Demotic vs Katharevousa

As a result of a revived interest in Modem Greek, the relationship between the language and national identity acquires new meaning

By Mark Dragoumis

It's all demotic Greek to us

Ever since th
e Roman captain, who arrested him some 19 centuries ago, asked St Paul in, wonderment "cans't thou speak Greek?" (Acts 21 :37), knowledge of this language - the only one in Europe that has been spoken uninterruptedly in the same area for more than three millennia ­has been considered with a certain awe all over the world. What is perhaps less known is that Modem Greek - the only language directly spawned from ancient Greek unlike the many romance languages deriving from Latin - is actually undergoing a kind of mini-renaissance.

A militant scholar of the Greek
Enlightenment Adamantios Korais
dedicated himself to the promotion
of a 'purist' form of Greek

Greek in high demand

A list recently compiled by the Greek education ministry shows that 344 university-level 'Greek studies' courses are operating on five continents with more than half (179) in Europe. It seems that in the last three years interest in the language has been stimulated by the successful Athens Olympics of 2004 and also by Greece's enhanced role in southeastern Europe. Greek studies departments are being set up in countries such as Uzbekistan, Jordan and Tunisia.

There is also renewed interest in the way Modem Greek has evolved after Greece became a nation state in 1830. Scholars and laymen interested in this issue are anticipating with some trepidation a book currently being prepared by an academic who is a consummate speaker, writer and student of Modern Greek: Peter Mackridge, professor emeritus of Modern Greek at Oxford University. Speaking in flawless idiomatic Greek on April 13 at the Cotsen Hall of the Gennadeios library, belonging to the prestigious American School of Classical Studies in Athens, professor Mackridge gave a lecture entitled Katharevousa, Demotic and Greek National Identity from the 18th Century to the 1976 Language Reform. ''The topic of my lecture," he said, "is also the subject of a book that I am preparing, entitled Language and National Identity in Greece since the 18th Century. "

The long history of Greek was bound to generate problems for its users. Ever since Hellenistic times when the language started to change perceptibly, there have always been those trying to promote a 'purist' form of Greek (which is what katharevousa means) and to combat linguist 'degradation', as they saw it. This took the form of a virulent controversy in the 19th century with strong political and ideological connotations. On the one hand were the 'purifiers' - the most renowned of which was Adamantios Korais (1748-1833) - and on the other the 'demoticists' supporting the language of the 'demos' (lay people) called 'demotiki'.

Why was it that katharevousa prevailed as the official written language of the modem Greek state? The prestige of Korais had certainly something to do with this. This militant scholar of the Greek Enlightenment believed fervently that the mother tongue of the Greeks had been corrupted by the many Turkish, Italian and Slav accretions that had been infesting it for centuries. He thought, professor Mackridge pointed out, that Greek needed "correcting" according to the rules of Ancient Greek rather than according to its own internal rules. It was thus that "Greek cultural leaders decided that the unity of the national language should be not only synchronic (geographical) but also diachronic (historical)".

Language war ends with gains not losses

Through katharevousa many new words were coined in the 19th century, always respecting Ancient Greek. Korais created, for instance, the word politismos for civilisation, while famelia became oikogeneia (family), kontrabando became lathremporio, ministros became ypourgos and so forth. "Katharevousa was not so much a language," professor Mackridge explained, "as a tendency, a process, a purifying mechanism that expunged many non-Greek features from the language and enriched it with thousands of newly coined words based on Ancient Greek."

As Mackridge explained in an article published in the Paideia supplement of the Athens News on 9 September 2005, "Korais had to deal with opposition from two sides: the archaists who wanted to impose Ancient Greek as the language of the state and education, and the vernacularists who argued that the official language should be as close as possible to the modem spoken language." He pointed out in his 13 April 2006 lecture: ''The antithesis... is clear from various metaphors that were used to refer to the language. Georgios Mistriotis regularly referred to katharevousa in 1908 as a bastion resisting external invasions and an anchor holding Greece steady, thus using metaphors of immobility, while the demoticists depicted the Greeks as thinking freely, dynamic and eager for action. On this basis, professor Mackridge concluded, "the Modern Greeks would resemble the ancient Athenians."

There was more to this controversy than met the linguist's eye. In 1888, Yannis Psycharis, a Greek linguist teaching in Paris, launched a polemical book called My Journey. In it he argued that unless Greece became a modern nation rooted in contemporary reality instead of indulging in ancestor worship she would never be able to free the Greeks from still living under Ottoman rule. Linguistic purism, he argued, acted as a distraction from Greece's mission. "Greeks," as professor Mackridge summarised psycharis' position, "should be expelling Turks from Greek lands rather than expelling Turkish words from the Greek language."

The controversy went on until the Colonels' junta took over the country on 21 April 1967 and finally turned Greeks off of the ridiculous barrack­room katharevousa they were harangued with day and night. The matter was finally settled after the colonels' fall. In the 1976 education act, demotiki was finally established as the language of education, while civil servants were trained how to use it in official documents. The unified Greek of today retains all the contributions of katharevousa to the language but keeps the form and the grammar close to the spoken form. "In my own personal view," professor Mackridge said at the end of his atticle in the Athens News, "a recognition that Modern Greek is a language in itself, free of dependence on Ancient Greek, would be a genuine sign of pride and confidence a modern Greek identity."

(Posting Date 6 November 2006

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