Many scholars believe that the literary development of any language is intimately connected and related to major historical events and influences that a nation has undergone. Tony Crowley, in his Proper English, quotes Saussure's attitude to language and history: "colonization, which is simply one form of conquest, transports a language into new environments, and brings changes in the language." However, the Greek situation from 1453, the year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman rule, until the year 1821, when parts of Greece were liberated, was not a simple case of colonization, nor of a temporary conquest. The Turkish occupation turned into a servitude of almost four hundred years. The Greek people, under the long Turkish subjugation, were pressured, persecuted and tortured. During the four hundred-year servitude, approximately twenty generations of Greeks managed to keep their native tongue and their Greek conscience alive, despite the fact that these were targeted for extinction by the occupier.
Ever since they established themselves in the New World, the Greeks in America can be characterized as a successful group in both educational and financial sectors. However, they have failed to perpetuate the language of their homeland among their children. We cannot claim that today the Greek omogeneia in the States remains culturally and intellectually steadfast in relation to its Greek origins. First generation Greeks speak the language, mostly because Greek was the language spoken by their immigrant parents at home. The second generation might understand some aspects of the Greek language, and third and now fourth generation Greeks might have some cultural Greek ties, mainly through the Church. But only a few have managed to learn the language and history of Greece. I have been an educator of the Modern Greek language in various settings, and now I teach Modern Greek at the University of New Hampshire. More than half of the students in my classes are of Greek descent but generally do not speak the language. I am convinced however, that many students of Greek descent thirst for more intimate linguistic and historical ties with the country of their ancestors.
It would be futile to try to find out what went wrong and why such a highly educated and affluent group did not succeed to establish the best Greek educational institutions in America. Rather, we should save our energies and concentrate to provide solutions for the future regarding the language issue in the States. An aura of respectability must be created for the Greek language and the American public educational system must be convinced of the importance of the Greek language to the American culture. After all, more than forty percent of English words derive from Greek. Students who study the Greek language generally have better performance scores in their SATs than those who have not been exposed to the language. The study of the Greek language is the best prerequisite for professional careers in law, sciences, medicine literature, arts and humanities. The Greek language therefore should be included and offered in the public educational institutes, just like Spanish, French, or German, or any other languages that are presently taught.
Greek paideia staffed by trained and knowledgeable teachers must be made a priority. Initially, the teachers of Greek descent that are already licensed and teach other courses in middle and high schools and know the Greek language to some degree should be approached to teach Introductory Greek in these public schools. These teachers can take further courses in various higher educational institutions, where the Greek language is offered, to strengthen their ability to teach the Greek language. In Germany and Australia, Greek is being taught in many public schools, and the Greek Education Ministry shares the expenses of providing Greek educators to teach the Greek language. This practice should also be established in the States.
The goal of offering Greek paideia has been successfully realized by the Greek omogeneia in many countries. In Alexandria, Egypt, before Nasser ousted the Greek population, the Greek language flourished academically. Many scholars, authors and poets, such as Cavafy, Penelope Delta and others, became internationally known for their writings in the Greek language, even though they received their education outside of the boundaries of Greece. Even our National Poet, Dionysios Solomos, was not fluent in Greek, since Italian was the language spoken in his father's house. He studied ancient Greek in Italy, where he received a degree in Law and mastered the Modern Greek language when he went back to Greece and was asked to write poetry in the Greek language.
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Our energies therefore, individually and collectively, through our organizations should concentrate in efforts to include the Greek language in the American public schools. Originally, AHEPA's role was to help the Greek immigrant assimilate in the American life. Today that role is not necessary, since the Greeks in America are well established. Now, AHEPA and any other Greek organization should put their best efforts in the very noble task of "Hellenizing" the children, grandchildren, etc of the original immigrants and as many non-Greeks as possible. Such an effort will create many Philhellenes and at the same time prevent a great language from disappearing!
Nina Gatzoulis directs the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of New Hampshire.