go to the hairdresser, they speak in the plural – ‘Prepei na kopso ta mallia mou’ (‘I must cut my hairs’). Now, maybe I am a little warped (‘No! Really?’), but that phrase always brings some wonderful images to mind involving special salons with lawn-mower type trimmers for those particularly hairy chests some Greek men specialise in.

And to add insult to injury (at least for those of us who were born BEFORE The Beatles broke up), a Birthday is not a singular either. When Greeks wish you Many Happy Returns with a cheerful ‘Haroumena Yenethlia’, they are actually saying ‘Happy Birthdays’.

So, does that mean that I've really been here 40 years and not 20?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mandi!
    There are so many linguistic pitfalls facing those expats amongst us. Here, one is "constipado" which translates as... a heavy cold!