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Essays -

Vernon Kooy
  Renaissance Greek

It's All Greek to Me!

Of the Indo-European family of languages, Greek is the oldest and seems to have the same essential linguistic characteristics that it has had since the dawn of History. In fact one can safely say that although Greek has changed and modified its written and spoken forms many times, it essentially is the same language as it was in the remote past. Those who would think that Modern Greek and/or Koine Greek are different languages from Homeric or Attic Greek, and that each needs to be studied separately, are simply denying the long developmental history of Greek and of History itself.

The oldest period of Greek that we can find today in any lengthy written work is that of Homer and Hesiod.  This period is often referred to as the Dialectical Period, and historically Greek was spoken with a number of variations throughout the Aegean and its various city states.  Greece was not what we know of today as the modern Greek nation, but a variety of nations or city states, all speaking a dialect of a single tongue, heir to the Greek of pre-history and the Bronze Age.

When Athens became the center of Greek intellectual thought and ascended to a position of prominence amongst those city states, Attic Greek became the norm of the language. This was the language of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides. The Homeric language now became the language of Athens, a language noted for its contractions and in a broad sense, a simplification of the earlier Greek. One might even think of the whole history of the Greek language as a history of simplification and/or democratization where the formal was supplanted by the speech of the masses, and normalized into a new formal written form. Often Attic Greek is called Hellenic or Classical and is the norm for teaching ancient Greek in universities and colleges throughout the world.

Attic Greek slowly morphed into what became known as Koine Greek or Hellenistic Greek. With Aristotle's teaching of Alexander of Macedon and the world conquest that ensued, Attic Greek took on a further simplification and became the common (Koine) language of the Empire from Egypt to India, and from Lower Egypt to Macedonia and Wallachia. This common language was akin to the business English of today in that it was understood throughout the educated world and influenced to some degree by the ethnic groups with which it came into contact. It was the language of the New Testament and the commercial (lingua franca) language of its day. Again simplification became the rule, and that can be seen during this period through the gradual dropping of various verb forms such as the Optative mood and the supplanting of the infinitive in many cases by ἵνα clauses. The demise of dual noun forms and the loss of MI verb forms also mark this period.

With Constantine and the ascendancy of Christianity a second Koine period in the linguistic development took place. Koine here meant the common language of the Byzantine Empire and a diglossia problem arose. The earlier Koine was pretty much preserved by the Orthodox Church and became Ecclesiastical Greek while the language of commerce and politics became Byzantine Greek. This diglossia persisted into modern times and while the Byzantine Greek was subject to many foreign influences, it persisted so that after the fall of Constantinople (1453) the language of Byzantine exiles to the west was not greatly different from the Koine of Alexander and the New Testament.

After the conquest of Byzantium by the Ottomans, Greeks identified themselves as Romans; after all they were peoples of the Eastern Roman Empire. To distinguish themselves as Romans the language became known as Romaic, and because of its ethnic nature Romaic became not a public language of culture, but a private language of an ethnic group.  So as a result the Romaic transformed itself into the modern Demotic Greek with which it was identified at the time of the War of Independence in the early 19th century. Romaic was the beloved language of Lord Byron. That Byron played a significant role in the making of Romaic a legitimate heir to the ancient language is indisputable.

After the War of Independence and even before, Adamantios Korais and others worked hard to develop a formal though somewhat artificial language to bridge the gap between the demotic and the ancient forms of the language. Thus there arose an artificial language known as the Katharevousa or "purified" Greek and for a century or more it became the language of the State, newspapers and books. But it was not as successful as might have been hoped; Korais was an idealist and an educational advocate with hopes of bringing culture back to Greece. The diglossia problem became more and more evident as the 19th and early 20th centuries progressed, so that by the last quarter of the 20th century the Greek legislature declared the demotic or spoken language of the people the official language, and changed by law the accentuation from polytonic to monotonic. But a number of people have joined a movement to restore the polytonic system. So linguistic conflict among Greek speakers persists and it is that conflict between those who would retain the linguistic legacy and those who wish to become 'modern' which enables the language to be fluid and dynamic.

So Greek is Greek, and anyone who thinks otherwise has either forgotten or never learned the history of the language. This has become more and more apparent since Platon E. Drakoules delivered his lectures in Oxford in 1897. The Greek language has not morphed in any way so significantly that it could not be recognized by a Plato or Aristotle as his own. In fact one could say that before the legislature in Greece legitimized the demotic, Plato, with a little work, could easily learn to read a Modern Greek newspaper (katharevousa). And perhaps with a little additional work he might just be able to read one today (demotic). The changes in the language have been no more significant than the changes in English from Chaucer to today, and if you consider the time period, Greek in more than two thousand has changed no more than English in a few hundred. So to please some and perhaps most, but obviously not all, this page is dedicated to all things Greek Language, Culture, and Literature. 

                                     Ἡ Ἑλληνικὴ γλώσσα

                                 Ὅταν κάποτε φύγω ἀπὸ τοῦτο τὸ φῶς
                                 θὰ ἑλιχθῶ πρὸς τὰ πάνω ὅπως ἕνα
                                 ρυακάκι ποὺ μουρμουρίζει.
                                 Κι ἂν τυχὸν κάπου ἀνάμεσα
                                 στοὺς γαλάζιους διαδρόμους
                                 συναντήσω ἀγγέλους, θὰ τοὺς
                                 μιλήσω ἑλληνικά, ἐπειδὴ
                                 δὲν ξέρουνε γλῶσσες. Μιλᾶνε
                                 μεταξὺ τους μὲ μουσική.

                                                    Νικηφόρος Βρεττάκος

 

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