Friday, 27 June 2014

Hold on a minute, I'll look it up

I have at least two Greek phrasebooks and somewhere around the house I think there is a third and possibly even a fourth. They are the sort of thing you accumulate over time and jolly useful they are, too. Well, at least in theory.

Nothing can replace having in your head a working knowledge of a foreign language. Even if it's a bit sketchy, I genuinely believe you're better off stumbling along and learning as you go rather than constantly leafing through the pages of a phrasebook.

Yesterday, I successfully purchased a ballcock for our toilet cistern. Ballcock is not a word that appears in either of my phrasebooks nor in my Greek dictionary. Anyway, the transaction wasn't that difficult, I took the broken part with me and in my rough and ready Greek asked: "Have you got one of these, please."

But I still wouldn't be without my phrasebooks, if nothing else they provide plenty of entertainment as I try to work out the sort of situation where I would refer to the book rather than throw myself on the mercy of the Greek person I am trying to communicate with.

The two phrasebooks I have in front of me are a Berlitz, published in 1973, and a Lonely Planet, published in 2006. What a difference more than three decades makes.

The Berlitz book was published when Greece still had the Drachma - something which many Greeks wish was still the case - and besides the usual sections on checking in to hotels includes help on going to the hairdressers. Phrases include how to ask for a pageboy cut and also having ringlets put in your hair.

Having got your hair looking good, you might then want to go to a boxing match. I kid you not, the book even includes a phrase for finding a bout at lightweight. If all that activity leaves you feeling a little peaky, then maybe you need to see a doctor. The book admits it might not be much use in the case of serious injury or illness when you should just let the doctor take over, but the section includes how to explain more minor ailments. My favourite phrase here is one telling the doctor that you've been having nightmares.

In contrast, the Lonely Planet guide reflects the needs of a more modern readership, even including a phrase for explaining that the drugs you are carrying are for personal use. In fairness there is also a section on hairdressing, although no mention of ringlets.

My favourite section in the Lonely Planet phrasebook is the one on sex. While sex might be a universal language, I suppose there are still occasions when you need to make yourself perfectly clear with words. Having said that, I'm not sure that in the throes of passion you'd have either the time or the inclination to look up the phrase or word to say things like "touch me here" or "faster/harder/slower/softer". Maybe actions would speak louder than words.

All this talk of words and love has got me thinking of one of my favourite albums of the 1980s, The Lexicon of Love. Enjoy this video, it's a bit of its time, but the song's a cracker. In fact, the whole album is stonkingly good and I don't care if that makes me sound a bit dated.

Question: What is the most useful phrase you've learned in a foreign language? I make no bones about it, that the phrase which has stood me in good stead in Greek is "I'd like a beer, please". Purely by coincidence it was the first phrase I learned. 

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