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.