The substance of the Greek language: More than just words


International Greek Language Day is celebrated annually on February 9, the date when Dionysios Solomos, the national poet of modern Greece, has been commemorated since his death in 1857. Unmatched in its content and expression, the Greek language substantiates anthropocentric meanings. In ancient tragedy, the term “philanthropia” is defined as love for man: “Philo ton anthropon” means “love for mankind.”

In Aeschylus’ tragedy “Prometheus Bound,” the poet attributes the term “philanthropos” to his titanic hero. That was the first time in the history of world literature that the term and intellectual conception were introduced. It is no coincidence that the poet conceived and created this term. Aeschylus was shaped by the self-governed democratic polis, a political environment of holistic freedom for the Athenian citizenry.

Aeschylus experienced mankind at the peak of its autonomy, fighting to defend its freedom. The Golden Age of Classical Greece was the century that entrusted the political function – executive, legislative and judicial – entirely to the citizenry. The 5th century gave birth to the idea of the completed citizenship, that is to democracy.

Within a self-instituted and self-instituting polis, democratic life evolves through an unparalleled language that enriches it. Sophocles forged the term “ypsipolis” (high citizen) to describe the virtuous citizen who partakes in the free polis’ governance and is shaped by it. The poet urges his fellow citizens to pursue this goal. In contrast “apolis,” the citizen who is deprived of decency and justice, does not belong to the polis.

Honoring the Greek language, we also honor the intellectual treasures that this language has produced. This language was born and evolved in the space and time that gave birth to a unique phenomenon for civilization: the anthropocentric political society in freedom, while despotic entities surrounded it. The Greek world evolving toward democracy and freedom deepened and widened its intellectual strength about the human condition, and this profound reflection and the agonistic ethos are reflected in its language.

The anthropocentric substance in the texts of Greek literature renders them incomparable intellectual treasures for studying the phenomenon of the free man. The human condition in a state of freedom produced these enduring texts; it is not because geniuses happened to appear in that particular space-time. It is more reasonable to assume that shaped by the democratic becoming, the authors thought about the reality they experienced. They observed it and produced poetic, historical and philosophical discourse, to meet its demands and face its challenges.

The Greek language texts reflect the free man’s existential questions, his autonomous existence, and especially the challenges that stood before him. From Homer’s political societies until the birth of democracy, the Greek language produced civilization. It was shaped by it, by deepening and widening its dimensions as far as exploring the nature of a self-instituted autonomous man can go. The Greek language created intellectual tools in mutual cultural feedback with the Greek world’s evolutionary process. It conveyed high meanings for the autonomous man trying to cope with the increased responsibility of the self-governed and self-governing city-state.

The anthropocentric substantiation of the Greek language makes it unique and unparalleled. The Greek language’s uniqueness consists of the fact that the signifier (the phonemes of the word) and the signified (the meaning of the word) are mostly identical. For example, the word “democracy” describes the “demos” (citizenry) who rule the “polis.” The utterance of the word clarifies the conceptual content of the term. But the Greek language is not only accurate and descriptive at the semantic level. The Greek language has the power to shape the ethos. For example, the word “phthonos” (envy) comes from the verb “phthino” which means “to diminish.” The word itself warns us not to make this choice.

In English, the word “envy” is not descriptive of this choice’s effects on human personality. Similarly, the word “ekdikesis” (revenge) denotes a lawless, an unjust choice; it warns us that it resides outside the realm of law, and therefore deprives any legitimacy in one’s actions. The semantics of the English word “revenge” do not act as a deterrent to the ethical level. Last but not least, the Greek language moves the imagination. Let us take the word “agalma” (a glory delight / a statue), which comes from the verb “agallo,” which means “to take delight, to please one’s soul.” Comparing the Greek word “agalma” (semantics of the action of pleasing the soul) with the English “statue” – which derives from the Latin verb “to stand” (in Latin “sto/statum”) – we deduce that the word “agalma” denotes the movement of the soul from pleasure. In contrast, the term “statue” implies immobility.

We conclude that the Greek language’s uniqueness is that its descriptive meanings shape the man intellectually and ethically and guide him to his intellectual and ethical upliftment. It is more than just language but also a tool for creating a civilization that defines concepts authentically and with clarity, deepens and shapes the human ethos, and mobilizes one’s imagination. Greek words are not just words; they are semantics of wisdom, virtue and beauty. Each language is a way of thinking, expressing and perceiving the world. The Greek language substantiates the political culture of Homo hellenicus, a civilization that constitutes a matrix for autonomy relevant to the present and future man.

In conclusion, the Greek language in this respect is substantiated as an anthropocentric paradigm for autonomy. The Greek civilization paradigm, as reflected in the texts of the Greek language, is more relevant than ever to modernity. It can provide new meanings to our societies so that man becomes an end in itself rather than being the means on the altar of greed and speculation. The Greek literary discourse proposes a society of decency and justice that deters from hubris and excessiveness and paves the path for moderation; it has a lot to teach us today.

Ταμεῖον σοφίας, ἀρετῆς καἰ κάλλους
(A treasure of wisdom, virtue and beauty)

Dr Polyvia Parara is visiting assistant professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Maryland, USA.