by Anastasia Valti-Spanopoulou
When Shakespeare famously wrote ‘It all sounds Greek to me’, he pretty much summed up how the Greek language has sounded to foreign ears since always. Unintelligible as it may seem to you, Greek is notoriously rich in expressions and meanings, so that’s one reason you want to tackle with it; but more importantly, if you’re planning a visit to Greece, learning some basic Greek can be just the thing to make your travel experience a whole less complicated. But if you thought this means sweating over that dry English-Greek dictionary, think again, because we’re here to introduce you to the Greek words and phrases you actually need to know, be it because of useful, or just plain awesome they are.
#1 Yia Sou
Possibly the most essential Greek phrase, and one of the most common Greek greetings, ‘yia sou’ [jaː su] is an informal way of saying ‘hello’. What your Greek phrasebook probably won’t tell you though, is that ‘yia’ is a shortening for ‘iyia’ [ijiːa], which means ‘health’ in Greek - i.e. you greet people by literally wishing them good health (isn't that the sweetest?). The slightly more polite version is ‘yia sas’ [jaː sas], which you probably want to use with strangers, older people, etc.
#2 Yia Mas
As you can probably guess, ‘yia mas’ [jaː mas] is also a wish for good health, but this time our own. Unlike ‘yia sou’, ‘yia mas’ isn’t a greeting, but the standard toast we Greeks make before sipping down that glass of alcohol in our hand. So if you’re planning on exploring the world-famous Athens nightlife, this is a phrase you’ll most likely hear a lot. If someone raises a glass to you saying ‘yia mas’, return the toast simply by repeating it yourself. Pretty easy, right?
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‘Kalimera’ [kalimeːra] is another super basic/useful/beautiful word, literally translating into ‘good day’. Technically, you’re supposed to use it until 12:00, after which it’s preferable to say ‘kalispera’ [kalispeːra] - i.e. ‘good afternoon’. Both words are pretty easy to pronounce, so if you want to impress your Athens tour guide or the Greek restaurant owner you just met, casually throwing a ‘kalimera’ or ‘kalispera’ in the conversation will probably get you a warm pat on the back (or, in the latter case, even a drink or small dish on the house).
Speaking of basic Greek, ‘malaka’ is technically the Greek equivalent for the J word, or the A word - you get the point - which is why most tourists, hearing Greeks use this word literally all.the.time., think they're perpetually quarrelling. However, ‘malaka’ is equally often used as ‘dude’ or ‘mate’, while sometimes it is simply uttered a general exclamation of surprise or amazement at what you just heard. For the time being we don’t advise you to use this word yourself lest you get the context wrong but, still, it can come in very handy knowing what ‘malaka’ means, especially if you're around youths.
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As you've probably figured by now, we love those Greek words with multiple meanings, and 'ela' [e:la] is one of them too. Its basic meaning is 'come' or 'come on', but Greeks also use it 99% of the time to informally answer the phone when they know whose calling. Obviously they don't expect the caller to come over, so why they came to use 'ela' as a way of acknowledging who they're talking to will remain yet another mystery of the fascinating Greek culture.
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We're sure you've heard about how remarkably hospitable people Greeks are. But did you know that this hospitality traces all the way back to ancient Greece? That's right, the Greeks' ancestors used to think Zeus sent strangers their way, and that they had a moral obligation to offer everything they can to foreigners, who were considered sacred persons. Okay, perhaps your hotel owner or stranger you ask direction from on the street will not think of you as exactly sacred today, but definitely they'll be really really friendly to you and treat you as a 'guest' of their country. Besides, the word they use to describe their hospitality is the same one Greeks used in antiquity: 'filoxenia' [filokseniːa], literally meaning the state of being a friend to strangers.
For all the forms of filoxenia you will receive during your stay in Greece, you'll probably want to say 'efharisto' [efχaristoː] to a few of people. Quite simply, this is Greek for ‘thank you’. Even if you can’t speak Greek for the world, mastering this one little word will make the local people you talk to during your Greek holiday infinitely happy and pleased.
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In case you were wondering, the natural reply to ‘efharisto’ is ‘parakalo’ [parakaloː] - the Greek word for ‘you’re welcome’. However, as we already established, the Greek language often attaches multiple meanings to just one word we really like using, and so ‘parakalo’ can also mean ‘please’, or be used as a way of saying ‘how can I help you’. For example, let’s say you’ve taken a seat at one of the many wonderful places to eat in Athens and the waiter approaches you: he might say ‘parakalo’, as a way of asking you what you would like; after you’ve had your delicious meal and pay the bill, he will obviously say ‘efharisto’, to which you may also reply with a ‘parakalo’ So, there you go! Three little words and you’re already speaking Greek.
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One of the many words that can tell you something about the Greek culture, ‘peratzatha’ [peratzaːða] refers to the idle but extremely relaxing activity of people-watching. Many Greeks consider this to be one of the most fun things to do in life, so if you’ve been to Greece before, you’ve probably noticed that many Athens bars and cafes have tables set outside. This is of course to take advantage of the amazing weather Greece is so proud of, but also because there’s something oddly hypnotic about watching people go by as you enjoy your coffee or drink. So if an authentic travel experience of Greece is what you’re after, we didn’t just teach you a really cool Greek word, but also a very Greek alternative to the local activities most local city tours entail.
'must' reading for fun things to do in greece:
Closely related to peratzatha, ‘aragma’ [aːraɣma] is a slang word also relating to the small joys of life, and specifically refers to the all-time favourite activity of ‘chilling’. For Greeks ‘aragma’ obviously takes place in houses with friends, but also in coffee places (if you’ve been to Greece before, we’re sure you’ve noticed how many hours and hours on end their version of ‘going for coffee’ takes). In the summer, the home of aragma naturally becomes the beach, which is why it meant so much for us putting together that guide to the best Athens beaches you read about recently. By the way, the verb form of aragma is ‘arazo’ - just in case someone calls you up while you’re there and asks what you’re up to.
Once you’ve taken a couple of sightseeing tours and explored the local attractions of the country, you’ll surely be left with the impression that Greeks put plenty of meraki [meraːki] in most things they do. This is one of the most wonderful untranslatable words in Greek, and it refers to the love and enjoyment one has for what they do and, by extension, to the great result their work produces. We ourselves have plenty of meraki for writing this blog so checking out, let’s say, our Athens day trips guide or our post on romantic Athens will probably give you a good sense of what we mean by this unique expression.
Since we started on words representative of what Greek culture is very much about, ‘kefi’ [ceːfi] is a word that explains the loud singing, the drinking, and the dancing in circles, on tables, on streets, or anywhere else possible, which most tourists associate Greek entertainment with. Loosely speaking, ‘kefi’ is something like ‘joviality’ or ‘conviviality’ in English, only many Greek tend to speak of ‘kefi’ as if it’s an exclusively Greek characteristic because, of course, nobody knows how to party like the Greek do, and so kefi has come to imply this supposedly unique Greek capacity for having perfect fun.
World-famous brand strategist Peter Economides has gone into the full depth of all the meanings relating to this word in his inspirational talks in Greece (linked to 'meraki' and 'kefi' and ironically to 'aragma'), but for brevity's sake we're only gonna sum up the basics. Now pay attention: 'ginete' [jiːnete] is an impersonal verb, that basically means that something is becoming, in a very broad sense. For example, if you have food cooking in the oven, you can say it 'is becoming' in the oven. In other contexts, 'ginete' means 'it is possible', so if you want to ask, lets say, your concierge about a special arrangement in you room, you can just add at the end of your request 'ginete?'. Perhaps the most useful form of this verb for you is in the phrase 'ti ginete?' [ti jiːnete], which loosely translates into 'how's it going' and is a great way to greet people you're on informal terms with.
Many languages use a word meaning 'kisses' as a form of leave-taking convention, and 'filia' [filiaː] is exactly that in Greek. Contrary to what you may assume, it generally does not imply intimacy, even though you would obviously only say 'filia' to someone you know pretty well, be it at parting or before hanging up the phone. The 'cuter' version is 'filakia' (literally 'little kisses') which you'll more often than not here younger women saying. Pretty straight forward, but caution! Make sure you don't mix up the Greek word for 'kisses' with that for 'friendship' [filiːa]. That wouldn't make any sense as a parting expression. At all.
And just like that, you’re ready to go! These common Greek phrases and words are sure to help you make a good impression when meeting Greeks everywhere, but hopefully also gave you a good taste of what the wonderful Greek culture is about, even before you set out to experience it yourself first hand. Safe travels!
Oh, and 'filia'! 'Yia sas'!
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