A Brief History of a Long-Standing Language: Greek

By: Pola Papadopoulou

A few days ago I was asked by my father to help him with a number of documents related to work and so I had to write a few e-mails in Greek. While typing, I noticed something has changed; and it’s been like that since some time ago. As those e-mails needed to be written in a professional and formal way, with elevated vocabulary- meaning difficult words- I realized that I was at a loss for those words! Nothing would come to me although I like to believe that they were on the tip of my tongue. I found myself typing like it was the first time I ever used a computer and understood how easily another language can take over your native one if you not only let it, but also immerse yourself in it. Never forgetting that writing offers you the opportunity of an outlet for your feelings, I decided to tell you a bit about a long-standing language and, at the same time, to remind myself once more just how important the role of a language is and how directly and unshakably bonded it is with the culture it represents. Therefore, in this article I will try to present only a limited amount of information (because I don’t have the space of a novel available) about the evolution of the Greek language.

As the language with the longest history among the European languages, Greek has gone under a few alterations to get to the point that it is today. Manuscripts suggest that the Greek language begun its journey somewhere near the thirteenth century BC (it’s this old!) developed with the Mycenaean civilization. The form of the language back then, written and oral, was called Linear B (ΓραμμικήΒ). The collapse of the Mycenaean civilization brought about a new set of writing rules, the rules that actually made writing disappear. Yes, you have read that correctly. Another style of writing was employed when the written form was resurrected during the ninth and eighth century BC and even though the scripts written in that form are not the earliest, they are indeed those that survived the longest.

Once it started evolving, the Greek language reached a blooming period in time when there were a lot of dialects spoken around the country. The one that conquered, however, and is the ancestor of today’s form of the language was the Attic dialect (Αττικήδιάλεκτος). The end of this so-called Classical Period marked the emergence of the Hellenistic Koine, whose existence, even though short, brought about many changes in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar; changes that remain unaltered in today’s modern form. Atticism and Byzantine Greek have also made their “appearance” in the Greek language’s rich history only to culminate in today’s spoken form, also known as Modern Greek. Despite the fact that there are major changes in the language’s journey from its ancient form to its clear-cut modern structure, I strongly believe that it is of key importance to study and acknowledge the contribution of Ancient Greek, not only as the roots of the transformation of the language, but also as the pillar of the shaping of the Greek culture to what it is today or at least could have been today.

At this point and after the extremely short presentation of the language history (it can’t get any shorter than that really!), I would like to seize the opportunity and pick your brains on the subject of the interference and integration of a foreign language and a foreign culture into a language and culture as rich as the Greek one.

First of all and although I very much support internationality and multiculturalism as having great effects on a society, I still think that too much exposure to another language can affect a culture negatively. To take the Greek language and culture as an example, since the article has set the ground for it, the necessity of and, therefore, exposure to the English language has resulted in some alarming facts. I would like to mention the case of Greeklish (Greek and English) which is a very common way of communicating nowadays and it is especially popular among the youth. I myself am a “victim” of this trend. What I mean by this is that basically when typing on the computer, texting on our mobile phones and generally whenever there is some kind of texting involved it is very frequent to write Greek using, however, letters from the Latin alphabet. One such example is in everyday life; instead of writing «Τικάνεις;» (“How are you?” Or “What are you doing”), we tend to write “Ti kaneis?”. Imagine whole sentences, nearly reaching the length of a short story written in Greeklish. No wonder I was typing slower than a three year-old when I was asked to write purely in Greek. I couldn’t remember where the letters were on the keyboard and I would almost always forget the accent in every word.

Another instance is when words from the English language are integrated into our everyday vocabulary. Ok is the one that comes to mind at first, but there are various other cases as well. Watching English movies and series, which by the way are not dubbed over in Greek language but there are Greek subtitles used instead, or just playing games with instructions in English are just a few of the ways that one can be influenced by and use words like “awesome”, “cool”, “bye” and many others employed daily. But this is also a passage that leads us away from the proper use of our language and, consequently, always in my opinion, a step farther from our culture.

Being fluent in a number of languages is probably the most important thing right now concerning the job market, the globalization, the immigration and other concepts that shape our lives. In spite of this fact, one’s own cultural and linguistic roots signify the continuation of a long-standing “ancestral relationship”, especially in the case of Greece, and a dominant language like English should be accepted and welcome in any society in a manner of integration and not complete assimilation.

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