It’s Greek to me

My mom just sent me this to aid in my Blogathoning, with the note “Believe it or not, that first word is “Bob” in Greek…”
I’m half Greek, though you may not realize that from my name – Jennifer McCreight doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it as Crissoula Papadapolopolis. My Papou (Grandpa) was born in Greece, and my Yia Yia (Grandma) grew up there. Since we live about ten minutes from them (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding), I’ve been raised in Greek culture. Except I’ve always failed at one thing:

The language.

My family tried to teach me. When I was little Yia Yia taught me little things – how to count, names of body parts, names of food – but I’ve forgotten almost all of it from disuse. I visited Greece when I was 12, and they bought me what was effectively a “Baby’s First Book” in a last ditch attempt to teach me Greek. At that point I could read Greek letters but had no idea what the words I was saying meant. Now I can’t even do that much.

Looking back, I wish they had taught me more when I was younger able to absorb it. My grandparents were effectively my daycare service, so they could have easily talked Greek around me while my parents spoke English. And then I would have had some of the pronunciations that are specific to Greek that I simply can’t do as an adult. My grandparents and mom still giggle when I fail to say “gala” (which means “milk”) correctly. I can’t do the guttural “g” it requires.

My dad and I even have purposeful bastardizations of certain phrases we can’t pronounce quite right:

“To your health” – stinygiasou – skinny asses

I know the pet names – my grandparents calls me koukla (“little doll”) and my mom calls me zuzuni (“little bug” – don’t ask). I picked up the inappropriate words too – I probably know more Greek synonyms for poop and fart that I do useful phrases. I can still say some things out of rote memorization: “I love you,” “Good night,” “You’re welcome.” My Yia Yia and I even have a little script we go through on the phone:

Yia Yia: Ti kaneis? (“How are you?”)
Me: Kala (“Fine.”)

But I don’t know how to say anything else. I don’t know how to admit I’ve had a bad day, I’m sad, I’m angry… Which is oddly representative of my relationship with my grandparents. I love them so much that they’re not allowed to know I’m not fine sometimes. I don’t want to upset them, which is why they’re probably the only two people on the planet who don’t know that I’m an atheist.

Odd how language represents that.

This is post 8 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.


  1. says

    Aren’t the Greek culture very secular? Why would your atheism upset your Papou and Yia Yia? Would your status as a Boobquake God/Goddess (a new Greek god) upset them?

  2. says

    Wow, what a great post. I’m not “out” to my grandparents, either, though that’s as much that they don’t really understand me – nothing like having a hippy liberal progressive granddaughter to confuse the hell out of the redneck conservatives.

  3. says

    “My Yia Yia and I even have a little script we go through on the phone:Yia Yia: Ti kaneis? (“How are you?”)Me: Kala (“Fine.”)”Hahahaha! I go through the samething with my Yaiyia as well, except I add a “s’agapo poli (I love you a lot)” at the end of every conversation . Like you, I’m half-Greek (from my mother’s side). I’ve been trying to learn the language since, well, ever. When I was younger, I went to Greek School through the church for a few years, but there was a such a gap between the kids who have both parents speaking Greek exclusively in the house, and kids like me who only get it when Yiayia and Papou are over. Having spent a several months in Greece a few years back, I’ve gotten quite good at understanding the language. Its odd though since I don’t often get the chance to speak it, when I do, as good as it sounds in my head, my pronunciation is just awful. Good thing everyone in Greece speaks English well (they start in 1st grade and have to pass a proficiency test to graduate high school), so its passable to listen in Greek and respond in English.

  4. Sinbad says

    Lol, I go through the same thing with my spanish grandparents. All of them basically only speak spanish, and my parents stuck to english around me. So the only phrases I’m good at in spanish are the ones common to grandparents. And I’m a whole lot better at understanding spanish than speaking it.They were also basically the daycare for my cousins, my sister and me. And we lived like 10 minutes away from them.

  5. Beth says

    One of my best friends is Greek, and he’s tried to teach me bits and pieces. For a little while, I could even sound out words! Now, I can only count to five reliably, ten unreliably, mix up “you’re welcome” and “thank you,” and say “I would like a half a piece of cheese.” All very useful.

  6. says

    In my experience (limited sample size, I know), it’s so hard to learn a language that the rest of your family know if you’re not raised bilingual from very early on – harder than just any other foreign language, because everyone else expects you to pick it up faster (or worse, if you don’t look sufficiently white, to know it already…). When I was growing up, my mother worried I might struggle with English if she didn’t try to speak it to me constantly; turned out my Cantonese suffered instead. I can count to 10 by rote, 99 by educated guesswork, and recognise assorted words like “horse” or “telephone” when I hear them. That’s it. It got to the point where, when she decided to have another child, she convinced my grandparents to come and live with us for a couple of years so that my brother could be looked after by monolingual Cantonese speakers.The fact that I’m not out as an atheist to any of my family isn’t really due to the language barrier stopping all but two of them from understanding me, but it’s a pretty good excuse. :)

  7. A-M says

    You are not alone with both the language thing and coming out as an atheist thing. Out of us 4 kids, I’m the only one who is totally bilingual english/french. My brothers just never got the hang of it. Also, my french and extremely Catholic family aren’t aware that we all turned out atheist (thanks to Papa), because we can’t be bothered with the drama. This is a seriously Catholic family – two great aunts, one aunt and one cousin are nuns. The cousin is only 29! She’s actually one of my closest cousins (I have millions) and I feel like she would accept it, but it’s not really worth the hassle.

  8. Erik says

    I wish I had more exposure to the other alphabets as a child (or at the very least, in high school). I remember in my first college physics class (which also was my first physics class at all) the sudden epiphany of realizing that tau and t were different letters and thus represented completely separate variables– the equations suddenly made sense. Up to that point I just thought it was an idiosyncrasy of his handwriting.

  9. eddie says

    Prospathisa na mathaino Ellinika, na tis entypoziasw ena koritsa.Kerdizw? Dystikos, oxi :-(

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