Greek diglossia and the “language question” through history and literature

This post will delve into the evolution of diglossia in the Greek language, the use of two very different forms of the same language for different purposes. This is a phenomenon that has its roots in Ancient Greece (800 B.C. to 500 B.C) and grew in form during the Byzantine Empire (395 A.D. to 1453). An increased gap between spoken and written Greek developed over time because of this phenomenon and raised the “language question” of what form of Greek the Greek people should use. The dichotomy between the two evolutions of the Greek language is a result of the distinction between educated readers and the general public, the foreign influences that made the language adapt, clinging to the glory of the Ancient Greek past, and the language being directly related to Christianity and social reformation.

Oral tradition was the main form of Ancient Greek expression and it was only later on that works of literature such as Homer were written down. The predominant dialects of the time were Attic (central Greece) and Ionic (outskirts and islands) which gradually evolved into “Koine” (common, shared). Koine Greek, also known as Alexandrian dialect, or common Attic, was the common supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written during the Hellenistic period, the Roman Empire, and the early Byzantine Empire, or late antiquity. It spread to massive proportions under Alexander the Great, as it was adapted as a second language by most of the ancient world during his reign. This was the first step towards dichotomy as educated readers longed for the classical period and an Attic dialect more closely related to Ancient Greek.

This longing started a language movement that would be the foundations of Greek diglossia and a long rift for the Greek language and its speakers. It was during the Byzantine Empire that diglossia became most prominent as educated readers looked to classical models and adopted a Greek archaizing style of writing. This archaizing style known as Byzantine Greek was the language of administration, most writings, and the Church, while Koine was seen by the scholars of the time as a form of linguistic degradation. Below on the left is a papyrus from the Michaelides Fragments collection housed in the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts department of the University Library. To the right is a Byzantine manuscript scanned as part of a project funded by the Polonsky Foundation to conserve and digitise 210 Greek Byzantine manuscripts in the University Library.

For further information about these and other manuscripts, see: ;

After the end of the Byzantine Empire and during Ottoman rule, the language slowly evolved from Koine to “Demotiki”, an evolution of the spoken language, while Byzantine Greek (the archaizing style of writing) remained the most common form of writing. As a result, the Greek people would speak in Demotiki but write in Byzantine Greek and its later evolution, which would be the foundations of “Kathareuousa”.

During the Byzantine Empire and after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Greeks had been conquered by Italians, Slavs and most notably the Ottomans, the last for 400 years. Through these conquests, the Greek language managed to survive, with the Church being a large contributor to and a big supporter in maintaining the Greek language and through it the Christian religion. Through those turbulent times, Demotiki grew in popularity as education declined and spoken Greek was the easiest form of expression. Furthermore, islands such as Cyprus and Crete which had resisted Ottoman rule (for the time being) produced texts in their own dialects thus furthering Demotiki as a form of writing. Notable writers in these dialects included Leondios Machairas Recital concerning the sweet land of Cyprus and Vitsentzos Kornaros, Erotokritos.

Towards the end of the 18th century a number of intellectuals who were influenced by European ideas wanted to raise the level of Greek education and culture and laid the foundations for the War of Independence (1821-1829). With Greek Enlightenment, the language problem rose again with each intellectual promoting a different form of the Greek language for the use of education and subsequent social and political reformation. Adamantios Korais, a prominent scholar of the Greek Enlightenment, and his supporters rejected linguistic influences from foreign languages in favour of a more classical, purified language. He took out words of foreign influence and replaced them with ancient Greek words. For instance, “phamelia” became “oikogeneia” (family), “ministros” became “ypourgos”. This language, known as “Kathareuousa” (literally “purifying language”), was already established as the language of the Church and with the new “cleansing” it became the formal language of the new state. Kathareuousa is therefore a somewhat artificial language based on the language of the Hellenistic period and the language of the Bible. It is closer to ancient Greek roots and classical inflections while its syntax differs slightly from Demotic Greek (see, for example, the Kathareuousa-Demotiki dictionary held at 781.c.99.5).

All of this change was not without opposition as through the years of the Ottoman rule Demotiki had gathered many supporters. An adamant supporter of Demotiki was Giannes Psychares , a Greek linguist who published the polemic book My journey in which he argued that instead of freeing the Greeks from Turkish words, the Turks themselves should be expelled from Greek lands. The dichotomy of the freed Greek language created an army of supporters that can be clearly seen in literature.

The University Library boasts a number of literary works from that period, including those by: Dionysios Solomos, Antonios Matesis, Kostis Palamas,, Alexandros Papadiamantis, Contastine Cavafy, Georgos Seferis, Odysseus Elytis and Nikos Kazantzakis.

On the left above is an extract from a selection of poetic works of Kostis Palamas and on the right an extract from the popular novel He Phonissa by Alexandros Papadiamantis. Palamas being an extreme advocate of Demotiki while Papadiamantis  a model of Kathareuousa standards.

The dichotomy of the language was so tense that on November 8, 1901 it resulted in the climax of the Gospel riots. The translation of the Gospels into Demotiki by Queen Olga Constantinovna created a series of riots that took the lives of 8 men.

The language once again took a back seat as the country suffered another blow with the Greek military junta of 1967-1974 known as the Regime of the Colonels (see, for example, 619:3.c.201.14) a series of far right military juntas that ruled Greece following the 1967 Greek coup d’etat led by a group of colonels on 21 April 1967. This ended on 24 July 1974 under the pressure of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. After the fall of the Junta followed Metapolitefsi and the establishment of the current Third Hellenistic Republic.

Kathareuousa which had once been the official language of the government and judiciary documents, newspapers and technical publications, was now replaced with Demotiki as part of the 1976 Education Act. The Education Act established Demotiki as the language of education while civil servants were trained in how to use it in official documents. It had become the language of instruction and Ancient Greek authors were to be taught in translation. This emphasises once again the strong influence of language in Greek society. The aim was not only a linguistic reform but to broaden intellectual, national and social aims in reforming Greek society and regenerating political life.

The unified Greek of today retains all the contributions of Kathareuousa to the language and keeps the form and grammar close to the spoken form.  This is now called Koine Neoelliniki. Although the language has gone through many transitional periods, it has remarkably not changed much since Hellenistic times with the vocabulary remaining mostly the same while the grammar has been simplified.

Vasiliki Vartholomeou

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