The Mystery of the Incidental Ch

There are probably few things that can unite anglophones and hellenophones in Cyprus more than their annoyance at the ridiculous and seemingly arbitrary transliteration of words that we see all over the country. One particularly confusing rule is the use of Ch for the Greek letter Χ, which is meant to represent an “H” sound – not a “Ch” at all.

Because of this, English speakers, who may or may not already be struggling to learn Greek, end up sounding even more ignorant, when they ask directions to the archaeological site at Chee-rokoitia, or go to the deli counter for half a kilo of Chee-romeri. On the other hand, Greek Cypriots, who generally speak fantastic English, are left baffled by the unnecessary C, when the H alone would do the job. So where did this strange convention come from? And why not just change it?

The dairy company Χαραλαμπίδης Κρίστης: both initials, Χ and Κ, are transliterated as CH, despite sounding totally different.

The reason behind all this confusion actually begins in Ancient Greece (9 century BC to 6 century AD), because at that time Χ represented a very different noise to the “H” sound that we’re used to in Modern Greek. It made a <kʰ> sound – phonetically, this is called an aspirated velar stop but, for us non-linguists, it’s easiest to think of it as a kind of breathy “K”.

This noise, however, posed a problem for the Romans, who loved to translate Greek texts into Latin but didn’t quite have the right letter to convey the peculiar <kʰ> noise into their own alphabet. In response to this difficulty, they decided to create a brand new digraph to represent the sound in Latin: Ch.

Translation conveys the meaning of words into an other language (Καλό Χωριό = Good Village). Transliteration transcribes words between two alphabets (Καλό Χωριό = Kalo Chorio).

Now we need to fast-forward many centuries to find that two things have happened. First, while the sound of Χ changed radically with the advent of Modern Greek, the sound of Ch in Latin did not. And that sound and spelling was retained in many Latin words (with Greek roots) when they were borrowed into other languages. This is why in English, for example, ηχώ is echo, χάος is chaos, or why the statistical test χis pronounced “kai” instead of “hee”. All these words in English have retained that “K” sound.

The second thing that happened was that over time a kind of linguistic tradition was established, with everyone more or less taking it for granted that Χ should be transliterated as Ch, even when the rule eventually no longer made sense with the sound of modern words/names. Most English linguists would have been classically educated and aware of the convention, so carried on applying it to Modern Greek. (There was probably also an element of snobbery involved, because if you’re a pretentious academic you might think it’s more important to show off your fancy education than to accurately convey how the common folk speak.)

And even though there has recently been a shift towards using H in informal transliteration (particularly for transliterating unwritten dialects like Cypriot) all of the official Romaization guides used by Greece, the United States, the UK and the UN use Ch. So as ridiculously infuriating as it might be, there’s little hope of us seeing a widespread, standard change to the rule any time soon.

Pic of the Week

Common chameleon or Mediterranean chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon).

The species is indigenous to Mediterranean countries, such as Cyprus as well as areas of the Iberian Peninsula, Crete, northern Africa and the Middle East.

Shaken, not stirred

I got to experience my first (and second) earthquake this week! By experience I mostly mean “laid in bed sleepy and confused”, but it was still an interesting event to have felt.

The first earthquake one was at around 3:00 Thursday morning. I didn’t actually wake up for that one, even thought it was the stronger of the two at 4.2 magnitude, and only later remembered having strange dreams in which everything was moving. I woke up for the second (3.3) at around 5:00, cursing “at the garbage trucks” for waking me up. (Our last house in the UK was a renovated old workers’ cottage, which tended to shake if any large trucks ever drove by too fast, so…) In my early morning delirium I’d assumed it was their doing. It was only later on during breakfast that I was told there had been two earthquakes and that we had been really near the epicenter, which was 13 km west of Larnaca.

Afterwards, I did a bit of research and it turns out that earthquakes in Cyprus (at least ones you can feel without equipment) are relatively infrequent and mild, but new building here are built to withstand seismic movement, and there have been sever earthquakes in the past. For example, in 1222 when Cyprus was under Lusignan rule, a major earthquake was felt throughout most of the island (and as far as Alexandria, Egypt), which caused a tsunami that flooded Paphos and Limassol.

Thankfully, such sever events are rare and I’m glad that the two on Thursday were small. There were no reported injuries and, as far as I know, the only significant damage was to a 100+ year-old bell tower in Psevdas.  It was a cool experience – like airplane turbulence but on the ground – and definitely one that I’m glad to have checked off my bucket list, rather than having it precipitate the bucket’s kicking.


Pic of the Week

IMG_0525 - Edited
On the highway to Limassol.

Nothing to see here – just a goat on the back of a pick-up on a major highway.

I am tempted to say “only in Cyprus” but this is the kind of thing you might see in parts of Miami too, so no judgement.

Happy Orthodox Easter

It’s (finally) Orthodox Easter!

Χριστός ανέστη! Αληθώς ανέστη!
(Christ has risen! Indeed He is risen! – the traditional Paschal greeting and response of Eastern Christians and what everyone has been saying to each other since last night.)

We spent all of yesterday evening listening to the church bells ringing and to the kids in town setting off fireworks, while they guarded the village bonfire. One of them stopped by the house and explained that they have to guard it, otherwise the boys from the neighbouring town will come and steal the firewood for their own bonfire. And, when our village’s rep is at stake, they can’t possibly take any chances.

He even begrudgingly acknowledged that the bonfire we’d made at home was pretty good… and it was. We lit it at around 11:00pm. We didn’t have an effigy of Judas to burn – a common tradition, though I find it terribly anachronistic since he was supposed to have hung himself – but our bonfire was huge and, at its peak, the flames were taller than the house. Afterwards, we gorged ourselves on tasty meat that we cooked with the embers from the fire.


Having lived in the USA, where Christmas is by far the bigger holiday, and in the UK, where Easter is mostly seen as an excuse to eat too much chocolate, it has been refreshing to see how seriously the Cypriots take Easter. They don’t play around: lots of people fast, churches are packed and decorations are everywhere up and down the streets. And, in fact, one of the things I most enjoyed this year in the run-up to Orthodox Easter was the crazy street decorations.

The street decorations seem to fall into different categories. The first is the egg category. These are just huge Easter eggs, of varying colors but usually red, that read “Good Easter”. They are festive, cute, and the most tasteful of the decorations:


But then there is the category of decorations which I call the scary “chickens”. The quotations are necessary because if you didn’t know any better they might be mistaken for rabid ostriches.

Here is a charming Easter emu.
And a rhea playing peek-a-boo out of an Easter egg.
Beware venturing into the village square, for fear of an angry ostrich army attacking.

Then there are the ones that look more like miserable wookiees. These are usually emerging from eggs, newly born but full of ennui:

“I hate everything and look a bit like Marlon Brando. By the way, Happy Easter.”
Is that blood dripping down the side of its mouth?

There is also the ex-Christmas display category of decorations. While still nice and in the spirit of things, it is clear that the κοινοτικό συμβούλιο (community council) felt the need to buy some gently used Christmas decorations – and who can blame them in this economy!?

That is definitely a sprig of holly.
Jingle bells, jingle bells…
Don’t let the tasteful egg fool you, if you look carefully, there are wreaths hanging off the back of the candles.

Despite my slight culture shock at the sometimes questionable decorations, it has been really nice celebrating two Easters this year. It has certainly made me appreciate both traditions, and it’s been interesting to see the similarities and the differences in the celebrations.

But next year, Easter will once again fall on the same day for everyone (April 16, 2017), so I’m really looking forward to creating one meaningful, fun and unified Easter celebration for my family by taking bits and pieces of all our different traditions.

Χρόνια Πολλά! Many years to everyone!

“The Cypriot Fiddler” film screening

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to the screening of The Cypriot Fiddler, a new documentary by Nicoletta Demetriou, which showcases the important cultural role that fiddlers (fkiolarides/kemaneciler) in Cyprus, both Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots, played during the mid-twentieth century.

The screening took place in the middle of the UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia, at the Home for Cooperation, which aims to foster inter-communal communication. Aside from being a beautiful, laid-back venue (which I would recommend to anyone, simply for the coffee, food and amazing array of events it hosts), it also allowed for people from all over Cyprus to easily attend.

At the Home for Cooperation in the Buffer Zone, Nicosia.

The evening started off with Dr Demetriou, who is a research fellow in Ethnomusicology and Life Writing at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, saying a few words about the origins and goals of the project. She explained that despite the fact that a lot of their music had already been recorded, personal and professional stories detailing the role of fiddlers in Cypriot society had not. Through the film (and the book that will follow), she wanted to gather those stories, and capture a part of Cyprus’s recent past.

Dr Nicoletta Demetriou surrounded by fiddlers from the film, and Michalis Terlikkas (far right).

Through one-to-one interviews, the documentary covered various aspects of the fiddlers’ craft, including their training, as well as how and why they chose to enter the profession. It discussed the vital part that they played at social gatherings – particularly weddings, which they tellingly called “making a wedding”, rather than “attending”. They were also asked about the perks and disadvantages of being a fiddler in Cyprus at that time, including their going rates and the expectations on their repertoires.

One of the most interesting parts of the film for me was when it touched on the women that worked and lived beside those men. It addressed the gender imbalance in the profession, acknowledging the few female fiddlers that did preform during that time. I also enjoyed the brief interviews with the fiddlers’ wives, which offered an unique perspective into how their households, family and work was affected by their husbands’ profession.

Screening after-party.

The film was simply but charmingly shot, delivering as much banter and jokes as anthropology, and it was obviously full of amazing folk music. But the most enduring sentiment for me was that of unity. The descriptions of fiddlers working in mixed villages for example, or the use of the Cypriot dialect by both Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots. And some of that past unity was certainly reflected in the screening’s after-party, with musicians and audience members from both sides of Cyprus sitting down to eat, drink, play and dance into the night in the middle of the Buffer Zone.