Sunday, May 4, 2014

Texts in Context: Yassas!


That’s Greek for hello, goodbye, cheers, “to you!”

And a makeshift “thank you” for those (like me) who can’t quite manage efkharistó (eff-car-ee-STOH), the official Grecian “thank you.”

I recently spent two weeks in Greece and every time I tried to say a proper “efkharistó” I was rewarded with puzzled looks and general incomprehension. The receptionist at our hotel suggested an easier alternative might be to say “yassas!” when I entered, when I left, and whenever a thank you, or other general greeting, was needed.

Then she tried to complicate things by explaining that “yassas,” written Γειά σας, geia sas, or yia sas, is plural, or “formal,” while “yassou”, written γεια σου, gia sou, yia shoe, is singular, or informal. So while I could say “yassou” to her, or a shopkeeper, or a waiter, she, and they, would need to say “yassas” to me.

I'm not big on status distinctions (a customer is "above" a shopkeeper or waiter? in what way?) so I finally decided that “yassas” would work in any situation, and sure enough, a friendly “yassas” brought an equally friendly “yassas” (or, sometimes, “Ya!”) in return, and sometimes prompted conversations about what natioanality I might be (Italiká? Germanós?) Apparently, most Americans don't bother with even simple greetings. 

My time in Greece was prompted by my husband Whitney’s need to attend a series of meetings with international Scripture Union colleagues, so our first week was spent in the company of Scripture Union friends from a mix of other countries.

I was reminded, in conversation with these multilingual friends, that as a native English speaker my understanding of language, of translation, of the interplay of meaning and words, is shaped by my experience as a monolinguist in a world where I have the luxury of expecting literature, media, politics, finance to meet me in my mother tongue.
Scripture Union friends near the steps to Mars Hill

There are plenty of benefits to growing up immersed in English.

Yet, as I talk with friends from smaller linguistic populations who grew up fluent in second, sometimes third and fourth languages, I’m aware that there are benefits to engaging words, texts and ideas in unfamiliar linguistic contexts.

Among other benefits of multilingualism, "children and older persons learning foreign languages have been demonstrated to:
  • have a keener awareness and sharper perception of language;
  • be more capable of separating meaning from form;
  • display generally greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher-order thinking skills;
  • see their own culture from a new perspective not available to monoglots, enabling the comparison, contrast, and understanding of cultural concepts. 
Here's an observation I find intriguing: "a person who speaks multiple languages has a stereoscopic vision of the world” ( Vivian Cook, 2001).

I wrote last week about the way the “plausibility structures” of our culture can shape and define our understanding of what’s possible. There’s interesting research suggesting that our language itself can limit our comprehension. We see and understand what we have words for; we miss the reality that slips by the contours of our language.

A simple example: words for color. In English, we have eleven basic colors. Some languages have only two (dark and light), some have four (white, black, red, green). Some have twelve. Just a few variations:
  • Latin originally lacked a generic color word for "gray" and "brown" and had to borrow its words from Germanic language sources.
  • Classical Greek is said to not have had different names for blue and black.
  • Biblical Hebrew had no word for blue.
  • Navajo has one word for both grey and brown and one for blue and green. It has two for black, however, distinguishing the color of "coal" from that of "darkness".
  • Russian, Italian, and Greek  have different basic words for darker and lighter shades of blue. Russian has голубой and синий; Italian has azzuro and blu; Greek has γαλάζιο and μπλ.   
Another simple example: the Inuit of North America have at least a dozen words for snow, and ten or more for ice. Examples
  • qanik snow falling
  • aputi snow on the ground
  • pukak crystalline snow on the ground
  • aniu snow used to make water
  • siku ice in general
  • nilak freshwater ice, for drinking
  • qinu slushy ice by the sea 
I wrote earlier this year about the multiple words for love offered in classic Greek: agápe, éros, philía, storgē, ludus, pragma, mania, philautia. Even now, Greek offers more variations on “love” than English. Here’s a fun, slightly puzzling experiment: google translate “love.”  Then try to reverse it. The idea of a one-for-one transference quickly disappears.

Thinking about languages, the hazards of monolingualism, the benefits of multilingualism, I came across an interesting historical discussion: what language did Jesus speak? And what is the original language of the New Testament?

As members of a small nation frequently conquered by the powers of the day, as part of a people group needing a language of trade to do business with the surrounding economies, most Jews of Jesus’ day spoke Hebrew, did business in Aramaic, read classic Greek, and would have known at least a little Latin.

While there are some scholars who argue that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and others who posit an Aramaic New Testament, the general consensus is that the early texts were written in Koine Greek, a “common” Greek used as the regional language throughout the area conquered by Alexander the Great. Even the Romans depended on Koine Greek in administering the Roman Empire, while Latin was the language of the military and the courts.

Biblical Tours Greece: Voula Kalapoda, Costos Tsevas,
and Theo  Karvounakis
During our time in Greece, we had the great privilege of spending time with staff from Hellenic Scripture Union and the guides of their Biblical Tours. On a chilly March morning forty-some Scripture Union representatives from over a dozen countries boarded a bus to visit Corinth. Our guide, Costos Tsevas, lost no time in explaining his goal of setting Biblical texts in context: geographic, historic, linguistic. He suggested that the linguistic, even philosophical context of a regional Greek language and habit of discourse enabled the rapid spread of the Christian faith in a way that would not have been possible in other times and places.

As he talked, I dug in my bag for paper and pen and found myself taking notes on the back of our itinerary, on the margins of a map. Through Costos, and his years of training as a guide, his years of reading about Biblical texts, his lifetime speaking of Greek and bridging the divide between Greek and English, I found myself seeing and hearing in new ways.

Members of the group were asked to read parts of passages in English, with the warning that they'd be interrupted. "Wait," Costos would say mid-text. "Read what that says again. Now in Greek, it says . . ." and he'd be off, explaining the fuller meaning of a term, showing how translation had flattened, skewed, or in some other way altered an important concept. 

I will never know another language well enough to have that “stereoscopic vision of the world” available to speakers of multiple languages, but through time spent with Costos, and then further travels to other Biblical sites with his colleague, Voula Kalapoda, I have new insights into Biblical texts and their contexts.

I”ll be working through my notes in the weeks ahead, posting insights, sharing observations and some of my thousand or so photos.

And remembering, with great gratitude, the welcome and generosity we experienced in beautiful, wonderful Greece.