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.
I’ve written before about starting to learn to speak (modern) Greek, and how that’s not as easy to do when you know ancient Greek as people think. I’m pleased to say my Greek has improved quite a lot since that post – in fact a lot of that improvement has happened in the last week or so, since I’m currently in Athens taking an intensive language course at the Athens Centre.
I’ve recently started taking some classes in modern Greek – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, since it would be nice to be able to speak it when I travel to Greece (my repertoire up until now has consisted of a relatively fluent ability to order kebabs, but little else). The first thing people normally ask when I mention that I’m learning modern Greek is “how different is it really from ancient Greek?” To which the answer is, well, a) I can’t really speak ancient Greek, as opposed to reading it (the average Classics course is generally more concerned with teaching the vocabulary you need to read about the Persian War than useful phrases like “excuse me, I’m lost, which way is the marketplace please?”), and b) even if I could, I’d still have a lot of trouble making myself understood if I went around speaking it in modern-day Athens, because the language has changed so much. Continue reading “Greek, ancient and modern”
Another ancient scripts cake will be forthcoming very soon, as I’ve been commissioned to produce the Official Conference Cake for the ‘Understanding Relations Between Scripts’ conference, taking place in the Faculty in a couple of weeks’ time. Watch this space…*
Meanwhile, in a slight departure from the usual format of the Linguistics Baking series, here is a Modern Greek birthday cake. Yes, even in the Classics Faculty we occasionally venture out beyond the realms of dead languages in manuscripts and inscriptions, and attempt to use languages we can actually communicate in. My recent attempts at speaking in Modern Greek, however, were mostly sufficiently embarassing that sticking to writing it on cake seems the safest option.
*Yep, this is a shameless plug for a conference I’m speaking at. If neither the extremely exciting programme nor the at least equally exciting prospect of cake can tempt people to attend then I give up.
Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to go on a research trip to Greece, where I spent a happy couple of weeks in various museum workrooms. Naturally I also managed to get in some sightseeing around Athens (helped by the fact that Greek museums are only open for work until 3pm), so I thought I would share a few tips of things to do/see for any RG readers who may be visiting in future.