The Greek Language Controversy

Focus on Language

The modern Greek state needed an official language. Adopting Greek was not controversial. The controversy arose over whether to adopt ancient or vernacular Greek

By Peter Mackridge*

FOR various reasons, from the earliest Christian times to the late nineteenth century, Greek schoolchildren were taught to read and write Ancient Greek. This meant, in practice, that they learned to read and write with the use of words and texts taken from Classical authors and from early Christian writings.

Naturally enough, the spoken Greek language has changed considerably between ancient and modern times. Nevertheless, the changes are not nearly so radical as those that took place in other European languages, and until the late eighteenth century most writers thought of their own spoken language as a simplified version of a timeless Greek language rather than as the distinct language that we nowadays call Modern Greek.

During the eighteenth century many Greeks who studied abroad were attracted by contemporary western European writings on education, language, philosophy and other subjects. Some of these people were determined to reform Greek education by introducing a more modern form of Greek into the classroom. These eighteenth-century enlighteners did not envisage the armed revolution against the Ottoman state that came in 1821, but they believed that if the Greeks were to prosper they needed to be educated in a more modern way. But the enlighteners were divided about what kind of Greek should be used in education. There were some who continued to insist that proper education could only be carried out in Ancient Greek. Others promoted a kind of compromise language that mixed features from Ancient and Modern Greek.

Yet others (albeit very few) argued that modern spoken Greek should be adopted as both the language of instruction and the object of study. The reason why this third category was so small was the tremendous prestige that ancient Greek language and culture enjoyed not only among the Greeks but also in western Europe, where the knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek was considered to be a prerequisite for every well-educated and highly-cultivated person. The debate among these three categories of enlighteners marked the beginning of the Greek language controversy, which lasted for two centuries, from the late eighteenth century till 1974.

As time went by, many educated Greeks began to see that the best hope for the prosperity of their compatriots was to set up an independent Greek state in which the rule of law would prevail and Greek intellectual and commercial life could flourish in safety, far from the arbitrary rule of the Ottoman authorities. So the debate about the language of education opened out into a debate about what should be the official language of the independent Greek state.

The purifying language

The most influential Greek intellectual leader of the pre-revolutionary period, Adamantios Korais (photo L), lived in Paris and published a huge output of educational and cultural works.

Korais argued that in principle the modern Greek language should be the basis of Greek education and culture, but that the spoken language was corrupt and debased as a result of centuries of foreign domination.

For this reason, he argued, the modern language needed to be "corrected" according to ancient Greek rules.This 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. The language that Korais wrote in - and which he promoted - formed the basis for the official language of the new Greek state, which later came to be known as katharevousa (literally, "the purifying language").

As a compromiser between Ancient and Modern Greek, 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 modern spoken language. At the same time, ideological differences also played their part: it wasn't just a matter of which version of Greek would prevail as the official language of the new state, but - perhaps more importantly - which group of people would gain political and cultural power over the Greek nation. In the period before the Greek War of Independence, the most powerful group of Greeks were the Phanariots, consisting of a number of families whose members were closely involved with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which was the seat of religious power among the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the Phanariots also rose to high positions in the Ottoman administration, even becoming princes of the provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia (in present-day Romania and Moldova). As it became more likely that Greece would become an independent nation state, the Phanariots, like other rival groups, were determined to play a leading role in the new state. This power struggle was played out partly in the language arena.

During the Ottoman period, Greek education was largely organised by the Orthodox Church. Korais, who was in favour of a national secular education and a complete rejection of the Ottoman past, was viewed with suspicion by the Phanariots, who saw him as a rival in their struggle for political and intellectual power over the Greeks. According to a widely held misconception, the Phanariots promoted the use of an archaic form of Greek in education and the state. In fact, some Phanariots were archaists, some were vernacularists and others were compromisers. Korais was attacked by the Phanariots not so much for the kind of language that he used and promoted, as for the ideological values that he stood for, namely democracy, republicanism and secularism.

When the Greek kingdom was established in 1833, official pronouncements by the state and government used a compromise language close to the one proposed by Korais, though Greek schoolchildren continued to be taught to read and write Ancient Greek. For the next fifty years, despite a couple of proposals to reinstate Ancient Greek as the official language, and rather more proposals for using a version of the spoken language for all written purposes, the compromise variety, which began to be widely known as katharevousa, continued to be used in almost all forms of written communication. Most poetry, on the other hand, was written in a version of the spoken language that came to be called "demotic" (literally, "of the people"). In 1863, the first two stanzas of Solomos's (photo above) "Hymn to Liberty", written in demotic in 1823, were adopted as the Greek National Anthem - an odd choice, since the poem was not in the form of language used for official purposes by the Greek state.

Demotic's difficult ascent

The chief problem with katharevousa was that it was an arbitrary mixture of ancient and modern features. This meant that it was up to each writer to choose which ancient and which modern features to put into the mixture.

During this period, writers progressively increased the proportion of ancient material in katharevousa, with the result that by 1880 the written language had moved so far away from the spoken that it had become difficult to write and understand.

A reaction against katharevousa began, first from a group of young poets who began a concerted effort to demonstrate that demotic was sufficiently subtle - and directly comprehensible - to be used in the most sophisticated poetry. Then in 1888 a Greek linguist teaching in Paris, Yannis Psycharis, published a book, "My Journey", which was partly an account of a journey he had recently made to Greece and partly a powerfully expressed argument for the replacement of katharevousa by demotic for all written purposes.

At the time, "My Journey" was the longest prose text to have been published in demotic. In contrast to the mostly dreary writings of the purists, Psycharis' language and style were colloquial, racy and full of fun. Most importantly, Psycharis stressed the political importance of the language controversy: he believed that Greece's destiny was to expand its borders by military conquest so as to encompass all the Greeks who were living in the Ottoman Empire, including the empire's capital, Constantinople. He argued that Greece could not fulfil this destiny unless it became a modern nation whose culture was based on a recognition of contemporary reality rather than on a blind worship of the ancients. Psycharis characteristically argued that linguistic purism acted as a distraction from Greece's mission. Greeks should be expelling the Turks from Greek lands rather than expelling Turkish words from the Greek language.

Psycharis' manifesto succeeded in polarising Greek intellectual and political leaders into two camps, the demoticists and the purists, and the language controversy entered its most intense and violent phase. Most literary writers rallied to the demoticist camp, determined to create a new Greek literature in demotic, whose themes tended to revolve around traditional rural life, beliefs and customs - what they considered to be the reality of the majority of Greeks. Modern Greek texts (albeit written in katharevousa) were introduced for the first time into Greek school readers. The literary writers were later joined by a number of educationalists who argued that, by being taught to read and write only Ancient Greek and katharevousa rather than their mother tongue, Greek schoolchildren were learning mere words rather than new concepts, and that the language of education was a barrier to their mental development. These educationalists also argued that the use of katharevousa in Greek schools in Macedonia (which was still part of the Ottoman Empire) was driving children to attend Bulgarian schools, where the language of education was spoken Bulgarian, and where propaganda techniques were used to turn young Macedonians into Bulgarians.

In 1901, riots broke out on the streets of Athens in protest against the serialisation of the Gospels in demotic translation in an Athens newspaper. Eight people lost their lives, the Archbishop of Athens was deposed, and the government fell. In 1911, after one leading educationalist had established a private girls' school in Volos where the education was based on demoticist principles (which included the study of the spoken language, Greek folksongs and traditional Greek rural culture), he was accused - though eventually acquitted - of teaching atheism and even of sexual molestation. The reaction against the demoticist movement reached the Greek Parliament, which when enacting a new constitution in 1911, included for the first time a clause specifying the official language of the Greek state (without, however, mentioning katharevousa!): "The official language of the State is that in which the constitution and the texts of Greek legislation are drafted". Nevertheless, the revolutionary government that Venizelos set up in Athens in 1917, after he had won his battle against the king to bring Greece into the First World War on the side of Britain and France, introduced demotic into primary schools as both the language of study and the language of instruction.

One change after another

When the Venizelos government was voted out in 1920, these reforms were overturned, and this marked the beginning of a to-and-fro movement in Greek educational linguistic policy, with each successive government reducing or increasing the number of grades of primary school in which demotic was taught. Now the language controversy had entered party politics, with the republican Liberals supporting demotic and the monarchist Popular Party supporting katharevousa. Another political dimension was added in 1926 when Greece's first Fascist dictator, Pangalos, branded all demoticists as communists, at which point the demoticists began to be split between those who proudly linked the triumph of demotic with the need for a social revolution and those who indignantly defended themselves as patriots against Pangalos' accusation. By now katharevousa, which had started quite innocently as a bridge between Ancient and Modern Greek, had become an instrument of oppression.

Strangely, it was another right-wing dictator, Metaxas, who had the vision to commission a standard grammar of demotic. This grammar, compiled under the direction of Manolis Triandafyllidis, was published in 1941, at the time of the German invasion, which meant that it could not be introduced into schools. After the Second World War katharevousa continued to be the official language of the state and the medium of instruction in schools after the first years of primary school. In 1964 the liberal government of George Papandreou granted demotic equal status with katharevousa throughout the education system, but this reform was overturned by the military dictatorship of 1967-74, which added a phrase to the clause in the 1911 Constitution, stipulating that katharevousa was the official language of education.

After the dictatorship fell in 1974, there was such a reaction against the over-use and misuse of katharevousa by the ridiculous Colonels that demotic immediately became de facto the language of most written communication. The 1975 constitution - still in force today - makes no mention of the official language of the state. In 1976 the official status of demotic as the language of education was enacted by law, and at the same time civil servants were trained in the use of demotic in official documents. In 1982 the Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou imposed a simplification of Greek orthography in education, abolishing the so-called breathing marks and reducing the three accents to one. It was calculated that the "monotonic" (single-accent) system would save Greek school students hundreds of hours of lessons, which could be devoted to other subjects.

The 1976 education act also abolished the compulsory teaching of Ancient Greek at school, an action that led to an intense and long-drawn-out debate. Many Greeks, rightly or wrongly, believe that it is possible to speak and write Modern Greek properly without a knowledge of Ancient Greek. A typically Greek compromise solution was found whereby Greek is now taught in secondary schools as essentially a single language with ancient, medieval and modern (demotic and katharevousa) manifestations, so that pupils gain some familiarity with Ancient Greek without having to learn it systematically as a distinct language.

Today the battle between the proponents of demotic and katharevousa belongs to the past, and the written language today, while largely based on demotic, uses a large number of ancient and katharevousa features. If there is still a language controversy today, it is the debate about the compulsory teaching of Ancient Greek. In my own personal view, 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 in a modern Greek identity.

* Peter Mackridge is Professor Emeritus of Modern Greek at the University of Oxford. He contributed this article to the Athens News Paideia Supplement

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