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The American Author Who Fell in Love With the Greek Language

Greek language Mary Norris
Credit: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia/Illustration: Greek Reporter

Mary Norris is an American author who learned the Greek language during her twenty-four-year career at the famous New Yorker Magazine.

In 2019, she published her book Greek to Me—Adventures of the Comma Queen in which she narrates the extraordinary adventures she undertook when she decided to learn the Greek language.

Norris had had no real knowledge about the Greek language whatsoever before joining the staff of The New Yorker in the late 1970s.

Her father, she explains, was a pragmatic man and did not want her studying “dead languages,” such as Latin or Ancient Greek.

It was in 1982 when Ed Stringham, her boss at the magazine, shocked her by reading Greek toponyms, or place names, written in the Greek alphabet.

Norris could not believe that anybody could possibly learn a foreign language which did not utilize the Latin alphabet.

Her boss’ ability to read and translate from Greek amazed her to the extent that she felt she had no recourse but to learn the Greek language herself.

Norris managed to persuade her company to pay for the tuition fees to New York University’s School of Continuing Education for classes in Modern Greek.

Mary Norris: Greek language was not just another language

It was then, in the mid-1980s, that her life changed forever as she entered the fascinating world of one of the most difficult, yet beautiful, rich, and intricate languages in the entire world.

Norris soon realized that Greek was not, as she had previously thought, “just another language.” It was a language whose contribution to the West was so profound that without it our world would truly be completely different.

Biblical references, ancient myths, gods, and epic tales of heroes are not just a part of ancient literature. They, and the concepts they convey, are still alive not only in Greece but everywhere in the English-speaking world.

The problem is that most of us don’t realize or appreciate this fact.

Norris’ experience perfectly portrays the astonishment of an English-speaking author when he or she realizes how the Greeks, mainly through the Latins, managed to shape today’s lingua franca, the English language.

Thousands of words, prefixes and suffixes, proper names, toponyms, and entire philosophical concepts were invented, shaped, and then transferred by the Greeks to the rest of the world.

Norris makes this clear and self-evident but yet largely unappreciated connection between our everyday lives and the world of antiquity in her book.

As the book’s prologue says, “…from convincing her bosses to pay for Greek studies to traveling The Sacred Way in search of Persephone, ‘Greek to Me’ is an unforgettable account of both Norris’ lifelong love affair with words and her solo adventures in the land of olive trees and ouzo.”

Along the way, the American author explains how the Western alphabet originated in Greece, makes the case for Athena as a feminist icon, and reveals the surprising ways Greek helped form the English language into what it is today.


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