Magazine article Verbatim

The Ethnocentricity of Email

Magazine article Verbatim

The Ethnocentricity of Email

Article excerpt

HELO!!!

SOU EYXOMAI PERASTIKA GIA OTI EPATHES! H DIEYTHINSH MOU EINAI.... PERIMENO! BYE-BYE

That, with the omission of a few personal details, is the text of an email I received recently. Here's another from the same person:

TI KANEIS RE SIMON? SYGNOMY POU ARGEISA NA SOU APANTHSO ALA DEN ELENXO TA E-MAIL VERY OFTEN. HOW ARE YOU AND WHERE ARE YOU NOW? I'M IN LIVERPOOLAND I'M STUDDING SAN TRELH!!!!!!!!! DISTIXOS DEN THAMPORESO NA ERTHO GIA THN DOULIA EXO TOSO POLY DIABASMA GIA TIS EXETASEIS META TA XRISTOUGENA KAI PREPEI NA DOULEPSO FULL TIME STO ESTIATORIO!! BUT THANK YOU ANYWAY!!!

PERIMENO NEA SOU SOON O.K? MANY KISSES....

And here, leaving out the name of the addressee, is one of my replies:

Pos paei, ... mou; opos uposxethika, sou exo steilei ena gramma me to saliggari taxudromeio. Agapi kai filia, Saimon.

So what's the language? It seems to contain a few English words, such as Helo (sic) and Bye-bye, or perhaps the writer is showing off her English. Churchgoing readers may recognize Agapi but expect an e rather than an i. My name is Simon; why the odd spelling Saimon?

Well it's Greek, but not as we know it. And I'd better say at once that by "Greek" I mean "the language spoken by Greeks." It's necessary to state what seems obvious because many people who ought to know better think "Greek" means "a dead language that used to be taught in some Northern European schools, and which bears a structural, but almost no phonetic, similarity to a language which was spoken two thousand years ago by a minority of the inhabitants of what is now called Greece." At about the time of these two e-mails I read in the Guardian that something or other was "As outmoded as the Greek vocative case." The writer evidently neither knew nor cared that the vocative case was in regular daily use throughout Greece, not to mention Cyprus, Sydney, and Camden Town. No wonder Greeks are so touchy.

But surely Greek is written with another alphabet? Yes, but you can't conveniently tap out emails in other alphabets. Even if you always send your message as an attachment, you can't be sure that the recipient will have a Greek font in his computer, or even that the same keystrokes on one computer will give the same letters on another. Until everyone uses Apple Macs as God intended, sending Greek from one computer to another will continue to produce Double Dutch. Because of these difficulties, I've carefully avoided using any Greek letters at all in this article. What I really needed for my title was a word like Alphabetocentricity.

To overcome the problem, Greek users of email have developed a phonetic transliteration into the roman alphabet, resembling that used in phrase books for English-speaking tourists, whose writers are convinced, probably rightly, that English speakers would rather learn wildly incorrect pronunciations than another alphabet. The two alphabets are, after all, very similar, especially in the upper case; many Greeks, especially those less literary, like to keep the caps lock key firmly depressed. The trouble is, very often the letters only look the same; they don't sound the same. Beta, gamma, and delta, for instance, are pronounced not like our B, G, and D, but like, respectively, our V, something like our Y but with a slight closing of the throat, and like our voiced TH. Indeed, the pronunciation as B, G, and D is a staple of Greek cartoonists wanting to represent the barbaric (varvariko) speech of foreigners. …

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