Whither Greek and French?

Two leading linguists – one French, one Greek – met the Athenian public Tuesday night to discuss the prospects of their languages in a world dominated by English. Language is always a hot topic in Greece and the audience overflowed into a separate hall at the Athens Concert Hall for the encounter between eminent French linguist Professor Claude Hagege and his Greek counterpart, Professor Georgios Babiniotis. The event, moderated by journalist Thanassis Lalas, was part of the Megaron Plus series. Hagege pleased the crowd by making his introduction in Modern Greek, afterward switching to French. He deployed his Ancient Greek later in the evening to prove his contention that the language of today is close enough to that of antiquity for speakers of the latter to easily understand the former. Hegemony The subject – «Do our languages have a future?» – found the speakers in agreement on one point, the threat presented to other languages by the growing hegemony of English. Their views diverged, however, on the best way to tackle the threat. Blasting what he sees as the European Union’s tendency to favor English over other languages – even over German, French and Italian – Hagege claimed there might be some reason for using English as a lingua franca «if it were an artificial language, like Esperanto. But it is not artificial – it is the language of the greatest superpower and of some other rich, industrialized countries. English is the language of neo-liberalism and the instrument by which this ideology is transmitted.» He foresees this tendency will lead to other languages being used only in private and eventually fading away. The answer, in his opinion, is intervention. Citing what he called the «encouraging example of Quebec, where a law saved French,» he recommends that other countries adopt drastic measures and that the EU itself adopt a strong policy of protecting languages. Otherwise, he said, to loud applause, Europe is at risk of becoming a «homogeneous entity. And a monolingual world would be profoundly boring.» Arguing that English has never had a vocation as a European language, Hagege pointed out that Great Britain had always had other concerns beyond Europe, and its gaze fixed on America in the West. If the heads of large multinationals choose to conduct their business correspondence in English, they do so out of snobbery or cowardice, copying American power: «This a case of mimesis, or mimicry in its worst form,» he declared. A member of the audience later took issue with Hagege on that point. In the shipping industry, he explained, one couldn’t expect international companies to know Greek – it was a matter of course to use English. Diversity A speaker of a remarkable number of languages himself, Hagege is naturally not opposed to anyone learning and using foreign languages. And, as he said, «it’s natural to want to learn the language of the country one wants to do business with.» The danger, according to Hagege, is that the dominance of English will cause other languages to be «marginalized, provincialized and eventually disappear.» For Hagege, diversity is the answer, and he recommended that the EU use several languages – such as French, German, Italian and Spanish rather than allowing English to take over. Babiniotis disagreed. «We don’t want to go the way of oligoglossia – the use of a few languages – or we will end up with five or six languages and lose the rest. Schools should give access to other languages. Why not teach Russian, Dutch or a Balkan language, at least at some schools?» How practicable that might be in Greek schools was a question later posed from the floor. Quoting noted linguist David Crystal’s 1997 interview with the Guardian, where he said that if English was the only language left it would be the greatest intellectual disaster ever, Babibiotis explained that of the 6,000 languages currently spoken around the world, half are expected to die. «In fact, languages are dying at the rate of one a week,» he said. And the loss of any language, no matter how few speakers it had or how remote their location, «is a loss to human culture.» How do languages die? He enumerated three ways: first, when there are no more speakers or they abandon their mother tongue for another official language, as occurred in Singapore; second, when linguistic hegemony makes other second languages fall into disuse; and third, within a language community some local languages may disappear because they are forbidden or are not supported: for example Arvanitika, Vlachika, once spoken in Greece. «But I take the optimistic view,» he said, «because I would say that languages have a future under certain conditions.» If there is language diversity, if people learn other languages, and if there is practical – that is, political and educational – support for languages. That support includes a commitment to teach more languages in schools and tolerance of other languages. «Just as Greeks want to have Greek taught in Diaspora unto the third generation, so migrants in Greece will want to learn their own language,» said Babiniotis. Likewise, teaching of translation and interpretation must be boosted. «Translation is the defense of the languages with few speakers.» And a good knowledge of one’s mother tongue offers resistance to the easy solution of using words from another language.» Policy Language policy is crucial, Babiniotis insisted. «We have to take a firm stand and say a clear yes and no to certain things.» He opposes the idea of language as purely an instrument, the linguistic hegemony of any language, homogenization and assimilation, a commercial perception – of what sells best, as opposed to language as a value. What is needed, said Babiniotis, is to raise awareness, give support to threatened languages and practical support to language diversity. That’s what the experts had to say. Let’s see if policymakers in the EU and elsewhere are prepared to heed the calls for diversity or whether economic considerations will prevail. Claude Hagege Claude Hagege was born in Tunis in 1936 and earned degrees in Arabic, Hebrew Chinese and Russian. He took his doctorate in linguistics in 1971. He has held the chair of Linguistic Theory at the College de France since 1977 and has been the director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes since 1988. He has written numerous articles and books and won many awards, including the Gold Medal of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Georgios Babiniotis Georgios Babiniotis was born in Athens in 1939. He took his doctorate from Athens University in 1969 and did postdoctoral studies in Cologne. He is a professor of linguistics at Athens University and has been the dean of the university since 2000. He was a pioneer of contemporary linguistics in Greece, and among the first to teach modern language analysis methods, applied to both Ancient and Modern Greek. He has published widely and won international recognition for his work.

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