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Greece's brush with linguicide


Greek alphabetMy mother, determined and idealistic creature that she was, struggled to bring me up a lady. 'Never make a scene, dear,' was an article of faith. But, she added, there is such a thing as righteous indignation. I like to think I was righteously indignant last week, but hopping mad was probably a more accurate description.

The reason for this was the latest arrogant and lunatic notion of the Troika. Not content with rolling back the concept of the welfare state in several countries, the European Commission (EC), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) considered, according to an online article, that it would make good economic sense if the Greek alphabet were scrapped in favour of the Latin one.

Was everything to be connected with the economy? At this thought I foamed at the mouth for days on end.

The article cited Troika mandarins as labelling Modern Greek a 'crazy script' that hampered tourism and trade. These same mandarins somehow estimated that the cost to Greece and Cyprus of maintaining their alphabet was 800 million euros per annum.

Well, the Troika is good at manipulating figures and even producing them out of thin air. But still, so what if the Greek alphabet was a lousy business model?

It was the label of 'crazy script', however, that really infuriated me. More like libel, really, I thought, as a red mist of rage descended. The article stated that the Irish had been persuaded to part with their Gaelic script, presumably another crazy typeface, in the mid 20th century, and had been, the implication was, all the better for it. So a timetable was mooted for the big Greek typescript changeover.

An attack on a culture's language is an efficacious way of destroying the culture itself, and scrapping an alphabet seemed to me to be the thin edge of the wedge. How dare they condemn an alphabet that had been adapted from Phoenician script as early as the eighth century BCE, while English and German writing lagged far behind?

I fretted and fumed some more, recalling Harold Pinter's brief, compelling play Mountain Language, in which a minority language is eradicated. And apparently the reality is that a language dies somewhere every day.

Through the murky mists of time I also remembered Daudet's story 'La Derniere Classe', in which the schoolmaster, after France's defeat by Prussia in 1871, teaches his last lesson in French: the next day the children of Alsace-Lorraine have to begin their schooling in German. M. Hamel exhorts the class to hold fast to its French: for when a population becomes enslaved, if it has its language still, it has the key to its prison.

And I was in Greece in the 1980s when uproar broke out because PM Andreas Papandreou had introduced the monotonic system of Modern Greek, which abandoned an ancient but complicated system of three accents and rough and smooth breathings. Eighty years previously people died in Athenian street riots over the ultimately successful proposal to replace 'high' katharevousa with the language of the people, dimotiki.

So I feared the consequences of the Troika's announcement. As if things weren't bad enough.

But then I eventually looked at the date on the piece. April Fool's Day. Could it possibly be? Yes, it could. Egg on my face, then, but not mine only: a Greek-Australian magazine had taken the story up, and waxed mightily indignant, the hoi polloi were protesting loudly, and Twitter was tweeting like mad.

The Athenian Anglophone, perpetrators of the hoax, preened themselves no end, and eventually updated their site eight days later with the news that the UK Guardian considered their effort among the 'most frighteningly convincing April fools'.

Much relief all round, but then I read a New York Times piece about history departments. For decades 'history from below', the study of women, minorities and the marginalised, has been in vogue, but now bosses, bankers and brokers are being studied, as a new generation of scholars believes that 'it really is the economy, stupid'.

In such a climate, no wonder the alphabet hoax fooled so many. And how sad is that? 

Gillian Bouras headshotGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, language



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Existing comments

April Fool! Thanks Gillian.

John Whitehead | 16 April 2013  

Imagine jettisoning modern Greek - no wonder you were righteously indignant/hopping mad! I've always liked the very stylish Sigma. I guess the hoax gave Twitter something to do on April Fool's Day.

Pam | 16 April 2013  

"An attack on a culture's language is an efficacious way of destroying the culture itself..." Echoes of Australia's history when aborigines were forbidden to utter their language. And this deprivation of culture and identity arguably dogs them to this day.

Fiona Douglas | 16 April 2013  

The root of this article might lie in a hoax, but it is actually a serious warning about the way our society is slowly reducing everything to a commodity to suit the profits of the philistine. Language is the vehicle for ideas; the richer, the more diverse it is, the richer, the more diverse will be the ideas it expresses. Relationships are more important than mere transactions, and take place in cultural terms and language appears to be both the core element in the development of culture and a major transmittor of it. And alphabets are important alongside idiom and vocabulary. Here in Australia, we have lost some of the distinctive latter as American TV programmes have dominated the airwaves. Gladthe Greek thing was a hoax but the idea is now out there in the ether, and someone somewhere might just pick up on the idea. Watch ye,and be ready, for the adversary like a roaring lion is prowling looking to see what he might devour; resist him ye. (Shiver) Never a truer word spoken!

smk | 17 April 2013  

Had me worried for a few moments there Gillian! Fortunately I read the whole article before sending it off in a fit of righteous indignation to Greek friends here in Sydney! I hope the last paragraph is eventually revealed to be a similar hoax.

Paul O'Shea | 17 April 2013  

Although it may be currently reduced to penury in stark economic terms, Greece, through all its interconnected incarnations and resurrections, has endowed and enriched the entire European world in immeasurable ways for several millennia, and continues to do so. It is nothing short of astonishing that one culture can prove so polysemic, can generate so much creativity in so many branches of knowledge, yet Greece is virtually in a class of its own in this respect. As SMK rightly points out, the language is both the propagator and the vehicle for disseminating the cultural bounty from which we have all benefited to this day. How dare anyone seriously suggest that this language can be disposed of, dispensed with, or vandalised! History and hindsight may well demonstrate that economics and the language thereof is a far more impoverished and sterile branch of knowledge and discourse than its pundits would have us believe.

Jena Woodhouse | 18 April 2013  

I loved that you were taken in by this, I would have been too. Greek script isn't so hard. I found it infinitely easier than Hebrew which was nigh impossible. I mastered NT Greek enough to pass as part of my first degree and I can still make out the text - though translation of it has largely gone. Your final warnings are very timely and apt!

Pearl Luxon | 19 April 2013  

I too was fuming and spitting. How dare anyone suggest removing a peoples language! But I kept my self nice and finished the article...... I was caught out! I hope this article made a few sit up and think of the consequences if this were true.

Kerry Harley | 22 April 2013  

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