Cretan Language Achieves Final Recognition

Andrew Leech (

After 25 years of lobbying by a dedicated group of Cretan linguists, the EU parliament has finally taken the step of formal recognition for what is believed to be Europe’s oldest living language – Cretan.

Previously considered to be nothing more than a dialect of Greek, Cretan (known in Greece as Kritika) has been acknowledged as a living language, in its own right, with roots stretching further into antiquity than even Ancient Greek.

The driving force behind the recognition is Panagiotis Terpandrou Zachariou, a gifted linguist from Chania, who has been crusading for Cretan status since the 1970s.

“Cretan,” he told us, “is the direct link between Ancient Greek and Indo-European with more than a 5000 year old history and, whereas Ancient Greek is considered by many to be a dead language and Modern Greek has been gravely diluted and altered by other languages (notably English, French and Italian) Cretan is very vibrantly alive. Today’s villager would have no trouble in conversing with an ancestor at the time of Knossos, though the written script would have been different (Cretan Linear A and B were graphically different from the Phoenician letters that were incorporated into the Ancient Greek alphabet of 3000 years ago).

Previous attempts at recognition had always been strenuously and sometimes forcefully opposed by Greek governments over the last 3 decades as it was feared it might lead to demands for a separatist state. But “this is ridiculous,” said Panagiotis. “Cretan life is fully in tandem with that of Greece, per se. There is no wish to return to the previous independent status enjoyed till the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, there would be no palpable gain in such a move - and Cretans dislike investments with poor returns,” he joked. “What Athens is really afraid of is that the vaunted position of Ancient Greek might take a tumble if Kritika fell too closely under the linguistic microscope and was shown to be not only the great-grandfather, but a still very much alive and kicking one who could teach his descendants a thing or two in terms of linguistic purity.”

“Athens is just afraid to acknowledge the debt it owes Crete and the fact that its language has developed and kept in step with any progress surrounding it, though continually building on its original roots and strongly rejecting the influence of conquering languages. “We had the Crusaders, the Venetians and the Turks, over the years, he added, “but they have left no linguistic imprint on our language. Today, we have the US influence via all forms of media, not to mention their presence in Souda Bay. But when they return home – and US English retreats from its present heights – they, too, will leave no Cretan legacy. Kritika is possibly one of the world’s most endurable and resilient languages, with an incredible glossological elasticity.”

“Unlike English, for example” he explained, “the conscientious speaker of Cretan truly understands subtle meanings within speech – many more even than Greek speakers achieve, today, where Demotic Greek’s indiscriminate absorption of foreign diction strips words of their semantic memory and dilutes meanings into platitudes. The Cretan thus functions at a higher realm of thought. For example, the concept of harmoscopesis –the ancient Cretan way of assessing the world with the objective of harmony and well-being – is as valid today as it was at the time of Knossos.”

Mr Zachariou’s forthcoming book on Harmoscopesis and how Cretan affected Ancient Greek - and from there on the entire world - will be launched in Athens on 20th April at an International Symposium at the Titania Hotel. It is strongly supported by the Prefect of Crete, George Katsanevakis, Professors of Philosophy, Konstantinos Voudouris and Konstantine Knithakis, the famed linguist, Prof George Babiniotis (whose dictionary adorns most literate Greeks’ bookshelves) and Irvine University of California who place Cretan as the richest language on the globe.

(Posted April 2005. Previously published in ELT News January 2005.)

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