Speak and Spell



A road sign in Greek and English.

A few years ago I spent some months in Spain, maybe as a subconcious precursor to my exodus from Northern Europe. I enrolled in a language school, in an attempt to get a full immersion in la vida Espanol. We were encouraged to speak Spanish at all times, so I just assumed that Nico, my mentor and unofficial cultural ambassador, was a local.

But soon after arriving, to my surprise, I found that Nico was not in fact the descendant of a matador from Toledo, he was an engineering student from Bavaria. I quizzed the German on how he managed to pass himself off so successfully. “Language is culture” he replied in a similarly convincing English accent. “You can’t just study the language, you have to live it. ”

A cliche maybe, but one spoken with conviction and authority. So often we approach language learning with a formulaic, rote learning approach. I hated French at school, maybe it was our French intern (I kid you not, he really did have armpit hygiene issues), maybe it was latent Anglo-Franco resentment, but all I have are dread memories of lists of verbs on the blackboard, no different to the times-tables that were drilled into our young heads in maths lessons.

As an older foreign language student, I now realise that languages are not equations, or logical theorems. Attempting to codify a language 100% is more often than not a futile endeavour, as there are always plenty of willing participants to thwart, twist and break the rules for their own convenience or nefarious purposes.

Take my home town London for example. A fair proportion of the the wide eyed foreigners who come to visit, or even work in the  Big Smoke will have spent time and money on English lessons. But nobody warns these visitors that their efforts may be in vain if they have any intention of communicating with the young people of the city.

I’m talking about the typical brand of discourse you might come across on the upper deck of a London bus: “.…yes blud…you get me…the mandems from road… nuff tings gwan….some sick shit, innit?” This is an example of Multicultural London English, as it’s known these days in academic circles. It’s a fusion of Cockney and Caribbean dialects that has infiltrated every strata of youth, from the ghetto to the public school. It turns posh boys into Ali G and causes establishment figures to foam at the mouth.

Modern Greek has it’s own challenges too. The more I delve the more I realise there are many areas where the rules are far from hard and fast. Dual spellings, flexible pronunciations, interchangeable consonants – these are all features of 21st century spoken and written Greek. Take for example the numbers seven, ( επτά or εφτά), eight, (οκτώ or οχτώ) and nine, (εννεά or εννιά), the word for brother (αδελφός or αδερφός) and the word for open (ανοιχτό or ανοικτό). The textbooks do not always agree on such elements.

Some of these linguistic pecadilloes are due to a phenomenon known as diaglossia, when two distinct forms of a language co-exist at the same time. Often this turns out to be a ‘high,’ prestigious variety and a ‘low’ colloquial form. Diaglossia happens all round the world, from Germany to Jamaica, and Greece is no exception.

The language wars

Up until the late 20th century, the official written language of the Greek state bore little resemblance to the spoken language of it’s citizens. According to the Oxford scholar, Peter Mackridge, before 1830 the language was in a state of complete chaos, or freedom – depending on how you perceive the situation. There were the ‘archaists’ who wrote in the Ancient Greek dialects, and there were the ‘vernacularists’ who used a form resembling the spoken language at the time. To further complicate matters, there were multiple regional dialects in use at the same time.

An overview of the many forms of Greek, From: Standard languages: spoken and written. W. Haas. Manchester University Press, 1982

The spoken vernacular , these days referred to as Demotic Greek, or demotiki (δημοτική),  evolved over millenia, absorbing  influences along the way from many occupying powers including Romans, Turkish and Venetians. But early in the 19th century, the new independent Greek state faced a dilemma. It had to choose a language in which to draft a new constitution and leglislation.

Faced with a choice between the classical ancient Greek of Plato, and the ‘language of the people’ Demotiki, the establishment chose to adopt a midway solution,  a ‘purified’ form of ancient Greek known as katharevousa (καθαρεύουσα). This purification process involved:

” (a) rejecting the hundreds of everyday words that the Greeks had borrowed over the centuries from the Romans, the Turks and various western European peoples, and replacing them with words that were either ancient Greek or at least based on ancient Greek roots, (b) inventing new words to express modern concepts that had hitherto been unknown to the Greeks (again these words were to be formed out of ancient Greek roots), and (c) restoring the ancient Greek declensions and conjugations of nouns and verbs.”Source

But rather than act as a unifying force, katharevousa drove a wedge between the population. Over time it became increasingly arcane, a seemingly arbitrary mix of the ancient and new. Strong political and ideological beliefs sprang up on both sides of the language debate. The ‘purists’  branded their opponents plebs and vulgarians, whilst the ‘demotics’ accused their enemies of being elitists and “ancient-maniacs“. This war of words eventually claimed lives, when in 1901, the translation of the New Testament into Demotiki led to riots in Athens and the deaths of eight people.

A resolution was only reached late in the 20th century, when in 1976, two years after the military dictatorship had ended, a codified version of demotiki was finally recognised as the official language of government and education.

You can still witness the legacy of the Greek diaglossia today. Some shop signs and some official documents still use the old ‘purist version’. For example, the modern Greek word for bakery is φούρνος (fournos) but the sign outside often says ΑΡΤΟΠΩΛΕΙΟΝ, bread-seller in the old katharevousa.

The concept of a Modern Greek language is a bit misleading. The current vernacular seems to be merely a point on a continuum that stretches back to the oral traditions of Homer. There may be some inconsistencies in the way the language is expressed by everyday people, but in practise nobody seems bothered about this. Arguably it helps to define national identity by preserving some of the rich history.

So whilst I’m not ready to throw away the textbooks yet, I’ve realised that the only way to truly learn the language is to forget my pedantry and just wallow in the thick of it. Observing how people speak and interact, noticing the subtleties, the contradictions and absorbing every part of the fascinating culture. I think I’m hooked…..