The Language Barrier

Version 1.0 of 28/3/2007-9:00 a.m.

mister potato-head
Original Image Source: Wikipedia

The national exams here in Greece are a big thing. Contrary to the States, where you can enroll in any University after taking the GRE or SAT exams, nationwide exams here are given once every year, and the resultant high graders, challenge various positions in the Universities.

One declares a set of preferred departments, and after the results are out, depending on the candidate's scores, those University positions are filled out hierarchically.

The most complex process, is the elaborate transfer of the exam subject questions, from the Ministry of Education, to the local school districts, where the exams take place. There is this elaborate system of electronic transfer, through the radio, from a dedicated transmitter, located in the guts of the Ministry, so the chance of somebody getting hold of the exam subject questions before hand is quite slim.

When I took part in the exams, in 1982, the most interesting part was the essay writing. And that because as soon as the essay title came through the radio, the students were asking all sorts of questions.

The title was: "What is your opinion on fair competition and how can it be used to improve the various sectors of society where it applies?" Though there were many questions, the exam went as expected, only to reveal a huge failure rate after one month, with an interesting aftereffect: 87% of the students had written about potatoes and apples, instead of analyzing competition.

When examined more carefully, a small discrepancy that had to do with the spelling of the word came up. The Greek word for "fair competition" is "άμιλλα". But if you change iota to upsilon and cut the one L, you get "άμυλα" which is the word for "starches". Naturally, apples and potatoes are the primary source of starches, so the students eagerly analyzed the effects of using "apples and potatoes" (or whatever other sources of starch they could think of) to better our society.

There was a huge legal battle afterwards, and the exam was effectively cancelled, after one bilingual student who had lived in Germany complained that the word was totally unknown to him. That student who initiated the subsequent legal fight between the dissatisfied candidates and the ministry, was a coed of mine when I went to the States in 1983 in Findlay College, Ohio.

It was very unfortunate for him, once we found out about who he was, because some of the students who were travelling to the States with him, were doing so because they had their exams annulled because of the discrepancy, even though they wrote about competition, since the essay part of the exam was effectively announced void.

As soon as some of the students found out, they would invite him repeatedly out to Domino's in Findlay, along with the gang, and have him order the pizzas. It was particularly interesting when there was a cute local cashier girl in the store.

"I would like a sixteen inch Pepperoni and a "cock".".
"Pardon me?"
"...a sixteen inch Pepperoni and ...a "cock"..(?)
"You mean, a "coke"?
"Yes, please..."

At that point we would be barfing whatever we had drank already, and we could hardly eat afterwards.

We subsequently took heart on "Mr. Potato" and stopped harassing him. There was later a popular toy in the States, "Mr. Potato-head". The toy just came to Greece, and I just remembered him. I couldn't have forgotten the person, because of whom the exams of 120,000 students were annulled.