Corrupting Two Languages at Once

Do you fit into the category of hyphenated Americans who (1) learned the foreign words for everyday objects before you learned the English words for them? (2) noticed that an entire collection of English words managed to creep into the foreign language your parents spoke?

As Greek-American children, we heard our parents use words for things that we accepted at face value, as all children do. An ashtray was a ‘tah-SAH-kee’ – a dustpan was a ‘fah-RAH-see’– and a little trash was ‘skoo-PEE-thee.’ It sounded something like this:

“Will you go get the broom and the fah-RAH-see to clean up the skoo-PEE-thee from the tah-SAH-kee that fell on the floor?”

These and words like them were included in everyday speech surrounded by English words, so as children, our interpretation was seamless. To an outsider, however, they must have wondered from what planet we had been deposited on earth.

Items of clothing had their own names as well. Were you ordered to put on your pah-POO-chah’(shoes, although the origin of that word is said to be Turkish) and KAHL-tsehs’ (socks), bring your fah-NEH-lah’ (sweater) if it got cold and then be sent on your way?.

It’s no wonder we mixed up the words like ‘kah-PEH-loh’ (hat) and ‘koh-PELL-ah’ (girl) red-faced after saying, “Meen kah-THEE-sees ah-PAH-noh teen kopella (in an attempt to say, “Don’t sit on top of the hat” but coming out, “Don’t sit on top of the girl.”)

Just as amusing were ‘Greek-ified’ American words stuck in the middle of sentences. This was a habit that was originated by Greek immigrants in an attempt to assimilate into American culture even though they never quite mastered English. A cake became a ‘KEH-kee’, a car was a ‘KAH-roh’, a baking dish was a ‘kaht-sah-ROLL-ah” (origin was Italian, though), a steak was a ‘steki’and a carpet was a “car-PEH-toh.

Why mention all this? Because perhaps the time has come to offer a singular apology to all Greeks in the ‘old country.’ To this very day, many of us don’t know the true Greek words for all these American corruptions of your language. Purists from past generations who once spoke‘kah-thah-REH-voo-sah’ (cleaned up) Greek would be turning over in their graves to hear how people outside their homeland use the Greek language.

Still, a classic in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding came when the Greek immigrant mother had a tough time understanding what a ‘Bundt cake’ was. One of her guests took one look at it and remarked, “EE-neh KEH-kee, moh-REE” (it’s a cake, you idiot).