ΑΩ International online magazine
Issue 01, May 2006
homepage > Interview with Peter Mackridge


with Leda Bouzali

The Phenomenon of Diglossia
Language and National Identity

Peter Mackridge

Peter Mackridge, the distinguished linguist and former Professor of Modern Greek at Oxford University, has dedicated his life to the study of Greek language and literature. His work The Modern Greek Language (Oxford University Press, 1985, Greek translation published by Patakis, 1991) is used as a textbook in many Greek university courses. His books also include two grammars of the Greek language (the Comprehensive Grammar and the Essential Grammar), which he co-wrote with David Holton and Irene Philippaki-Warburton (Routledge, 1997 and 2004). The Greek edition of the former was published by Patakis Publishers in 1999. He has also written numerous articles on the history and the dialects of the Greek language, the phenomenon of diglossia and the language question. As a scholar of modern Greek literature, he has published dozens of articles on Solomos, Cavafy, Politis, Prevelakis, Seferis and Tachtsis. He has also translated works by Prevelakis, Alexandrou, Patrikios, Tachtsis, Ioannou and Seferis. His work “Plaster Casts of Poetry: Solomos-Kavafis-Seferis”, written in Greek, is currently being published by Hestia editions. Peter Mackridge visited Athens in October 2005, as an honorable guest of the Onassis Foundation.

ΑΩ met him for a discussion on Greek language.
ΑΩ: What do you expect will be the outcome of your current research?
P.M.: I will write a book in English, under the provisional title “Language and National Identity in Greece since the 18th century”. It will be a new history of the Greek language controversy, which began in the 1760s with Evgenios Voulgaris and Iosipos Misiodax and officially ended 200 years later with the Education Act of 1976, after the fall of the military dictatorship. The course of events of the last 30 years will be covered in a brief afterword. The focus of my research is the period dating from the Greek Enlightenment and the War of Independence, through Korais, Psycharis, Hatzidakis and Triandaphyllidis, to the restoration of democracy in 1974.
ΑΩ: What is the target-group of your book?
P.M.: The book will address an English-speaking readership, unfamiliar with the Greek language question. Outside Greece, there is great confusion about this issue and I have come across many inaccuracies in books written by non-Greeks who do not specialize in Greek matters. In a recent book on diglossia in Arabic, for instance, I read that the New Testament was written in katharevousa (“purified” Greek). This shows complete ignorance. Katharevousa is a recent phenomenon. It was created by Korais and various literary figures, scholars and journalists of the 19th century. The first reference to the term katharevousa is found in a book published by Nikephoros Theotokis in 1796. The first instance of the term demotiki (demotic) is found in a book by Panayiotis Kodrikas published in 1818. Until the middle of the 19th century very few people referred to katharevousa, and the term dimotiki was hardly used either. Between 1830 and the 1870s or 1880s, the language controversy seemed to have been solved in favour of katharevousa.
Α.Ω.: What was the case before 1830?
P.M.: There was complete freedom or chaos – depending on how one chooses to see it. There were the “archaists” who were trying to write in Ancient Greek, usually in the Attic dialect or in ancient Greek Koine (the language of the New Testament) and there were the “vernacularists” who were using a language resembling the spoken language of the time, be it regional (e.g. that spoken in Constantinople or in Yannina), or more widespread. Most writers used a blend of archaic and modern features. Before Georgios Hatzidakis, who was the first to study the Medieval Greek language, Greeks saw their language in terms of two chief varieties: the ancient language and the “everyday Greek language” or “common dialect” or “simple Greek”, since the term “Modern Greek” had not yet been established. People were not aware of the evolution of language because the medieval stages of the language had not been studied.
Α.Ω.: Where does the question of national pride come in?
P.M.: Most scholars, like Korais, thought of the spoken Modern Greek language – the one we today refer to as demotic – as vulgar and corrupt. Any kind of deviation from the ancient forms was considered to be a corruption, an error. Korais wanted to “correct” the modern language according to the rules of Ancient Greek grammar. He was one of the first to raise the question of national pride and national shame. He was proud of the ancient origin of the Greeks, but he was ashamed, especially in the presence of Western Europeans in Paris, of what he considered to be the “degeneration” and the “sad state” of the spoken Greek language. He had lived abroad for decades, and as an expatriate he had little familiarity with everyday spoken Greek, but he knew from his early years in Smyrna (Izmir) that the Modern Greek language was full of Turkish and Italian words and phrases, and he felt ashamed. This is where the question of national identity comes in.
The supporters of katharevousa wanted to create a written language which, on the one hand, would derive from spoken Modern Greek, but would be corrected according to the rules of ancient Greek morphology on the other, so that it would outwardly resemble Ancient Greek as much as possible. It was a matter of “image”. In other words, their aim was to show that the Greeks, because of their language, were very much like their ancestors and that they cherished and looked after their language by correcting it and modifying it. On the contrary, the supporters of demotic, such as Triandaphyllidis, Seferis and others, reversed the question of pride. They, too, were proud of the origin of the Greeks, but they were ashamed of katharevousa, because they thought of it as an artificial language, which failed to represent the Modern Greeks, or rather depicted them as a nation of filing clerks, so to speak, and not as a proud people with generosity of heart. Folklorists, such as Nikolaos Politis, had proved that the Greek folk song (composed in demotic) was a genuine, spontaneous expression of the Greek soul. After the Memoirs of Makryiannis were published by Giannis Vlachogiannis, 20 to 30 years passed before they were read by writers of the 1930s such as Seferis and Theotokas, who discovered in Makryiannis the common Greek hero of the War of Independence. The modernists were proud of the common people who had fought to create the new Greek state and who had a culture of their own, which was the continuation of ancient Greek civilization, but had its own individuality and its own language that stemmed naturally from Ancient Greek rather than being the result of a determined effort.
ΑΩ: All in all, what was the outcome of this controversy? Did it affect the Greek language positively or negatively?
P.M.: This is the most difficult question to answer and the most complex issue among those that trouble me in my research. I have to make clear from the outset that katharevousa was not totally harmful. Katharevousa had a positive effect on the lexicon, that is, in the formation of new words such as πανεπιστήμιο (university), ποδήλατο (bicycle), λεωφορείο (bus), δημοσιογράφος (journalist). All these words were formed in the 19th century by writers who were using katharevousa. They derive directly from ancient Greek words and are not from the lexicon and morphology of demotic. They are widely accepted and have become established.
Those who wrote in katharevousa used loan-translations of words and phrases from foreign languages, such as the expression εντάξει (in order)which appears to be ancient (εν+the dative case), but in reality is a loan-translation of the German expression “in Ordnung”, which was introduced by the Bavarians during King Otto’s reign. Eν+the dative case, in its literal, spatial meaning of “in”, is obsolete today. It is used only in its metaphorical sense. Katharevousa is a language of metaphor and loan-translation. I am not aware of any language apart from Modern Greek that makes such a distinction between literal and metaphorical meanings. For me, as a linguist, this kind of distinction is harmful. For reasons I have not yet understood, Greeks insisted on making this type of distinction: demotic was the language of literal sense, a natural, down-to-earth language, whereas katharevousa was the language of metaphorical meanings, of loan-translations and abstract ideas. These two streams still flow side-by-side within the Greek language today, and I am afraid that the necessary fusion between the expression of literal and metaphorical meaning has not yet been achieved.
ΑΩ: Do you believe that this will be achieved in the future? Is the latest fashion, which involves the use of archaized forms of modern words, perhaps a sign of that?
P.M.: Younger scholars in Greek universities tend to use many archaic features that are often redundant. This is not just a case of showing off, but also an effort to establish a scholarly, abstract style that differs markedly from the spoken language. This is the modern tendency that corresponds to the old katharevousa: to make a distinction between written and spoken language. I do not mean the substitution of foreign (English) words by Greek, but the substitution of demotic words by archaic ones. […] In my opinion, this is pretentious.
In Britain there is an opposite trend. Our written and spoken languages have come closer together and there is a tendency among scholars to write simply. In Greece today, written language is tending to diverge from spoken usage, as it did in the Korais’s time. In this case, the written language is more becoming complex, perhaps more baroque.
Α.Ω.: Who is your favourite poet?
P.M.: Solomos, Kavafis and Seferis. All three were troubled by the question of language.
I believe that these poets, together with Ritsos and Elytis, have exploited and expanded the metaphorical capacities of demotic, capacities that have been ignored by non-literary writers. The intense and concerted struggle these poets waged in favour of the Greek language is what has saved it…
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