I am not Greek, but I had the fortune of being born, raised and educated in a country, Italy, where, unlike, (unfortunately!) , North America and Canada,( where I live) , Greek was and still is widely taught in our Gymnasia( 5 years) along, of course with Latin.
I fell in love with the Greek language and the classic tradition when I was 14 and today, at 74, I am still at it. Thanks to sites like yours and the countless other Internet resources, my understanding of Greek has vastly improved over the years.
For one thing, though, I have been unable to decipher the precise meaning of the scores of adverbial particles, which dot the ancient Greek language, perhaps more so in the classic Attic style than in the later Koine..
This brings me to the wider issue of whether the inevitable change of a language through the centuries,( often in the direction of ever-increasing simplification), is a mere question of form or, rather, it has a more substantial import, as it may well dampen the capability of a language ( and ultimately our own capability ) to express unique, intellectually relevant nuances.
I tend to believe that language is a two-ways issue : while it allows us to express our own thoughts, it also shapes them. The more one masters his/her own language, the more he or she becomes aware of nuances and distinctions which would be beyond reach with a more rudimentary knowledge of our language.
To what extent is a dead language translatable into modern languages ( aside from obsolete terms referring to no longer existing religious, military or political institutions, for which, of course, the original Greek word can always be used)?
Do and can the periphrases used in translation always convey the original meaning or do we face the real possibility that the text be untranslatable?
In classic Greek, for instance, the complex combinations between the moods and tenses of the verbs, further modulated by the use of the particle AN, together with the protasis and apodosis syntax in the conditional sentences, ( calling, in turn, for different moods and tenses), are so numerous that they defy the possibility not only of understanding the PRECISE meaning, but of understanding it all.!
I cannot help thinking that, as the expression of an extremely sophisticated mind, those arcane Greek constructs had a precise meaning. It couldn’t be otherwise for a people, to whom order and intellectual clarity were among the highest virtues..
It would really be interesting to have a sense about the extent to which the modern Greek language, so similar and yet so different, in its extreme simplification, from its ancestor , still embodies its spirit.
I’d love to read Plato’s in the Demotike. Actually, after learning the Demotike’s particular, simplified twist, I am able sail through it fairly easily, of course with a dictionary. Often, even a classic Greek dictionary, not surprisingly, does the job, even though I always check, of course, because of the inevitable semantic shifts of seeming homonyms.
I think that the Katharevousa and ancient Greek, inevitably, still loom large on the Demotike, much like a reservoir from which to draw additional expressive potential.
Perhaps this will become less and less necessary as the Demotike evolves , much like Italian has evolved in 8 centuries from a simplified vernacular of Latin to a full fledge language in its own right.
I have to say, though, that the Demotike has perhaps reached its full and well polished expressive potential in only two hundred years, i.e. faster than Italian.
Unfortunately, I cannot read modern Greek well enough to understand literature and poetry, but the Nobel Prize and other literary awards bestowed to Greek writers speak for themselves about the level attained by today’s Demotike.
I am sure hat this level is not the same of 200 years ago, when it emerged as a humble vernacular language spoken by the populace ( and kept alive by the Church) during the Ottoman rule, well after the educated classes, with their well polished Byzantine Greek, had fled the country to seek asylum in Europe , mostly in Italy.
There would have been no harm in keeping this language as the language of Greece and there was no reason to oust it under the dubious pretext that it was a symbol of elitism, allegedly preventing young Greeks from having a wider ( and easier) access to education, because of its “ difficulty”..
The revival of Hebrew as the official language of Israel has not barred, after all, thousands of young Israeli boys from learning it effectively in school, in spite of its difficulty, even more so that their parents spoke Yiddish or Russian.
Young German boys, too, learn without difficulty a seemingly daunting language like theirs, for all its beauty. A language which some have compared for its subtlety and depth to Latin or even Greek. .
Any young Greek boy would have learned and would still be learning the Katharevousa today without difficulty as his/her mother tongue, just as easily as they learn the Demotike, with the added bonus that , with the Katharevousa , young Greeks and, in the end, ALL the Greeks would have a more ready access to (and a deeper appreciation of) their tradition.
Political reasons are not always the right standard in deciding about educational and cultural matters.
Thanks so much for wishing to share in details your views about Greek, and thank you for being a student of Greek! As you so well know, this is a discussion that lasts for very long and it remains open for each generation to test and keep or change the answers already given.
Much of what you suggest depend on what we can define as dead or living regarding a language. There is a consensus among scholars, so far as I know, that ancient Greek cannot be called really a dead language, since it shares its vocabulary with modern Greek, with almost the exact same declensions, etc.
Everything is the same except for some differences in syntax and some grammatical forms that became simpler or analytical. You don't need to change much in a language before an older stage is not understood easily. Recall how similar modern Greek is in some aspects with Homer, more that with Attic Greek!
What is a living language then?
Ancient Greek is spoken today when we speak modern Greek. Let me quote just a phrase from the 20th century Greek poet Papatsonis, opening his book at a random page. Here is the first sentence, at the top of the page. The poem is called ΤΟΥ ΒΑΠΤΙΣΤΟΥ ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ:
Dear Ittiandro, despite all the differences you can see easily, since you know ancient Greek and you are also familiar with modern Greek, Plato would not have found a real difficulty to understand this sentence! Except for St John the Baptist, who was an unknown person to him, the only real, but not great, problem would be the use of "δὲν" instead of "οὐκ". Notice also that οὐκ itself is still used in modern Greek along with δέν, in forms like οὔτε, etc. Δὲν is also used in ancient Greek in such forms as οὐδέν.
A lot of things changed, as happens with a person in various ages of a life, but it is the same language. Ancient Greek is not a living language in itself, it is living inside modern Greek.
A better description, in my opinion, would be for us to speak about the same language in different forms. It is not always understood by anyone as it was written in the 4th century B.C., precisely because it is a living language, and living things change. It is the same and it is different, it is alive.
If we can agree on this, then the proposition about katharevousa becomes clearer. To impose a close form would be equal with trying to kill a language! A living language needs to be open to change. It is not a code, like Morse code, but a language with all of this history, a language that includes so many developments, variations, changes, etc, needs to be studied without neglecting any period at all.
We need schools that teach all periods of Greek without exception, giving a special emphasis to past forms precisely because they are incorporated in later forms or are not used, and let ourselves speak and write, let our life form our language spontaneously, in order for us to keep having a living language, spoken for three millennia.
The same way we can understand problems of expression and interpretation that you touch. Since we have at our disposal all this wealth, we can and should use it to express complex meanings in philosophy and poetry. This is one more reason to know Greek in all of its history. Modern writers, poets, scholars, anyone with demands in thinking, uses a mixed language with forms coming from all periods of Greek. This happens already, and it cannot but happen, to the degree that we are after a demanding thinking. Greek is a huge organism, it needs some effort to be studied, by we must enjoy it in its entirety.
Thanks for your reply. I'd have liked to answer earlier, but I find the time only now I totally agree with you, especially when you say that the hiatus between modern and ancient Greek could ( and should!) be bridged by having schools teach not only the contemporary Demotike, but also the Greek language at all the stages of its evolution. It is a daunting task, though, and I'd really like to know if and to what extent the Greek educational system today is geared up towards this goal, in terms of time, resources and, above all, political will. It would be wonderful! As I said in my initial post, although I live now in Canada, I had the good fortune of being educated in Italy where I did my secondary education at the Ginnasio-Liceo Classico ( note, we still use the word " Ginnasio" ("Γυμνασιον) and " Liceo" (Λυκειον) to stress our enduring link with the Graeco-Roman past. Indeed, the classic-humanistic vocation of our Γυμνασια-Λυκαια , still existing today, has the same goal as the one you advocate for the teaching of Greek: when it comes to Italian, not only do we learn its foundation, Latin, at the Ginnasio-Liceo , but we are also required to learn the evolution of the language by reading the Italian literature from its very beginning in the XIIth century , with Dante Alighieri, through he Middle Ages down to modern and contemporary literature. Although the difference between XIIth cent. Italian and contemporary Italian, is not as great as the one between Italian and Latin,( which we have to learn as a separate language in its own right) , still the syntax and the vocabulary are different: Dante's Italian, for instance, could not be understood beyond an intuitive and approximate level, without reading his works under the guidance of specially trained teachers and/or lexical footnotes at the bottom of the page, with the odd result that often footnotes…. vastly exceed the length of the text: sometimes one entire page of foot-notes for one verse, (or even one word!) of the text ! Kind of pedantic sometimes, especially for young kids, but we reap the harvest after! Interesting to know if there are secondary schools in Greece which offer a humanistic-classic education today. I hope there still are , although I am aware that it is an uphill battle to keep them alive : even in Italy there have been proposals to abolish the Licei Classici or drastically reform them, by reducing the class-room hours for Latin and Greek, or flatly abolishing Greek, which, by the way, is already no longer taught at the secondary level in most, if not all, of the European countries, except some very exclusive private schools in England ( they call them..public!) like Eton.. Progress has indeed brought a bounty of good tidings in many respects, but we are certainly ( and regretfully!) far from the times when the dream of any young European school-boy was nothing more nothing less than a pilgrimage to the Parthenon or the Coliseum.. Regretfully, at least in Italy, this type of educational reforms are always spearheaded by the political lefts. Without going into politics, which is , I believe, against the rules of most Forums, I’ll just say that the lefts can be and indeed they are a powerful shaping force towards equality and human rights, but when they want to extend equality beyond the strictly legal area and apply it to other areas like education, they bring about a dangerous downward leveling, which ultimately results in lower educational standards: it is indeed wrong to have an elitist society structured in such a way that the " ordinary" people are shut off from a proper education in order to keep the elites’ own privileges, but it is perhaps just as wrong that in order to allow the intellectually less endowed to get a semblance of education, the most intelligent minds are wasted as they have to keep pace with their “ unequal” peers. It is LEGAL inequality that is wrong, not intellectual inequality, which is a fact of life and cannot be overlooked or ignored when it comes to education, without serious consequences. I admit, our educational system was unnecessarily rigorous, conventional and, in the end, elitist. In fact, some of the Licei Classici of our secondary system had university standards: in my Liceo, exceptionally rigorous and philologically oriented , we could read Sappho in Greek at 17 and had to write literary criticism essays on works of Italian literature !), to the point that only 10 students could make it to the final year, from the initial 25 or so in the first year. The most brilliant ( I was not one of them!) could barely get a 7/10 mark, the GOOD ones barely the passing mark. All this was perhaps excessive and reflected a wrong elitist mentality, which in the end turned away many otherwise capable and creative students, simply because they did not fit into the mold of the traditional educational system based on authority and sometimes rote memory rather than dialogue and critical thinking. But is it any better today, I wonder, when the educational standards of the public system are so low that anybody can get a passing mark in high school or even graduate from University without being able to write his/her language properly? Anyway, getting back to the point, I’d like to know,( if you live in Greece), how your educational system works and if you have secondary schools of classic-humanistic vocation similar to our Licei Classici.
One final question: I am trying to read parts of the Bible in Greek ( both the New and the Ancient Testament) Although I can read the literary meaning easily ( especially the New Testament), I increasingly come across Greek words which must be used in a special sense, because the translation given by the Liddell-Scott dictionary, which I always use without problems for non-biblical Greek, often does not seem to make sense. In addition there are often symbolic, figurative or allegorical constructs. Even the English translation is in some cases unintelligible. Can anybody suggest exegetical guides helping the interpretation of the Scriptures on the basis of the GREEK texts? Thanks
Start a new Google search writing filetype:pdf and then these keywords: Greek English Lexicon Grimm Thayer, and Septuagint Greek Lexicon Lust. These are two free books you will find useful.
You are right in everything you say. Leftist / Communist governments are simply not interested in education and especially in Classical learning. Here in Greece things are worse in all fields, not only in education, since we have such a government, irresponsible and unable in every way.
Secondary education includes since long ago Greek and Latin, especially for students that are going to have relevant university courses afterwards. However, secondary education is worthless in all lessons: teachers simply don't care!
As you can guess, for a student to learn good Greek (not to mention Latin) a miracle is needed. He must have developed a strong will to do it, and then attend private courses and / or find the necessary books to study by himself.
With all this material on line, even spending a very small amount for books that are not available for free, anyone can learn Greek and Latin without problems. A teacher is always a bliss, but if one wants to learn, there is no excuse I believe.