VII. The Greeks
5. Vulgar and Literary Greek
The Greeks, but for one fatal handicap, would probably be a literary people. They are before all else an imaginative race. They have quick instincts, vivid perceptions, and fluent speech. They think with the exaggeration, the emphasis of literature, they have the passion for expression. They are acutely aware of language, and grasp with ease the conception of style. But this nation of linguists, heirs to the speech of Attica, has as yet no language in which to express itself. Or, rather, it has two languages. There is, first, the popular Greek of daily life, the Romaic of the Levant. It is a vivid, expressive speech, full of pithy proverbs, apt idioms, and turns of phrase that betray a keen humour and an alert original power of observation. Its
structure is loose, simple, and analytic. Its vocabulary is copious, and much less weighted with foreign words than any other modern language, though it does, of course, betray by roots of Italian, Vlach, or Turkish origin the vicissitudes of the race which speaks it. It stands to ancient Greek much as Italian stands to Latin. It is a language with a character and a history of its own, which has developed, a living, organic thing, by its own genius and its own law. It has a literature, not perhaps of surprising force or beauty, but still possessed of some character and individuality. The folk-songs of the islands, and the war-songs of the Klephts and Armatoles reflect with simplicity, sincerity, and vigour, the vivid, eventful lives of the men who made Greece a nation. They sang as they spoke, in words that had a colour, a meaning, an emotional ring derived from the accidents and passions of their daily existence. Side by side with this free, natural language, there has grown up an artificial literary language. It is the descendant of the stilted jargon written by Byzantine schoolmen, and it owes its present authority to the propaganda of two great patriots who prepared the literary revival that preceded the war of independence. While the Klephts were singing their way to victory with their half-savage, half-heroic ballads in Romaic, Coraes and Regas, exiles in Paris and Vienna were inditing elaborate literary and political tracts in a pseudo-classic dialect of their own invention. In the glorious past they found the inspiration of revolt, and they sought to revive with Greek freedom a passable imitation of the old Greek language. It seemed patriotic to banish the words borrowed from Venetians or from Turks. It seemed barbarous to use the analytic forms of Romaic accidence and the loose constructions of Romaic syntax. A movement which invoked such potent words as dignity, patriotism, and the glorious past, had a speedy success. The result is that there is now one language for daily life and lyric poetry, and another for books, newspapers, advertisements, and formal speeches. The difference is not that between the written and spoken language of other countries. We all use a rather more
studied and periodic style in writing, avoid certain vulgarisms or neologisms, and employ without fear of pedantry a larger choice of words. The difference between Romaic and written Greek is a difference of vocabulary, of accidence, of syntax and even of phonetics. The card in the restaurant will offer you and with ad lib., but the guests ask for , and (white wine, black wine and bread), and if by chance any one were to use the printed names, the waiter would treat the experiment as a sally of wit. I once had to send a telegram in which I made use of the words (new house). No sane Greek in speaking would ever use any other combination of words to indicate the same idea. But the clerk remonstrated. I must mean . And when I protested that I wished to telegraph, not in ancient but in modern Greek, he retorted that when he was at school he would have been thrashed at a first offence for writing and expelled for the second. And yet, despite its foreign origin, neither he nor any other living man in Greece ever dreamed of using in daily speech any word save (hospitium). It is the name that the child uses for his home before he has been taught that the ancients had another. No peasant, and few women, would even know what means. The one word has all the associations of the mother tongue; the other, for all that it is Hellenic, is foreign and unfamiliar, as colourless as an algebraic symbol. For literature the prohibition of the first word is disastrous. It means that it has at its disposal no word which stirs an emotional echo. It is as though we were to erase "home" from all our poetry and substitute "residence." The question of accidence is still more serious. Romaic is a language which uses inflections sparingly. It has lost the dative altogether, and even tends to discard the genitive, while it expresses most relations by a preposition governing the accusative. The brigand in the ballad said of the sixty Agas (I burned their villages). The modern purist will write or even , which, as M. Psichari neatly puts it, is much as though a Frenchman were to try and improve J'ai brulé leur villages by writing
illorum villages. Worst of all, there is no clear understanding as to how far this process of "purification" is to go. Each man is his own academy, and while Romaic has one clear way of expressing a simple idea, the purists are not agreed on the stilted formula which should take its place.  The only safe rule in writing Greek is never to be natural. The nearer you can come to the ancient language the better do you write, and every eccentricity of grammar becomes a beauty of style. The one canon of Greek style is not to write as the common people speak; and instead of seeking distinction in apt words, the purists find it in old ones; instead of aiming at dignity in beautiful rhythms, or in phrases that embody some fresh perception or original thought, they seek it in stilted and borrowed archaisms. Indeed, the process of reviving not so much Attic as Byzantine Greek, has gone so far that one marvels that it goes no further. The Archbishop of Athens once wrote a sort of circular pastoral to the newspapers pointing out that if they would only revive one ancient word every day, in the course of two or three years their vocabulary would be absolutely Attic. But somehow the common sense of the people seems to shrink from this final systematic effort. The results of all this pedantry upon literature have been as deplorable as one might expect. A literature which uses a language in which no real man ever expressed a human emotion is condemned to barrenness and insincerity. Goethe translated some Romaic ballads, but who would do as much for the Greek poets and novelists of to-day ? The polite language is already so much a foreign tongue, that educated Greeks are more and more tending to adopt French both for conversation and for writing. French, at least, is a natural language, which is not at the mercy of pedants and patriots.
There is, of course, a reaction against all this folly, but it makes way but slowly, since it has against it not only the official forces of the Church, the schools, and universities, but also the instinctive vanity of the people. The Greeks
1. See the excellent preface to Pernod's "Grammaire Grecque Moderne " (Garnier Freres).
who have attempted to write in the popular tongue mostly live abroad — M. Psichari in Paris, M M. Pallis and Michaelides ("A. Ephtaliotes") in Liverpool. They have been overwhelmed with abuse as bad patriots and illiterate vulgarians. M. Pallis' translation of the Gospels into Romaic even led to a bloody riot in Athens, and the Ministry of the day was expelled from office because it had dared to suppress the patriotic mob. There is now a party of young men who venture to use their own natural language, and if among them there should prove to be a man of genius who will write a book which will go into every Greek home and commend itself to the heart of the people as a national classic, the battle will be won. At present the field is vacant. The purists have produced no notable writer, and the common people, who simply do not understand the printed language, are totally indifferent to literature.
The bearing of this linguistic question on the progress of Hellenism in Macedonia is important. If the Greek peasant fails as a rule to learn the written language and reads it with difficulty, the case of the half-Hellenised Albanian, or Vlach, or Bulgarian, is desperate. If he is to attain education through the medium of Greek, he must learn not one foreign language but two. The talent for languages is innate among the Balkan races. Greek is spoken everywhere in the Levant, and to pick up a colloquial knowledge of spoken Romaic presents no great difficulty. The Bulgarian peasants round Castoria (or, to be more precise, the men among them) can all speak it more or less well, by dint of using all manner of non-Hellenic words and taking liberties with the grammar. The Levantines of English, French, or Italian origin in Smyrna, Salonica, and Constantinople come to speak it as a second mother-tongue. But it is equally useless to the peasant as an avenue to education and to the Levantine as a commercial lingua franca. For neither the one nor the other can write it. Indeed, to master Greek orthography one must be something of a classical scholar. To take only one illustration, the sounds which the ancients
and are now
all pronounced .The
peasant or the foreigner who has picked up the language by ear neither
knows how to represent these sounds in writing, nor can he easily recognise
them in print. I knew a Bulgarian in Ochrida, a man who had been wealthy
and was educated in a Greek gymnasium. We used to talk in Greek, and I
imagined that he knew the language well, until one day he had occasion
to write me a letter. There was literally not a word from beginning to
end which he had contrived to spell correctly. I had another acquaintance,
a Pole born in Salonica, a man of some parts with a decided talent for
languages. He wrote both French and German correctly. He spoke in addition
Italian, Hebrew-Spanish, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek, the last fluently
and with some power of picturesque expression. But though he had lived
all his life as a business man in a Greek commercial centre, he had shrunk
from the labour of learning to write a language which should have been
of immense use and value to him, and he did not even know the Greek alphabet.
The consequence is that while Greek is spoken very generally, it is neither
a satisfactory commercial medium, nor a popular vehicle for culture. The
Vlach, the Albanian, or the Slav who acquires it has grave reasons to be
disappointed with the benefits it gives him. The Greek Imperialist who
aspires to see his language once more the recognised speech of all civilised
men on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean forgets that the Hellenistic
Greek of two thousand years ago was the vehicle of an original culture
prepared by great grammarians.
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