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Greek geek

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 23, 2018 Published on March 23, 2018

Two years ago, in a fit of self-improvement, I download the language-learning app called Duolingo. Its symbol is a smiling, green-feathered cartoon owl. Opening the app reveals a number of national flags. Immediately after downloading the app and checking out the national flags, I lose interest and exit.

Until last week and I’m at loose ends. After all, I’m here in Elsewhere on my own. Bins is still in New Delhi, trying to overcome his inertia just long enough to get here. Rocky, our wild raccoon buddy, is still hibernating. Last week’s blizzards are over. I’ve met all my deadlines, I’ve gone grocery shopping with Muriel and binge-watched Seven Seconds on Netflix. So! There’s no real choice: I click on the flag with a white cross and white lines against dark blue, and decide that it’s time to learn some Greek.

Why Greek? Because, along with Latin, it’s one of the two root-languages of English. At one of the schools I attended as a child, we learnt Latin for a couple of months. It left an indelible impression on me. I can still parrot the declensions for “mensa” and “puella” — meaning “table” and “girl” respectively — in my sleep. Alas, that school changed its curriculum before we arrived at the second declension so I never advanced beyond such thrilling bits of conversation as: “O Table! The girl loves thee.”

Duolingo’s language learning course is designed to be playful. The lessons are like mini-puzzles and the student learns by solving each puzzle as she goes along. Greek has its own alphabet so the entire first and second sections are about learning how to read it. Now then. In college, my subject was economics major with statistics as my subsidiary. Weird, huh? I thought so too at the time. Especially since I have always been utterly hopeless at maths. Given this background, it will come as no surprise to hear that, unlike the Latin I Iearnt when I was 11, I remember nothing at all of my two-year BA course. Except the names of the Greek symbols that cropped up in statistics, such as sigma, lamda, theta and chi.

Meeting up with my squiggly old friends is all very good. I sail through these early sections. Then I arrive at verbs and sentence structure. Things grow murky very fast. My mind is wired for learning grammar. But Duolingo is meant for those who think “gerund” is an English boy’s name and “prepositions” are a sexual dysfunction. Instead of explanations, there are pretty pictures, audio prompts and lots of exercises.

I make lists of masculine and feminine nouns, thinking that, as in French or Spanish, there are only two genders. I keep making mistakes in my puzzles however. This causes the Duolingo Owl to shed a tear while informing me that I must repeat the last six subsections before I can proceed. Frustrating!! I struggle on for several more sections, growing steadily more confused. I desperately want to give up but the Owl looks so miserable that I can’t.

So I do the only sensible thing: I buy a Teach Yourself book and plunge right in. There we have it: there’s a NEUTER GENDER!!! Wah! And unlike the English neuter, in Greek it’s sprinkled in amongst the masculine and feminine. Animate beings conjugate happily alongside inanimate objects in a friendly but confusing gender zoo. English appears to be one of the few languages in which gender refers specifically to sex. In most other languages, it’s a sort of flavour rather than a function of biology.

“Just another puzzle,” hoots the little green Owl, as I click back into my lessons. “Yasou!” I say to him, in fluent Greek.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on March 23, 2018
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