Letter from Thessaloniki

A vision is titillating Greece, the vision of a country incapable of preserving its language. Several years after Ms Anna Diamantopoulou (presently a PASOK member of Parliament) – then serving as social affairs delegate in Brussels – cast a bomb in an interview published in Kathimerini daily suggesting the proclamation of English as the official second language in Greece, another suggestion has recently shocked the country. Last week, maverick Cypriot Euro MP Marios Matsakis called for the «simplification» of the Greek written language, including the elimination of some letters from the Greek alphabet. It is a most daring proposal, which, the brave Euro MP stressed, would facilitate writing on computers and would be a help to dyslexics. In a letter sent to Cyprus Education Minister Andreas Dimitriou, Matsakis suggested the creation of a committee of linguists to «modernize or simplify» the Greek language. The goal is, according to the Cypriot Euro MP, «to facilitate the trend toward unifying the languages of the European Union.» One has to fit in with the European Union, talk its talk, walk its walk. Marios Matsakis (54) from Limassol even made some proposals of his own: that the letters «upsilon» and «eta» be dropped altogether from the alphabet as they share the same phonetic value as «iota.» «Such a change would make Greek script more simple and practical,» he said.  With – up until the present – a well-guarded historical and cultural heritage, Greek scholars have been uniquely and consistently against any similar changes. The Greek language has been written in the Greek alphabet – which continues to consist of 24 letters – since approximately the 9th century BC. Sure enough in classical Greek, as in classical Latin, only upper-case letters existed. The lower-case Greek letters were developed much later by medieval scribes to permit a faster, more convenient cursive writing style with the use of ink and quill. The reactions to Anna Diamantopoulou’s suggestion were fierce when her suggestion to adopt English appeared in the press about a decade ago. One blogger – on humorist Harry Klynn’s blog – wrote: «In 30, 40 years tops, we’ll be done once and for all with this ‘slavery of the Greek spirit’ issue, as one of those in power had put it, and after whom they named streets and shopping malls. The part I like most is that you act like a philhellene above all else, my dear Annie, trying to convince us that you want to protect us from the humiliation we’ll feel when we won’t be able to buy 3 kilos of salted tuna and 2 kilos of apricots because we won’t speak English fluently. Check it out people, what this modernized brain has come up with, and all this time we, poor suckers, believed in the old motto: ‘The wolf chases the lamb and the lamb goes to the temple.’» So, a decade ago, Anna Diamantopoulou’s linguistic suggestion was enough to make news buzz and tongues wag. This, of course, cannot stop the fact that English is international in at least two ways. It is spoken everywhere and it welcomes words from everywhere. English may not be a verbal melting pot, yet, unlike Greek, it is fusion cuisine. The language is more accepting of change and cultural diversity than is sometimes true of the people who speak it. However, it is expected that the new suggestion from Cyprus is going to cause havoc. And that is for sure. Of course, at first sight, Greece should be rushing to embrace such a happy prospect to have English as an – official – second language. But take a slightly closer look, and the vision starts to disintegrate. What?… Change our language… You must be out of your mind?… A language that even the Turks respected. True. According to some historians, if it wasn’t for the Turks, the Greeks probably would not even be speaking Greek today. Sir Steven Runciman, a top British historian renowned for his work on the Middle Ages, wasn’t the only one who maintained such a theory. In his book, «The Fall of Constantinople, 1453,» he wrote that although the Turks were cruel conquerors, they were also sensible governors. And, unlike the Roman Catholics, they did not persecute others for their traditions, religion and language. So Runciman – along with others – have supported the thesis that the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek language survived by submitting politically to the sultan. Meanwhile, the Hellenic community continued to maintain its identity in a way that might have been difficult under other rulers, say European, i.e. the Vatican at the time. Considering the well-known remark of Loukas Notaras, the last Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire – «better the sultan’s turban than a cardinal’s hat» – the atmosphere was tense just before the fall of Constantinople. The atmosphere is tense today too, considering the present discussion of the Greek language. Let’s admit it. The undeniable fact is that over the next two decades computing power will grow astonishingly, by a factor of about a million. Nowadays, close to 1.25 billion people speak English. It is the lingo of the Internet, of air-traffic control, diplomacy, science, commerce and pop culture. The Atlantic-to-the-Urals language idea is already English. As for us Greeks, we hardly want to admit it, but we already have voluntarily «simplified» and «Latinized» our language with a phonetic and hardly orthographic lingo called Greeklish. Some consider it dangerous for our cultural integrity. Yet it is here to stay. It is used by techno enthusiasts in MSN messages, on Internet sites and in blogs. This is a language used widely among friends of a younger generation as an informal, alternative means of communication.