Zum Inhalt springen

About the Greek Language

There is much to say about the so-called „Greek language“ about its inception some 3,000 years ago and about its evolution to what is supposedly spoken in Greece today. But is the language spoken in Greece today a „Greek language“, whatever that may mean, or a mix of various languages that modern Greeks speak today?

There are a couple of reasons why I am bringing this up at this time. One is to remind the Greeks that although they call their language „Greek“, implying that it is the language of the so-called „ancient Greeks“, it is not. The second reason is that two can play this game. Greeks tell me that there is no such thing as a Macedonian language and what I call Macedonian is no more than a mix of „Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek and Albanian with some other foreign words added to it here and there“. While these same Greeks claim that there is no such thing as a „Macedonian language“, they boast that they speak the language of the ancient Greeks.


Well let’s put this theory to a test shall we?


First and foremost, the language that modern Greeks speak today is not their mother tongue. When Modern Greece became a country for the first time in 1829, the majority of the so-called first Greeks spoke Arvanitika (Albanian), Vlahika (Vlach), Turkika (Turkish), Slavika (Slav), etc. The so-called „Greek language“ they speak they had to learn in school.


So once again, the so-called „Greek language“ that Modern Greeks speak today was a language they learned in school. Now in contrast to the Greek language, the Macedonian language, call it what you like, is a natural language that Macedonians learned from their mothers.


Macedonian is a banned language in Greece so the Macedonians could not have learned it in school, the only place they could have learned it is from their mothers and relatives. Ever since Greece illegally acquired Macedonian territories in 1913, Macedonians had no access to Serbia or Bulgaria so how could Macedonian be a Serbian or Bulgarian language?


Now if we go far back in time you will discover that the Macedonian people spoke this language even before there was ever a Serbia or Bulgaria. In fact it was the Bulgarians, a Turkic tribe which spoke a Mongolian language, that adopted the Macedonian language and not the other way around.


If the Modern Greek language is the same language as the ancients spoke then why did the modern Greeks have a need to „purify“ it, a process which eventually failed?


Modern Greek is not at all the same as the so-called „ancient Greek“ which the Athenians spoke some 2,500 years ago. In fact Modern Greek is yet another „Balkan language“ full of colloquialisms and foreign words which the Greek state borrowed from the Byzantine Church and from other foreign languages, including Turkish. Most Modern Greeks don’t know this and know even less about the history of their own language. That is why they claim ‘it is all Greek“.


Here are some examples of ancient Greek, Modern Greek, (English);

Ipos, alogo (horse)

Hygor, nero (water)

Onos, gaiduri (donkey)

Oikos, spiti (house)

Odos, dromos (road)

Ihthis, psari (fish)

Oinos, krasi (wine)

Ofthalmos, mati (eye)

Ega, Gida (goat)

Erifi, Katsiki (kid, baby goat)

Ois, provaton (sheep)

Yshoiros, gourouni (pig)

Kyon, skylos (dog)

Mys, pondiki (mouse)

Ornitha, kota (hen)

Oon, avgo (egg)

Artos, psomi (bread)

Ris, miti (nose)

Naus, plion (ship)


By just this small sample of examples it should be obvious to everyone that „ancient Greek“ and „Modern Greek“ are not only NOT the same language but they are not even similar! That is precisely the reason why Greek authorities tried to „purify“ their language! And yes there are „ancient words“ in the Modern Greek language such as „odos“ for example but they only exist because of the language purification initiatives Greek purists undertook since 1776 which were finally abandoned in 1974 by the Greek government.


Another reason for bringing up the inconsistencies in the so-called „Greek language“ is because I was asked to do it by one of my readers who wanted to see more evidence of what I am talking about, but not from Macedonian sources because it might be dismissed as „Skopian propaganda“ by our Greek adversaries. So without further ado here is evidence on the formation of the Greek language as composed by non-Macedonian authors;


1. „The beginning of the modern Greek language controversy can be precisely dated to 1776, when Voulgaris, in the preface of his logic, argued that in order to study philosophy it was necessary to know ancient Greek adding that the ‘worthless little books that profess to vulgar language should be hissed off the stage‘. By ‘vulgar language‘ he meant any variety of modern Greek as opposed to the ancient language.“ („Language and National Identity in Greece 1766 – 1976“, by Peter Mackridge, page 83)


Now who was this Voulgaris character? Here is what Peter Mackridge has to say: „Kitromilides describes Voulgaris as the ‘Patriarch of the Greek enlightenment‘ and the first recognized leader of the enlightenment in south-east Europe.

Voulgaris studied at Padua and went on to teach for twenty years in Yannina, Kozani, the Athronite Academy and Constantinople.“ („Language and National Identity in Greece 1766 – 1976“, by Peter Mackridge, page 84)


„Voulgaris introduced himself to the Russian empress in 1771 by referring to himself as ‘Slaviano-Bulgarian‘ by origin, Greek by birth, Russian by inclination. (13) It is clear that his aim was to ingratiate himself with the empress by asserting that he too, like the majority of her subjects, was of Slav origin; it is not certain how seriously he took this himself, but his surname does imply Bulgarian origin.

(13) Quoted from an unpublished manuscript by Batalden (1982: 22), who points out the irony that Catherine was not Russian but German by birth. I am grateful to Elka Bakalova for informing me that ‘Slaviano-Bulgarian‘ refers to the Slav Bulgarians as distinct from the Turkic proto-Bulgars.“ („Language and National Identity in Greece 1766 – 1976“, by Peter Mackridge, page 85)


2. „Folk culture, for Koraes, was less a source of proof that the people actively yearned to recover their ancient virtues than evidence of their potential (and need) for extensive reeducation. His own experience, in which a series of lucky chances made it possible for him to acquire some learning at an early age (Clogg 1976: 121-124), may well have influenced his thinking here: the Hellenic virtues could be acquired, given only native diligence and aptitude. That one had to turn to Western Europe in this endeavor was simply a matter of historical circumstance, of the fact that Europe had been the repository of Greek learning during the centuries of Ottoman rule – a time when the Greeks themselves had acquired a shamefully Turkish patina which now had to be scraped away.

Koraes is today remembered most of all for his leading role in the development of katharevousa, the neo-Classical (or purified) form of the modern Greek language which, somewhat ironically in the light of his revolutionary principles, has become closely associated with the political Right and the foreign interests which it represents (Sotiropoulos 1977).


Katharevousa was always something of a cultural appeal to the West for recognition, an attempt to demonstrate that the ordinary Greeks of today could speak a tongue which was undeniably their own yet no less clearly Hellenic. Such purism naturally demanded that all words of obviously Turkish origin be eliminated. A recent commentator’s description of this deorientalization of the language as „beneficial“ (Babiniotis 1979: 4) shows how successful Koraes was in establishing a moral standard by which all subsequent linguistic developments could be evaluated. Ideological criteria of culture, if they are to be judged successful, must in some measure become self-fulfilling prophecies.


The development of katharevousa was part of Koraes‘ wider, educative view of Hellenic regeneration. Culture, rather than physical descent, still seems to have been the main component of Greekness in his day. Educated people throughout the Balkans called themselves Hellenes; in the Romanian princess Dora d’Istria, we shall later meet one of the latest and most flamboyant embodiments of this conceit. It seems, moreover, that language was sometimes thought virtually sufficient to make people forget that they had ever been anything but Greek – in 1802, there appeared a quadrilingual dictionary published by the priest Daniel of Moskhopolis, exhorting „all who now do speak an alien tongue rejoice, prepare to make you Greek “ (quoted in Clogg 1973: 20). This attitude was to change significantly later on, after the establishment of the new Greek State, when greater emphasis came to be laid on an essentially retroactive claim to descent from the ancient Greeks.“ („Ours Once More Folklore, Ideology, and the making of Modern Greece“, by Michael Herzfeld, pages 17 and 18)


3. „Wealthy Greeks, who for the most part had acquired their fortunes abroad, shared to the full the local patriotism so characteristic of the Greeks. This prompted them to provide the funds for schools, libraries and scholarships in their local communities. There was also a more practical motive, for the development of a Greek commercial empire created an increasing demand for numerate and literate Greeks with a knowledge of foreign languages.


Schools of a kind had existed throughout the period of Ottoman rule, although with rare exceptions, such as the Patriarchal Academy in Constantinople, they had concentrated on imparting a basic knowledge of reading and writing to their pupils. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, a number of more advanced academies were either founded or revived. Besides the Princely Academies of Jassy and Bucharest, important schools were founded on the island of Chios, in Smyrna (The Evangelical School, 1733, and Philological Gymnasium, 1808) and Ayvalik. In these more advanced schools there was a heavy emphasis on the Greek classics, together with an attempt to inculcate the rudiments of mathematics and the natural sciences. Many of the teachers had studied at the universities of western Europe, particularly in Italy, and many of their graduates were also to study abroad, thanks to the subventions of the merchants.

Books in Greek for a Greek readership had been printed, in substantial quantities, mainly in Venice, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the eighteenth century, however, the production of books for a Greek audience increased dramatically. During the first twenty-five years of the century just over a hundred such books were printed. During the last twenty-five years well over 700 were published, while some 1300 titles were published during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. They were generally small editions, though they did sometimes run to several thousand copies. A more significant indicator of the intellectual climate in Greece, perhaps, than this dramatic increase in the numbers of such books published was the change in their content. Whereas at the beginning of the eighteenth century these books were overwhelmingly religious in character, by the years before 1821 their content had become increasingly secular. Numerous translations were published of the works of Western scientists and philosophers, including Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Beccaria and Rousseau. Some Greeks such as Evgenios Voulgaris themselves published learned philosophical treatises, making use of works of philosophers such as Kant. But in essence the ‚Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment‘ was derivative rather than original, its protagonists seeking above all to make the achievements of Western philosophers and scientists known to their fellow countrymen. The works of the Western Enlightenment also began to circulate in the Greek lands in their original languages, often remarkably soon after publication.

The most significant aspect of this increasing secularization of Greek culture was the rediscovery by the Greeks of a sense of their own past, a realization that they were the heirs to a glorious heritage that was universally admired by the educated classes of western Europe. During earlier centuries there had been a limited awareness of the ancient world but the nascent Greek intelligentsia embraced the study of Greece’s classical past with an intensity approaching fervour during the fifty years or so before the outbreak of the Greek revolt. New emphasis was given in the schools and academies to the study of ancient Greek, new editions of the classics were published and Greeks saw in the wars between the Greeks and the Persians analogies with their present situation. Some Greeks began to baptize their children with the names of ancient worthies rather than the saints of the Orthodox Church. This rediscovery of the past engendered in the Greek intelligentsia a new self-confidence, aptly epitomized by Benjamin of Lesvos‘ claim in 1820 ‚that neither the Greeks of old nor the Greeks of today are subject to the laws of nature‘.

An unfortunate outcome of this obsession with Greece’s classical heritage was the increasingly bitter dispute that developed over the Greek language. Some argued that if the Greeks were truly to become worthy of their great heritage then they should reverse the natural development of the language and restore it to its pristine Attic purity, purging it of its Turkish, Slav and Italian accretions. Others argued that the spoken or demotic language should be made the basis of the written language. Still others advocated an intermediate position, arguing for the ‚purification‘ of the demotic without going to the extremes of the archaizers. The ‚language question‘ was by no means resolved at the time and has continued to bedevil Greece’s cultural development right up until modern times. It must be emphasized that the intellectual ferment that characterized the Greek world in the seventy years or so before the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence was largely confined to a small, predominantly Western-educated intelligentsia, many, perhaps most, members of which actually lived outside the Ottoman Empire. It largely passed over the heads of the great mass of the Greek people, who were mostly illiterate and who remained steeped in a thought world that was essentially Byzantine. The prophecies, folk songs, tales of Alexander the Great and popular romances such as the Erotokritos remained the staples of popular culture. The obsession with Greece’s classical past was not widely shared. When someone compared the prowess of a klephtic leader to that of Achilles, the former asked ‚Who is this Achilles? Did the musket of Achilles kill many?‘ Moreover the intellectual revival was for the most part resolutely opposed by the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church, which regarded the new emphasis on philosophy, the natural sciences and the culture of the ancient world as likely to lead to moral degeneration and indifference in matters divine. To counter what it regarded as the flood of atheistic and seditious literature circulating among the Greek populations of the empire a printing press was set up in Constantinople by the patriarchate in 1798, where uplifting and improving books were published under strict censorship. If the mass of the Greek population was largely indifferent to its enthusiasms, and the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church actively opposed to them, nonetheless the new intelligentsia did serve a useful function in articulating the aspirations of the Greek national movement.“ („A Short History of Modern Greece“, by Richard Clogg, Second Edition, pages 36 to 39)


4. „Greece has been characterized until recently by a fundamental diglossia between the spoken language everyday (the demotic) and a constructed language (katharevousa), which pretended to harken back to the classical idiom but was actually closer to Byzantine Greek, and which was inaugurated as the official language of the state in the 1830s and remained legally so until 1974. („Dream Nation“, by Stathis Gourgouris, page 89)


But, despite all attempts by the purists to „purify“ their artificially imposed Greek language, in the end their attempts failed and today we still have a language that contains words from the past, from an entirely alien era, and Turkish and other foreign words picked up along the way. So like their modern „fake“ Greek identity it is only fair and deserving that the Greeks have a „fake“ and bastardized language to be proud of and to call their own.


Other articles by Risto Stefov:

By Risto Stefov, rstefov@hotmail.com, March 21, 2010