Is the Greek language, one of the most ancient and rich languages in the history of mankind, dying due to an avalanche of foreign words being introduced to the everyday vocabulary of native speakers?
Words such as “rapid tests”, “click-away shopping”, and “lockdown” are now widely used in Greece.
Some experts fear that the contamination of the Greek language with foreign words -mainly English – constitutes a mortal danger for the language which has been using the same alphabet for 28 centuries and held on to the same spelling rules for 24 centuries.
Prominent Greek Linguistics professor and former Education Minister Georgios Babiniotis is clearly concerned.
He is one of the leading advocates of action against what is perceived as a new threat to this great language.
Speaking with the British newspaper Observer in early February 2021, Babiniotis said that “We have been deluged by new terms and definitions in a very short space of time.
“Far too many of them are entering spoken and written Greek. On the television you hear phrases such as ‘rapid tests are being conducted via drive-through’, and almost all the words are English.
“It’s as if suddenly I’m hearing Creole,” he said.
You can’t patrol a language
However, some of the experts interviewed by Greek Reporter have a different view.
How can we really worry that the Greek language is threatened by extinction at a time when thousands of Greek words and terms, ideas, and stories are still alive all over the world?
The most recent example, most notably, is the word “pandemic,” which has been dominating the global stage since early 2020.
“Pandemic” derives directly from Greek. It is comprised of the Greek word “Pan,” which means “all” and the word “demos” which means “people.”
Among them is Stefanos Patakis, one of the country’s most prominent publishers, whose publishing house is one of Greece’s largest organizations.
He disagrees with Babiniotis’ theory that the Greek language is under threat.
“Every language borrows words from others. It’s an international phenomenon. Look at the English language, for example, where it has borrowed thousands of words from Greek,” Patakis says.
He then noted that one of the most widely used words throughout the world today is the Greek word “pandemic.”
“You can’t patrol a language,” he warned. “The language changes; if the Greek language wasn’t able to change, we’d still be speaking Ancient Greek,” the publisher noted.
Teaching at schools
Patakis maintains that the problem with the Greek language is different: It has to do with the way it is being taught in Greece’s secondary schools, and with the way the media sometimes promote grammatical, vocabulary, and syntactical errors.
‘’We ask people at work to write a letter and they struggle,’’ Patakis noted.
However, it’s not just that. Greece has been suffering from a domestic linguistic ”war” for centuries.
In 1901, for example, the decision of the newspaper “Acropolis” to publish the Gospel in modern Greek spark violent reactions, now known as the “Gospel riots.”
Should the country speak in Katharevousa, a mixture of Ancient Greek and the contemporary vernacular, Demotic Greek, or should it follow the path of the Demotic, the language spoken in everyone’s households?
This is another problem Patakis discussed, explaining how even Greek lexicographers disagree with each other due to this deeply-rooted division among the Greek people.
”Take Germany, for example. The entire country got engaged recently in a public discussion about how the writing of some German some words would have to be changed,” Patakis said.
”We, on the other hand, have dictionaries with completely different ways of spelling for the very same word!” the publisher stated in an attempt to pinpoint the lack of wider consultation and open discussions in Greece about the nation’s language.
”So, instead of spending our time discussing whether the use of the word ‘lockdown’ is right or wrong, we should focus our attention on the syntax of the language, the spelling, and the meaning of certain words,” Patakis declares.
Language not threatened by youth
Maria Papayianni, one of the most prominent contemporary authors of children’s and youth literature in Greece, dismisses concerns about threats to the language by the Greek youth of today.
“The fact that the younger generations want to have their own way of communication is not anything new,” she explained.
“The language is not threatened by the youth,” she stated bluntly. “These are the same children who pass their exams, get into Universities and speak completely differently when they talk to older people or when they want to get a job.”
Papagianni added that, in her opinion, the Greek language is not ‘dying,’ merely because of the simple fact that “it’s not the language that dies, it’s the people.”
Languages do change
The author highlighted that there is no reason for modern Greeks either to mourn or to exult about their language. ‘Languages do change,’ Papagianni said laconically.
This is why we need to “distance ourselves from fictional war fronts and focus on the essential knowledge,” she noted.
“A language breathes only when its speakers are able to hope for a brighter future,” the distinguished author said.
Giannis Korinthios, who was behind the establishment of the International Day for the Greek Language and is author of a dictionary of the Ancient Greek language, expressed his strong belief that the Greek language is not under threat by the internet and the multiple social media platforms within it.
“Of course, the plethora of foreign words used by the users of the internet decompose and hurt our language, but the Greek language is not threatened with extinction because of this,” he opined.
The Greek language is ancient — and yet alive
“The Greek language is threatened by the indifference of those who must protect it: the schools, universities, homes, media, and our public services,” Korinthios told Greek Reporter.
“The Greek language is ancient and yet alive,” the author said, adding emphatically that the language of the Greeks is a “valuable legacy and the cornerstone of the identity both of Hellenism and of the education of Europe.”
To support his argument, Korinthios mentioned the words of George Seferis, one of the most important Greek poets of the 20th century, and a Nobel laureate. “God has given us a language that is living, strong, stubborn, and beautiful; a language that still endures, even though we have unleashed all the beasts against her…”
Salvatore Tommasi, an Italian secondary teacher, and author of many books about the Greek-speaking populations of the south of Italy, is – himself — living evidence of not only how languages survive, but also of the way they can very well disappear in a matter of decades.
“Unfortunately, the Greek dialect of Puglia is dying because of the fact that young people do not use it anymore. I am one of the few survivors who had this Greek dialect as his mother tongue,’’ Tommasi told Greek Reporter.
The Greek dialect of Puglia
Griko, sometimes spelled Grico, is the dialect of Italian Greek spoken by the Griko people in the regions of Salento and Calabria in Italy.
Some linguists consider it to be a Modern Greek dialect and often call it Katoitaliótika (South Italian) or Grekanika, whereas its own speakers call it Greko or Griko.
These people and their language are indisputable proof of the millennia of the Greek presence in the Italian peninsula, from classical antiquity all the way to the Byzantine Empire and our modern times. They are the living evidence of how deeply connected the people of Italy and Greece truly are.
Asked about the ways that Greek and Italian authorities could employ to revive this ancient language that has managed to survive throughout the centuries, Tommasi explained that one of the problems is that Griko is exclusively an oral language, without any systematic way of writing.
“Our dialect possesses only an oral form. So, to rejuvenate it, it has to be transformed and codified in a written form. This means that Griko should be turned from a language of limited communication and use to a language of culture and education,” Tommasi maintains.
Linguistic heritage is still alive
Today, more than four thousand years after the first Greek populations began their turbulent yet fascinating journey to prominence in the world, their cultural and linguistic heritage is still alive.
It’s alive in the everyday conversations of people around the globe, even if these individuals use Greek terms without realizing or knowing it.
The Greek language is alive through our very selves as well — whether we are Greek nationals or not.
Because, ultimately, being a bearer of the legacy of the Greek language entails much more than just one’s nationality, written on the flimsy paper of a passport.
We do hope and believe that the Greek language will ultimately manage to prove itself powerful enough to overcome any dangers that might appear in its path, whether they are real or imagined.