09 August 2003

Learning Greek

Although my father’s first language is Greek, I myself did not grow up speaking it. I might have done so if my mother had been the one who knew Greek. (There is good reason why one’s first language is called a mother tongue and not a father tongue.) From my earliest days I grew up hearing my father speak Greek – but not to us children. This is something I would come to regret.

One day, when I was 15, some "round-about" relatives came to visit us. They were Greek-Americans and, although they were not actually our own blood relations, they were relatives of relatives. The grandmother was from the old country and she spoke not a word of English. After they left, I determined to learn Greek. Not the koine Greek that pastors and New Testament scholars learn to read, nor the classical or Homeric Greek of much earlier times. This was the modern spoken Greek that would allow me to communicate with unilingual relatives, including eventually, I hoped, my own grandparents whom I had never met.

I started my studies with a book called Greek Made Easy, published by D. C. Divry in New York. It was a hard-bound, orange coloured volume, thin enough for me to carry around and read in between high school classes. I was taking French class at the same time, but I don’t recall ever confusing the two languages. I practised constantly and I tried valiantly to perfect my accent. I never acquired the fluency necessary to converse with any but small children, although the basics and a reasonably large vocabulary of first-tier words are still in my head, even after more than three decades.

The problem with Greek Made Easy is that it taught the katharevousa language, a "purified" form of Greek invented in the mid-19th century by nationalists striving to ape the attic Greek of old. Needless to say, it never caught on. Its use was intended for government administration, education and the press, and it was hoped that it would become the standard literary language as well. But by the 20th century it could be found only in the most formal documents, being somewhat less accessible to flesh-and-blood Greek-speakers than the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible is to contemporary speakers of English. When I would practise speaking to my relatives they told me I sounded like a legal brief.

The genuine standard spoken Greek is the demotic, or popular, language, which is a greatly simplified and less inflected version of the older dialects. (For example, the dative case has dropped entirely out of use, except in a few colloquial expressions.) The contest between katharevousa and demotic was a long one, preoccupying the energies of generations, both in Greece itself and elsewhere within the Greek-speaking world. The military junta that ruled in Athens between 1967 and 1974 favoured the katharevousa. After the colonels fell from power, the civilian government bowed to the inevitable, abandoning the purified tongue and adopting the demotic instead. The old diacritical marks were abandoned, to be replaced by a single stress accent for multi-syllabic words. This can be seen on websites in modern Greek.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Greek Orthodox Church held onto the katharevousa much longer than other institutions. Until quite recently they stood fast for the koine New Testament, reluctant to allow for more modern translations. When a demotic version of the New Testament was published nearly a century ago, there were riots in the streets. In 1989 the United Bible Societies produced a New Testament in contemporary language, a copy of which I have in my personal library. This version at last has the sanction of ecclesiastical authorities. The first pages of the volume consist of letters of approval from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Tellingly, however, only the letter of the Patriarch of Alexandria (who is also rumoured to favour the ordination of women as priests) is in the demotic language; the others are rendered in katharevousa.

With the small amount of Greek that I have, I’ve been attempting to give Theresa at least a basic foundation in the Greek language. She now knows her colours and she can count up to forty, much to the delight of my father, his sister and her husband. If anyone knows of a good video series teaching Greek to young children, please let me know. Failing that, perhaps we’ll follow the example of the family in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and send her to Greek school!

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