A Proverb Song

Following a post by Centro Linguistico Unofficial on Facebook I spotted this post from Omilo (I’ve mentioned them before) which features a song from Melina Tanagri where the lyrics are made up from Greek proverbs.

The Omilo page provides the lyrics, translation and explanation of the proverbs. As they say, a great way to understand a people is to explore their proverbs. So this is well worth a read and a view….

11 Greek Proverbs in One Song

It includes one which seems appropriate for this time of electioneering here in the UK…..

Όπου ακούς πολλά κεράσια, κράτα και μικρό καλάθι.

(In the face of grand promises keep your hopes in check.  Literally: When you hear of many cherries, hold a small basket.)

Owls to Athens

250px-Tetradrachm_Athens_480-420BC_MBA_Lyon.jpgThis post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a Greek friend and is another diversion into the alleyways of language that I find fascinating.

It started with this link to an article in the magazine Dokari which described the find of residues from Greek red wine in Celtic drinking vessels in the Burgundy area of France dating to the 5th to 7th Century BCE. (if you want to read the full paper you can find it here).

I said the idea of sending red wine to Burgundy sounded like a Greek version of what in English is called “sending coals to Newcastle” (The northeast of England used to be an important coal mining area).

Apparently the equivalent expression in Greek is “Κομίζω γλαύκα εις Aθήνας” or “Φέρνω κουκουβάγια στην πόλη των Αθηνών“.

How does “sending owls to the the town of Athens” work?

The “owls” are the silver drachma coins of ancient Athens.  Struck from silver from the mines in Laurion, south west of Athens, it was the wealth that these coins represented that powered the Athenian state. So, “sending Owls to Athens” comes to mean sending something to where there is already plenty of it.

There’s a good explanation in this Wikipedia entry.

Γλαύκα ִis the word for owl, the sacred bird of the Goddess Athena. Γλαύκος in modern Greek is the colour pale blue, although in ancient Greek it would be more properly described as “bright” (I have written about this before). So when Homer talks of “bright-eyed Athena” he is linking his description to the bird that represented her. The idea persists in the modern English term for the eye condition glaucoma, where the iris of the eye may appear “bright” – in reality pale green – (or at least not dark).

Owls to Athens” is also the title of a historical novel by Harry Turtledove, for folk that like historical fiction.

Incidentally, Greek wine is getting good critical reviews these days. Here’s an article rating some of the best Greek wines by respected wine writer, Jancis Robinson: More Greek Wines Please.

So. why not give in to your inner Celt and join the Burgundians in a glass  or two of Greek sunshine to stave off the onset of winter?

If the sea was wine

and boats were cups.

These two lines turn up in a traditional song “In the Foam of the Sea” (Εις τον αφρό της θάλασσας) and I found them on the back of a door in Kissamos at the Kelari taverna where we stopped for a very pleasant coffee on our trip around the western end of Crete.

First of all, I liked the door and then I thought, I’ll translate this. Is obviously a poem or a song. How hard can it be? Well, first of all you have a look….


The first problem you hit is that some of the words don’t seem to make sense. What on earth is “υόσμο” in the third line of the third verse, for example?

Then you remember that there is more than one way to write some Greek characters. (A useful guide to Greek handwriting can be found here). In this case a lot of the “υ” are in fact “κ”, so υόσμο is in fact κόσμο (world).

Having done that, you work away at it with your dictionary until you realise that it’s making no sense at all and then you message a Greek and say “HELP!”

Kindly, Τόνια Τάβλα helped me out again. She says that this kind of 4-verse poem or 4-verse 2 -stanza poem is very common all over Greece. Very often they are wry, humorous poems.

However these four short verses that don’t seem to have much to do with one another.

You can find my transposition of the Greek and my (actually mainly Τόνια’s) translation here if you want to check your own efforts: Kissamos Poem.

If you would like to hear the original song sung, here are the Χορωδία Κερκύρας / Corfu Choir. on YouTube.

Two More Signs

After my warning signs post, I was hoping to take some pictures on our trip to add to the catalogue. The trouble is that Chania is so overcome with φιλόξενια that almost all signs are bi-lingual in Greek and English, so you rarely need to understand the Greek.

However I did spot a couple of examples which, while they are still pretty obvious, I thought were worth sharing.

Firstly, this instruction not to park (μη σαθμεύετε instead of the often seen μη παρκάρετε)  because of the garage (γκαράζ).


Secondly, there was this easily overlooked sign which tells you that the Halepa Road (Δρόμος Χαλέπας) is closed because of work (Κλείστη Λόγω Εργών) and you had better turn right if you want to go towards the airport (Προς Αεροδρόμιο).


Wild Life

Crete is famous for its wild life. There is the wild goat – the kri-kri or agrimi – of course (well known from the golden statuette found at Akrotiri on Thera) but we encountered a new specimen as we began our flight back from Chania this week.

While taxiing out to the runway, the pilot gave out an announcement apologising for a short delay saying, “Ladies & gentlemen, it will be a few minutes before we can move. They have to clear a hedgehog from the taxiway.”


Picture from the Cretan Animal Welfare Society (http://www.crete4animals.gr) used with acknowledgement.

I wasn’t sure at first if this was a joke* but, yes, there are hedgehogs on Crete.

So, everyone, today’s useful phrase is…

 “Λυπάμαι για την καθυστέρηση, υπάρχει ένας σκαντζόχοιρος στο διάδρομο του αεροδρομίου.”

“I am sorry for the delay, there is a hedgehog on the airport runway.”

*Sadly it seems that my suspicions were right. Talking to a friend of an airline pilot, it seems more likely that this was simply to amuse passengers while F16’s operating from the airforce base took off.

More Greek Reading

Last November, I wrote about Margarita Ioannidou and her aim to help students working at the B1 – B2 level to enjoy some of the finest books in Greek literature, while at the same time improving their Greek.

She has just published her her latest work. This is a version of “ΟΙ ΕΜΠΟΡΟΙ ΤΩΝ ΕΘΝΩΝ” (“The Traders of Nations”) by Alexander Papadiamantis, the 19th Century writer from Skiathos.

traders.pngWhile Papadiamantis was writing in the formal, “Katharevousa” Greek of his era, Margarita has rendered her version into modern Greek at a level suited to intermediate students. She adds notes on Greek words that are likely to be unfamiliar to a modern student.

You can download a sample here and you will see, I think, that Margarita has a straight-forward style of Greek that students should find easy to access.

The following summary if (very) freely translated from Margarita’s own synopsis….

The story takes place between 1199 and 1207, when Venice originally had trading relations with the Greek islands, but also aims to conquer them. The book describes a world where “the traders of nations” stop at nothing to gain money, glory or handsome women…

The heroes of the book are Yiannis Mouchras, Lord of Naxos;  his beautiful wife Augusta; and the Venetian ruler Markos Sanoutos.  Mouchras, is in serious danger from enemies. He avoids the danger with the help of Markos Sanoutos. He invites Sanoutos to his house to thank him but there, Sanoutos meets the beautiful Augustus and is charmed by her.

What will Sanoutos do? Will he try to win Augusta? Or will he respect her husband, who has given him hospitality? And what consequences will the choice have?

The book is available from Ianos or Politeianet.

(If you are beguiled – as I was – by the picture on the cover, it is “The Port of Volos” by Constantine Volanakis and was painted around 1875.)

The Benefits of Knowledge

Why learn Greek?

What’s wrong with using Google Translate?

Well, Google Translate is great if you know you want to translate something, less good at helping you spot the thing you want to translate in the first place but here’s another reason: sometimes it just doesn’t cope.

Here’s a lovely example from today. An interesting article caught my eye (because I can understand enough Greek to be able to spot the stuff I need to read…..) about this year’s  exciting finds of five different ancient ship wrecks in the Aegean.


Are these turtles?

The only problem came when using Google Translate to give me a quick survey of the whole article.

The translation I got for “περιλαμβάνονται ένα ναυάγιο με μεικτό φορτίο αμφορέων από το Αιγαίο (Κνίδος, Κως και Ρόδος)” was “include a wreck with mixed loads of amphibians from the Aegean (Knidos, Kos and Rhodes)“.

I’m pretty sure that “amphibians” should read “amphoras” or “amphorae”. I see no evidence of turtles, newts, frogs or toads……

Curiously, later on in the article, Google Translate handles the same word ” αμφορέων” more or less correctly.

So Google Translate: a useful tool but USE WITH CARE. You wouldn’t want an amphibian full of olive oil, would you?

(PS My dictionary gives “αμφίβιον” as the Greek for “amphibian”)