Dancing in Decay

The Vale of Soul-Making

Among second language-learners everyone has a story of their first really known word: of that breakthrough moment when you aren’t translating in your head but are actually reading, instantaneously understanding the word. Such joy that recognition brings, such freedom.

When I began studying Modern Greek, my eyes struggled to adjust themselves to the new alphabet, painstakingly figuring out words, letter by letter. On the first night of class, our Cypriot professor, Soterios, wrote the word ψυχή on the board. Its appearance was wholly alien; pronouncing it was an adventure, as you had to begin with the “ps” sound of the ψ, your lips pushing outward as if you were a balloon releasing air, and then follow it immediately with the back-of-the-throat χ, a guttural “hee” sound. So much work, the out and in of it; what was this mysterious word? In a deft pedagogical move, Soterios revealed its familiarity…

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