On learning (modern) Greek

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A couple of years ago Johanna Hanink, a classicist at Brown University, wrote an excellent essay entitled ‘On not knowing (modern) Greek‘, discussing the fact that very few scholars of ancient Greek ever learn modern Greek; the average classicist studying ancient Greece is more likely to study French, German, and/or Italian than to learn the modern language of the country they study. Hanink argues very persuasively that this privileging of other modern European languages over Greek is effectively a continuation of 19th-century colonialist attitudes towards contemporary, as opposed to classical, Greeks:

…why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?

This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity…Viewed through the lens of the present, the people who undertook this more “symbolic” colonization of Greece look a great deal like early versions of classicists.

One of the story’s many legacies is that classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language, while Greeks who want to participate in the tradition — to have their voices and ideas heard abroad— earn degrees in other countries and publish their research in English, German, or French. Granting Modern Greek a more valued place in the professional conversation would be a positive step for a field that, on the point of colonialism, has a lot to answer for.

My own path towards beginning to learn modern Greek, I’m afraid to say, fits exactly into this pattern: during my graduate work, French, German, and Italian were the languages I really couldn’t get by without reading. It wasn’t until after I’d submitted my PhD that I started studying Greek properly, beyond the little I’d learned out of phrasebooks – I took a couple of different courses in Cambridge, set up conversations with a tutor based in Athens over Skype (set up via the site Italki, which is a great resource for connecting with language tutors), and finally decided that my Greek wasn’t going to improve any more unless I went to Greece and took an intensive course there – hence my recent trip, in which I took an immersion course (4 hours per day, for 3 weeks) at the Athens Centre. Several hours of speaking, reading, writing, and listening to Greek per day – and not just in the classes, but while walking around the city – definitely improved my Greek a huge amount. Even if I’m learning a language primarily to be able to read scholarship written in it (as was the case with German), I’ve always found that practising speaking a language is the only way I can really get to grips with the grammar so as to be able to read it properly, and in this case my decision to learn Greek was at least as much because I wanted to be able to speak to people on my relatively frequent trips to Greece for research and conferences. (I’m still more at the ‘speaking to people in shops and restaurants’ level rather than the ‘discussing difficult research issues with colleagues at a conference’ level, but it’s a start…certainly I’m doing better than the last time I wrote about attempting to speak to people in Greek!).

So what’s it like learning modern Greek as a classicist who already knows ancient Greek? Well, for a start, you get a lot of Looks from your tutor when you don’t know the word for something and hope that you might be able to get away with just saying the ancient Greek word, but pronounced in modern Greek (the pronunciation is one thing that’s changed quite a lot). Sometimes the word is still essentially the same, and it works fine; more often, it produces first puzzlement and then a slightly despairing “αρχαία ελληνικά!” (arhaia ellinika, “ancient Greek!”). Knowing ancient Greek certainly does give you an advantage in some ways – already knowing the alphabet; being able to recognise or guess the meaning of a lot of words; being familiar with a lot of the grammatical structures, although there have been changes to these as well. But as Hanink also points out, learning modern Greek can help with ancient Greek too:

There’s no denying that having to decline Greek nouns when I order a pizza, or manipulate Greek verbs when I ask the way to the swimming pool, has brought even the ancient language to life for me. After years of studying Modern Greek, I have a far better recall for vocabulary, handle on verb forms, and instinctive sense for accentuation. The time I have dedicated to Modern Greek is some of the best I have spent as a classicist, since it has given me a sounder, more internalized sense of the ancient language

Trying to get to grips with grammatical features of modern Greek has definitely helped me to think of similar features in ancient Greek not as things that people learn in grammar tables, as classicists do, but as parts of the spoken language that people would have used mostly without consciously thinking about it at all – even though I can’t quite do that yet!

As a linguist, I also find it interesting – and fun – to trace how the language has changed – not just in the pronunciation, or the grammar, but in the history of individual words. Plenty of modern Greek words go straight back to classical Greek words, or can easily be seen to be derived from them – e.g. the word for a city, πόλη (poli), is still essentially the same as ancient πόλις (polis), just with a slightly different grammatical form; whereas the other ancient word for city, ἄστυ (astu), isn’t normally used now, but is still found in compounds like αστυνομία (astinomia, “police”: the second part is from νόμος, nomos, ‘law’) or προαστιακός (proastiakos, ‘”suburban”) – and this word even goes back as far as the (very) ancient Greek I study, dating from hundreds of years earlier even than classical Greek, with wa-tu = wastu being the Mycenaean Greek form of the word, whose history can therefore be traced over three thousand years.

On the other hand, many words have changed their meaning significantly: Hanink gives the example of αγαθός, agathos, which in ancient Greek meant ‘good’, but now means ‘naive’ (just as well I never tried to use that one). Many other new words have been borrowed at different times from other languages, especially Italian and Turkish due to the occupations of parts of Greece by Venetians and the Ottoman Empire (one Turkish-derived word I learned in reading a political newspaper article was ρουσφέτι, rousfeti, “a political favour” – in the context of Ottoman court politics, it’s easy to see how that one ended up being borrowed, though unfortunate that it’s still in common use today). Most recently, of course, English has been the source of a lot of borrowed words – I’m particuarly fond of γκουγκλάρω (gouglaro, “I google”) and the word my tutor used to describe our task of reading and reporting on a newspaper article, προτζεκτάκι (protzektaki, ‘little project’ – formed by borrowing the English word and adding the Greek diminutive suffix –aki to it. I just think that’s very cute, as well as being a nice linguistic example of how borrowed words eventually get fully integrated into the borrowing language’s grammar).

Overall, I’m very glad I went to Athens for some intensive language learning – it definitely paid off, although now that I’m back in the UK I’m going to have to keep working on speaking/reading Greek so as not to forget it all (and maybe some day I’ll manage to get back to the Athens Centre again for the next level of their course!). Even if you’re not a classicist and only go to Greece for beach holidays, learning just a little Greek definitely pays off – people are always pleasantly surprised by visitors who make the effort to speak in Greek, and I hope I’ve also given something of a sense of how fascinating a language, with such a long history, it really is.

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

32 thoughts on “On learning (modern) Greek”

  1. That’s a very insightful post and it is amazing. I am quite aware of the history of my native language but I’ve never thought that people might seriously try to learn present day Greek and the benefits that it might have. It also came as a surprise to me that people may see lack of study of modern Greek as colonialism. It is nice if people make an effort to learn greek but I think for most Greeks it is totally understandable that it is not one’s first priority.
    And since you have improved your modern Greek you might be interested in this book I ve come across.
    https://www.protoporia.gr/ellinika-ethni-kata-tin-epochi-toy-chalkoy-p-471702.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found it interesting! What the article I quoted from argues is not that any one person failing to learn modern Greek is ‘colonialist’, just that the system of studying Classics (at least in the UK/USA) essentially assumes that modern Greek is not a language anyone needs to learn for research purposes, which I think Hanink is right to say at least partly traces back to a similar kind of (systemic/institutional) attitude towards modern as opposed to ancient Greece as was seen during the 19th century (though of course it’s more complicated than that).

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  2. Thank you for discussing this further, it is indeed more complicated but it is a valid point the article raises. It reminds me of an article in a greek magazine I had read many years ago, explaining how Europeans visiting post- independence Greece were kind of feeling let down by the realities of life there as opposed to the glorious past they were used to read about.

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    1. Interesting! Sadly it’s still true that however few people study Classics at university (in the UK, at least), even fewer study modern Greek (Cambridge is gradually phasing out its provision of modern Greek to undergraduates at the moment; there are now only a couple of universities in the country where it’s possible to get a degree in modern Greek language/literature at all)

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      1. That’s sad but it’s a reality. We can take some comfort in the fact that nowadays it’s far easier to study abroad or online but I feel we are missing one of the most important things in greek language that is the evolvement. Of course there are Greek universities etc but I believe that non-native speakers offer a much deeper insight into research as they can “think out of the box”. Of course I have no academic background in literature so I may be totally wrong.

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        1. Of course – I’ve had a lot of lessons via Skype which has been really handy! I guess both native and non-native speakers have advantages: as you say, non-natives perhaps bring different perspectives, but on the other hand native speakers will be able to pick up on nuances of expression that non-natives may always struggle to

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          1. That’s one of the great things about science, collaboration between people with different backgrounds and ways of thinking which promotes knowledge and understanding.
            And if you ever need to practice modern Greek or have a question about every day use of the language feel free to Skype me.

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    2. First of all: great article! Very well-written and makes many great points – esp. about immersion and gaining a better insight into the language
      A few points:
      -I find repetitive research jargon is easier to understand than colloquial language.
      – how do “Western” scholars (especially archeologists) deal with the fact that they choose to ignore vital scholarship published by Greeks to the detriment of their research?
      -ancient Greek words are high register, or may be ironically, or survive as alternative versions in regional dialects.
      – Αγαθός may mean ‘innocently kindhearted’ more than ‘naive’ (while αγαθιάρης is full-out naive).
      – Turkish borrowings are usually Ottoman Turkish, i.e. often hide Persian or Arabic origins, and sometimes go back to an originally Greek term (e.g. tefteri, karati etc.).
      – Italian borrowings are often particular to the Venetian dialect, and many times they’re not Italian at all: they date to the Late Antique and Byzantine period, when the use of Latin meant a tidal influx of Latin vocabulary into Greek.
      -Political analysts have started to use “kickbacks” instead of “rousfeti”. I don’t know what to think of that :-).

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      1. Glad you enjoyed the post! Absolutely, it can be much easier to read technical writing (in a subject you’re familiar with) than anything else – I’m sure I’d struggle with a newspaper article in French/Italian/German at this point even though I read academic stuff in them all the time. Talking about it is a whole other story, though! And of course I’m oversimplifying the state of borrowed words into Greek which can have a whole host of different origins (as you say, just because a word came via Turkish doesn’t mean it was necessarily originally Turkish). The variation in register between more ‘modern/colloquial’ and more ‘ancient/formal’ is something I didn’t get round to writing about but also find very interesting – presumably a hang-over from Καθαρεύουσα to some extent! And thanks for the info re. ‘kickbacks’ (how do you grammaticalise that in Greek? is it neuter plural?) – a nice update to my example of borrowing!

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        1. It is a fact that the ghost of Καθαρεύουσα is still around! And since this is Greece one has to take into account the politics behind language. Right wing tends towards Καθαρεύουσα (and ancient/formal words) while the left wing is leaning towards Δημοτική (colloquial/spoken). Of course it is less obvious today than the previous generation but it is still here pervading the language.

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          1. “And since this is Greece one has to take into account the politics behind language.”
            There’s politics (and ideology) behind every language: from the layered political meaning of using various forms of English in Ireland (excellently portrayed by Joyce) and how the German and French educational ministers treated regional dialects to the linguistic turf wars of Alsace and the social-political implications of code-switching in classist Britain. And that’s just Europe – I won’t even go to e.g. China’s policies to undermine Wu and Cantonese as regional languages.
            A language is never just a language-it’s a world. To think that this is a phenomenon exclusive to Greece or the Greek language is very, very narrow.

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            1. I quite agree and thank you for pointing out that this is a global phenomenon! The facts you mention sound very interesting. I should have suspected as much and I stand corrected.

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              1. They say that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. I’d add schools to that. My question is how do we value this imposition of a standardised dialect on others: it’s applauded when it happened in the distant past as an act of sound educational policy, but frowned upon when it happens today.

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                1. Yes indeed! And I would add TV to these. I haven’t given much thought to the “double standards” you mention and it is really a very thought provoking remark!

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  3. ΛΟΛ: γκουγκλάρω (gouglaro, “I google”)
    Having learned modern Greek before Homeric Greek was very helpful in the same ways as you point out about the reverse – already knowing the alphabet, etc, but it’s VERY difficult to switch pronunciations. I’ve read many articles on the topic of the pronunciation changes from ancient to modern Greek, but I’ve never read a really convincing argument. I secretly harbor a suspicion that the colonialists just didn’t know how to properly pronounce an “upsilon” as “eepsilon.” I’d love your take on this!

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    1. “google” is just a great verb in any language (I’m also very fond of the German: googeln, past tense ich habe gegoogelt). Re: changes of pronunciation – a lot of the changes that distinguish modern from classical Greek actually were already in progress during the late classical/Hellenistic period (e.g. not I think the merger of /y/ (upsilon) with /i/ etc – I’m not sure exactly when that happened – but definitely the merger of e.g. long i with long e. There are a lot of very complicated changes with vowels throughout the whole period, actually! Some good books on the history of Greek in general: Geoff Horrocks, Greek: a history of the language and of its speakers; Stephen Colvin: A brief history of Greek; A.-F. Christidis (ed.), A history of ancient Greek (this one is a v large collection of chapters to dip into rather than try to read the whole of!)

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      1. Thanks for the great resources, Anna, I’ll have to check them out. It’s not the long i to long e that bothers me, but that oops-ilon just grates on my nerves, lol! btw, love that: gegoogelt! ;^)

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        1. Ah, I think I see the difficulty – it’s natural for English speakers to think of the sound represented by upsilon as a back-of-the-mouth ‘oo’, but actually in classical Greek it was a front-of-the-mouth sound with rounded lips, more like a French ‘u’ or a German ‘ü’. So much closer in pronunciation to an ‘i’ (also a front vowel), and therefore an easier change, than it might seem!

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  4. Of course, every society has its own set of politics around language use. In the case of Greece, its relationship with ancient Greek specifically, as part of the broader issue of the relationship of the country to ancient Greece, is an interesting one though. It’s pretty much universal to think that language deteriorates, and that linguistic change is bad (neither of which are true) – but I don’t know of many other places that are still comparing their language to a form from thousands of years ago (or where you even can do that!)

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    1. Considering that Classical(ish) Greek has been the default written language of elites for about two millenia after Aristotle, its consequent role on modern Greek and its importance in Greek culture should be obvious even without factoring in any foreign influence or expectations. Greek intellectuals and clerics were writing in atticising Greek in the early 18th century without it being a political statement (there was no modern Greek state yet). The same argument can be made for the prominent role of Latin in Spanish and Italian culture until at least the 18th century, but its presence is often erased from narratives (as pointed out in a recent eidolon.pub article titled “Why So Few Of Us Teach Neo-Latin”).
      As for places that are comparing their language to a form from thousands of years ago, it’s not unusual: there’s the huge debate about Hebrew standardisation and vocabulary in Israel (relation to biblical and talmudic Hebrew, loanwords etc.), the discussion around the towering influence of Sanskrit on modern Hindi, and the even larger debate around Modern Standard Arabic, the language taught in many schools and used by most media, which is based on 8th c. Arabic and is very different from any modern dialect. Singling out Greek seems a bit like double standards…

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      1. I’m not sure what you mean by “double standards”. I don’t think saying that ancient Greek culture and language is important to modern Greece is a criticism, merely an observation.

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        1. I used “double standards” because there’s usually the (implied or right-out-open) criticism that the role of ancient Greek in modern Greek culture is a sign of deep insecurity, a neurotic obsession with fostering a tenuous connection to a distant past, a way of covering up political problems etc., and that this obsession is highly unusual among modern nations.

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          1. I’m sorry if I inadvertently gave the impression that that is what I meant. “Obsession” with the past per se is certainly not unique to Greece; the UK, for instance, has a very complicated and often highly problematic relationship with its history, and everything you said above that people criticise Greek use of history for could equally be said about the UK and probably many other countries.

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  5. Just for the record Anna, I live in Crete and find the modern language very difficult. I know many words which I understand, but the difficulty is making conversation. I have been to collage classes which did not help, so gave up and as you know I am learning Linear B. which is much more interesting.

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