Teaching Greek language and language ideology

The value of Modern Greek for the student of the Ancient language is attested by many classicists who have studied the modern language, and was a favorite theme of Albert Thumb, Nicholas Bachtin, George Thomson, Robert Browning, and other distinguished classicists. The same can be said in reverse–some knowledge of Ancient Greek can be helpful to students–and teachers–of the modern language. Teachers of Modern Greek may find some knowledge of Greek language history helpful even in teaching students with no knowledge of Ancient Greek.

Several Classics Departments in the USA offer Modern Greek language instruction; this website is meant to be a collaborative resource for teachers of Modern Greek who work with students and colleagues with greater exposure to the ancient language. It may also be useful to teachers of Ancient Greek whose students know Modern Greek, and to students of all phases of the language.

It may be that the Greek language has had as many and as varied dialects as the Romance languages descended from Latin; the key difference is that in Greek one or more standard, prescriptive, “High” (H) forms of the language have always monopolized prestige to the extent that local/”Low” (L) dialects generally did not find written expression. Many dialects have been lost over the last century, but dialects persist in Cyprus, Crete, and other regions. In recent years, the former “Low” variety (demotic) has in some contexts come to monopolize prestige (this is obvious, e.g., in Cyprus).

Classicists who maintain that Ancient Greek has no relation to Modern Greek, or that the latter is not useful to students of the former, overlook the complex history of survivals of Ancient Greek both at the formal H level and in L dialects. By the same token Modern Greek language instructors who don’t integrate knowledge of the language’s history into their instruction are missing pedagogical opportunities to make the language more intelligible to students.

While it may not always be advisable to introduce elements of Ancient Greek at the introductory levels for all students, students with knowledge of Ancient Greek, and other students with an interest in language and language history, may find such connections helpful in learning Modern Greek. Introduction of such elements is possible in the context of communicative teaching without reverting to the methods of grammar/translation. This was the force of the reform of Greek teaching at Birmingham by George Thomson and Nicholas Bachtin, and an approach we are implementing at OSU with the goal of integrating Classics graduate students into primarily undergraduate MG courses.

The skepticism of some classicists towards Modern Greek reflects an ideology of linguistic decline that was famously expressed by Nietzsche—”it was subtle of God to speak Greek, and to speak it so poorly.” This ideology of decline is itself a part of the history of the Greek language from the Hellenistic period and the Roman Atticist movement through the history of katharevousa. Korais for example called the absence of the infinitive “the most frightful vulgarity of our language”; Fallmerayer wrote “Eine Sprache ohne Infinitiv ist nicht viel besser als ein menschlicher Körper ohne Hand”. George Thomson cited the words of a colleague, a professional classicist: “I started once to learn some Modern Greek, but, when I found they use the genitive instead of the dative, I felt affronted and had to give it up.” Thomson continues, “He should have devoted his life to Common Indo-European, in which the cases are all inviolate-a language which is not only safely dead but has never existed, a pure abstraction. This is only an extreme case of that disdain for reality which has done so much to lower the prestige of classical studies.”

It should not be difficult to show students who are already motivated to study Ancient Greek how useful Modern Greek can be for improving their command of the Ancient language. Students who already have a historical orientation to language can easily see that study of Modern Greek comes not at the expense of Ancient Greek, but that study of both is complementary and a unique opportunity to encounter a diachronic record comparable only to Chinese and the Sanskritic languages of India.

The personal experience of Geroge Thomson is relevant:

“I visited Greece for the first time as a student in 1926. Like every student, I was deeply impressed when I found myself standing under the shadow of the Parthenon. But this feeling did not last. It gave way to an oppressive doubt: ‘There was only one Hellas, and she is gone and will not come again.’ Before making the journey I had got hold of Thumb’s Handbook of the Modern Greek Vernacular and picked up a smattering of the spoken language, just enough to maintain a precarious conversation. Looking back after all these years, I find that what I learnt from Thumb’s Handbook has meant more to me than all the monuments of antiquity.”

On this basis he argues: “an English student reading Plato with no knowledge of Modern Greek is at the same disadvantage as a foreign student reading Chaucer with no knowledge of Modern English. For such students, however erudite they may become, the language of their author must remain for ever dead. No foreign student of English would be so misguided as to cut himself off from the living source, and the foreign student of Greek should learn from his example. In that way he will develop a creative activity which is real, not artificial, and he will find that the ancient language he is studying suddenly comes to life.” These words are echoed by Robert Browning (1984): ‘Ancient Greek is not a foreign language to the Greek of today as Anglo-Saxon is to the modern Englishman.…It cannot be too much emphasised that Greek is one language, and not a series of distinct languages’.

This vision of Greek as a single language involves simplifications that may limit the appreciation of dialects and important differences between Ancient and Modern Greek. But neither should the abstractions of Greek Ancient and Modern be seen as characteristic of Greek as a whole; as Nicholas Bachtin wrote, there is no single Modern Greek language, there is only “the present state of Greek;” language itself is “a moving equilibrium, ceaselessly recreated, a process indivisible, and of which no stage can be considered in isolation.”Alongside the many dialect forms of the language, Standard Modern Greek itself is heavily influenced by katharevousa, with Ancient Greek as its prototype. Joseph and Janse (2014) have shown that Thumb’s grammar of the Demotic Greek of the urban centers a century ago describes a language that speakers of Standard Modern Greek would regard as substandard (e.g. noun declension: πρᾶμα, πραμάτου, πράματα, πραμάτω).  While many aspects of contemporary spoken Greek show victories for demotic (θα vs. θέλει + INF, η πόλη vs. η πόλις, etc.),  katharevousa won insofar as it continues to influence spoken and written Greek. SMG today incorporates many katharevousa elements.

Among the Orthodox Christian populations of the Rum millet Greek was a prestige language insofar as it was the language of the church and the patriarchate. St. Cosmas the Aitolian stigmatized Aromanian and Albanian as languages of the devil, established Greek schools and persuaded whole villages to abandon the use of other languages.

But Greek has not always and everywhere been a prestige language. Within the Balkans Greek ecclesiastical–and linguistic–dominance elicited hostility. As Marx wrote in the New York Tribune in 1854, the Greeks, “numbering perhaps 300,000 souls distributed throughout the cities of the Empire… are so thoroughly detested by the other Christian tribes that, whenever a popular movement has been successful, as in Servia and Wallachia, it has resulted in driving away all the priests of Greek origin, and in supplying their places by native pastors.” Michalis Marinis describes interviewing one of the few remaining Greco speakers in Calabria, an elderly man whose wife covered her face in shame at hearing her husband speak Greek. In this part of Italy it was proverbial that when one encounters a lupo and a Greco, one should kill the latter.

Prestige forms of Greek have played an important role in the history of the language not only by constantly reintroducing old forms through ecclesiastical and learned usage, but also by stigmatizing forms of the language actually spoken by many speakers. People from villages or diaspora communities may be self-conscious about speaking an “incorrect” forms of the language. A recent newspaper article cites Akis Spanoudis, author of translations of Homer into Cypriot:  «Στην Κύπρο στιγμάτιζαν όποιον μιλούσε κυπριακά και το 1960 με την εγκαθίδρυση της Κυπριακής Δημοκρατίας απαγορευόταν δια Νόμου και καλλιεργείτο η τάση ότι η κυπριακή διάλεκτος είναι μια ξένη γλώσσα και όσοι την μιλούσαν αποτελούσαν διαφορετική οντότητα.» A native speaker of Swiss German once reported, of her own language, that “dass ist keine Sprache.” Attitude studies commonly show that speakers of a dialect tend to believe that they do not speak a language at all or that the variety they speak has no grammar.

This tendency may be exacerbated for heritage learners confronted with the prescriptive teaching of SMG as L2, especially in a classroom where other students have a background in Ancient Greek. As Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl observes, if teaching of SMG is interpreted by students as implying, “what you say is wrong,” the student may think, if not say: “but my grandmother says…” Classics teachers may similarly inhibit students of ancient Greek and heritage learners alike when they say that Modern Greek is irrelevant to Classical Greek. The self-serving stigma snobs perpetuate is itself part of Greek language history.

If a prescriptivist approach towards teaching SMG conveys the pedantry and authoritarianism associated with the worst teaching of classical languages, heritage learners (and others) may lose a powerful motive for study in addition to suffering needless embarrassment and shame. SMG may be as intimidating to some heritage speakers as Ancient Greek. What is the effect of language ideology on speakers who speakers believe the language they were raised to speak is inadequate, or not a language at all?

This experience may not be confined to the classroom but extend to the home. One heritage student reported that before classroom study she had not realized how ignorant her father, a native speaker of Greek, was of “his own language”; he speaks, as she put it, “χωριάτικα”. In teaching SMG to heritage speakers as to students with a background in Ancient Greek, it can be useful to emphasize that languages are how a group of speakers express themselves and understand each other. Language is not limited to those standard languages that have been canonized by writing. Maybe this is what Kazantzakis had in mind with his reference to καλαμαράδες at the beginning of his Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά.

Katharevousa was one manifestation of this language ideology, but it is far from certain that its formal abolition has improved the situation; Moschonas argues that the late demoticists themselves adopted the puristic attitude of katharevousa. Hatzidakis foresaw that loss of katharevousa as a formalized, official language would contribute to the loss of dialects. Younger Greek speakers have been deprived of their own heritage to the extent that the language and literature of recent generations have been lost to them. L2 students of Greek can benefit from teaching that is sensitive to these issues of language history and shows the many ways the history of the language can inform their joy in learning Greek. Teaching of the standard language should also respect the value of contemporary regional as well as historical dialects, including dialects of Greek as spoken in the USA as, for example, the Greek of Columbus, Ohio as described by Panyiotis Pappas.


Brian Joseph discusses diversity in Greek (“Greek” in the broadest sense)  in “Why Greek is one of The World’s Major Languages.” Discussion Note. Journal of Greek Linguistics 9.187-194 (2009).