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?
‘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.
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.