October 19, 2004

Alpha fail

I am supposed to be learning Greek, and have hardly learned a word. Every week is the week in which I am going to start, and every week is the week in which I do not. It might be a gag if I were learning Spanish: I shall begin mañana. But I cannot make the joke in Greek. I have hardly learned a word.

I am learning Greek, or not learning Greek, because I am not learning German. And also because I am not learning Welsh, or Russian, or Czech, or any of the other languages on which my eye has alighted for long enough to buy a phrase book and a tape but not long enough to take advantage of them. I have my Greek tape, and my booklet, and they remained unplayed, unread and unlearned. Really, I should start tomorrow.

I am supposed to be learning Greek because two years ago I intended to learn German. It semeed the ideal counterweight to English ignorance of languages and stupidity about Germans. Even better, the trigger would be a German victory in the World Cup. In a country dominated by anti-German feeling, in which particular and prominent resentment football plays a prominent and particular role, I would not only celebrate a German World Cup win, but celebrate by learning their language.

I determined on this course round about the quarter-final, round about the time that England went out, leaving - since France and Argentina were already eliminated - nowhere for our national sense of resentment to go, but to go where it likes best. (I have occasionally wondered if this is why England are almost always outperformed by Germany, progressing further than them only once in the last eighteen major tournaments. The English are weighed down by resentments and the Germans are not.)

Meanwhile a generally average German team, dominated by an inspired Oliver Kahn, were overcoming both their opponents and their own inadequacies, with a series of 1-0 wins - something that amused me in itself - to reach the Final. So I was all ready. Three genders, nouns with a capital letter, that ß character, organisational skills, a high regard for philosophy, clean service stations, people who take back their library books on time and so on. When the first half started, I was hopeful. When the half-time whistle went, I was starting to get confident. Then Oliver Kahn went and threw it into his own net and that was it. I got on a train to Hampstead and walked halfway over the Heath before I calmed down. German went unlearned.

When it came round to the European Championships I decided not to let myself off so easily. I was stung, perhaps, by some stupidities of David Blunkett in criticising Asian families for not speaking English at home, the only possible effects of which policy would be to decrease the total amount of bilingual children while increasing the number of ignorant and resentful adults. Anyway, I decided that as English people in particular, and English-speaking people in general, do not learn enough of foreign languages (or anything of foreign languages - remember Bonjour! and people reckon they're practically fluent) I should make up for it by learning the language of whichever nation won the trophy.

Of course, it might have been England. For that matter, it could very well have been France, and French I know already. But it turned out not to be English or French or Portuguese or Czech or any language that I had remotely expected. It turned out to be Greek. Another series of 1-0 wins and it turned out to be Greek.

I was quite pleased. I've always had an interest in languages which, from a Western European perspective, are a little idiosyncratic. I've more than once thought about learning Welsh, because it looks like no other language, because it looks incredibly beautiful and because its practical value to an Englishman living in England is practically nil. I once considered asking my then employers to send me on a course to learn Arabic for much the same reason, with the added attraction that they would be spending money on something of little practical use to me and none to them. Russian appealed to me as a child, with its different alphabet and its connotations of communism. Even as an adult it has been a language I come across a great deal, with its prominent place in the literatures of Marxism and chess.

Then there's Czech, which I would have liked to have learned, because it is only a small country, because it has the impossible ř character that even Czech children cannot say naturally but have, instead, to be taught. According to this, Czech is:
considered to be one of the three most difficult languages to learn in Europe. (After Finnish and Hungarian.)
I quite fancy Finnish and Hungarian too. They're strange, they're different and not even people who learn languages are likely to learn them. All these reasons. Vietnamese, that's another one that interests me. Or Korean. People learn Japanese, and maybe these days even Mandarin Chinese. But they don't learn Korean. Perhaps I should learn Korean?

One at a time. Or none at a time. Because despite its original, ancient, individual alphabet, despite its rarity as a language learned by foreigners - how few English people, I wonder, ever learn a word of it despite the fact that they go on holiday there - despite the fact that it derives from the language spoken by Aristotle and Herodotus and Pericles, despite the fact that I have the phrasebook and the tape, I have failed to get going. I have failed to get going at all. All I can remember of one evening's abandoned work is kali spera and kali mera. And I cannot even remember which is which.

I shall learn it before the summer is over. I shall learn it before Xmas. I shall learn it before I am forty. From one to the next to the one after that, and nothing learned except my own ability to put things off until later.

Let us look it up. That is what librarians do. It says here that the word is avrio. It even says:
(Commonly used Greek expression - I'll do it tomorrow!)
Mañana. Avrio. I'll do it tomorrow.

Or the day after tomorrow. Or the day after that.


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