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Modern Greek Department at Cambridge University is Facing Closure

Lack of funds may force the Modern Greek department at Cambridge University to close, despite the fact it has been providing high-quality studies in the modern Greek language and literature at the undergraduate, master and PhD levels for the past 70 years.

Professor David Holton, currently chair of modern Greek at Cambridge University, spoke recently at the Academy of Athens in a celebration organised by the British Embassy to celebrate Cambridge’s 800 years. Holton said that despite an immense contribution to research of the Greek language, the department was facing closure unless some form of rescue was on the way and he appealed for support.

Due to retire in a few years, Holton was anxious to secure the future of the department to which he has devoted a substantial part of his life – and the continuation of the work he started when he first took the appointment more than 28 years ago.

Holton launched an appeal hoping to raise ₤4 million (US$7 million) to be placed in an endowment fund to provide sufficient income to replace him when he retires and to appoint a full-time lecturer on a permanent basis.

He is currently negotiating with Greek authorities but is also looking towards cultural foundations, charitable institutions and wealthy private individuals. Holton rejects criticism that Greece has not helped and points out that in the past the Greek Education Ministry and the Ministry of Culture have provided some support even if it was fragmentary and irregular.

One form of support was the secondment of a teacher of Greek by the Ministry of Education to Cambridge. But the arrangement was not ideal and caused a number of problems to the section and to the holder.

A grant by the Leventis Foundation enabled the university to set up a professorship of Greek culture which focuses on ancient Greece.

Holton is only the third academic to hold the Lewis-Gibson chair, endowed by wealthy sisters from Scotland who married and settled in Cambridge at the beginning of the last century. They never forgot their visits to Greece and Cyprus or their knowledge of modern Greek which made their studies in Mount Sinai so much easier.

Romilly Jenkins, who started as a classical archaeologist and became one of the leading Byzantine historians of his generation, was the first to be appointed to the chair. He was succeeded by Stavros Papastavrou, graduate of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki and Oxford University who held the position for 32 years until his death in 1979. He was fortunate to see four of his students becoming leading academics in universities in three continents.

During a short stopover on his way to a conference in Crete, where he was the guest of honour, Holton spoke to University World News about his plans, his hopes and his aspirations for the modern Greek section and the Greek language and culture.

“Whenever one mentions Greece one immediately thinks of ancient Greece,’ he complains rather good-humouredly. “Yet modern Greek language and culture have a great deal to offer. Modern Greek society today is full of energy and there are a lot of excellent examples in literature, poetry, music, film and many more.”

He reels off names such as Elytis, Seferis, Gatsos and Ritsos, Theodorakis and Hatzidakis, Aggelopoulos and others: “If only one can find a way to project them effectively,” he muses.

Postgraduate modern Greek studies at Cambridge have notched a substantial improvement in the last couple of decades according to Holton. Twelve students from Greece and Cyprus have completed their doctoral theses in subjects from medieval mythology and literature as well as the literature and the poetry of the 20th century. Many of these students are now in important positions in Greek and Cypriot universities as well as in the US.

During his tenure, Holton has published many books including The Tale of Alexander – The rhymed version, the early 17th century epic romance by Vincenzo Kornaros (1563-1614), Erotokritos and other modern Greek texts, Literature and Society in Renaissance Crete (1991), as well as two grammar books on the modern Greek language with Peter Mackridge and Irene Phillipaki-Warburton among others.

Over the last 16 years, Holton also published KAMPOS: Cambridge Papers in Modern Greek, with the edited texts of some of the lectures given by invited Greek and foreign speakers at Cambridge during the previous academic year as well as news and events which took place in the modern Greek Section.

His most important project however, is a new Greek Grammar which will be the first comprehensive description of the medieval and early modern Greek language funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

For the past five years, a team led by himself and co-directed by Professor Geoff Horrocks of the faculty of classics, with two full-time research associates and two honorary consultants, has been gathering, analysing and organising linguistic data for the period 1100-1700 when the beginnings of the modern vernacular became evident.

“Despite the increasing availability of material there has been no systematic and detailed account of the development of the Greek language during this crucial period’ says Bolton. “And this grammar aims to fill a serious gap in the history of the Greek language.”

The grammar spans a geographical area from Italy to the Black Sea and underpins a growing interest in medieval and early modern Greek literature and its historical, social and cultural content encompassing written texts of all kinds while it gives a full account of linguistic development within this period.

It is a high-tech project using electronic databases and digitalised corpora to store and sort out a mass of information. Once it is completed it will be published by Cambridge University Press.

Were it to be judged only on its output and the level and quality of its research, the future of the modern Greek section would be more than assured. Unfortunately, as Constantinos Dimadis, Emeritus Professor at the Berlin Freie Universitat and President of the European Association of Modern Greek Studies, wrote in the prologue to a Cambridge in Athens brochure: “The overturning of the conditions which defined the legal framework of European universities in favour of exclusively financial criteria, bodes serious dangers for the existence of many academic branches.”

Holton however, refuses to be swamped by the many difficulties and remains stubbornly optimistic. Justifiably, he claims that his modern Greek section at Cambridge, together with a few others spread around the world, are engaged in a sort of “cultural diplomacy” which is far too important for the Greek state, wealthy patriotic Greek individuals and Greek society to ignore.

The funds needed to sustain the Cambridge department are not only small but also great value for money.

( / Makki Marseilles)

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