A very brief history of Greek diglossia.

Most people know that even after the collapse of the western Roman empire, the Catholic Church continued the Latin tradition. But centuries before Odoacer declared himself King of Italy, spoken Latin had already been evolving into something we today call Vulgar Latin, the forerunner of the Romance languages. Even the official ecclesiastical Latin of the Middle Ages was more “relaxed” and closer to spoken forms than the language of Cicero which nobody could actually speak spontaneously anyway.

Eventually the vernacular languages came to the fore : at first they made their beach head in literature but not long thereafter seized the courts and government. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the place of Latin was confined to the highest intellectual life. Perhaps the most prominent of the last major texts written in Latin is Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

But imagine, just imagine, Latin was never displaced as the language of government, law, education, religion, and business in Italy, France and Iberia. Colloquial speech would be perfectly free to evolve all on its own at the same time, but everything formal, official, and “elevated”, whether written or spoken, would continue in Latin. That means today, non-fiction, newspapers, television news reports, parliamentary debates, university lectures, school curricula, and presidential speeches would be in Latin.

In the Arab world, it’s kind of like that (a topic for a later blogpost). And the linguistic situation in most of the rest of world was very similar to that until quite recently. It’s only in the 1920s, for example, Turkey jettisoned the unnatural construct called Ottoman Turkish.

Today I concentrate on Greek — the 3000 years of resistance of Ancient Greek to mortality.

The history of the Greek language is conventionally periodised into Archaic, Classical, Koine, Mediaeval, and Modern. That simplicity hides two things : (1) Attic or the speech and writing style of Athens of 500-300 BCE cast a long shadow and remained an ideal against which the “best” writers of the subsequent 2300 years measured themselves ; and (2) underneath the official Greek of any historical period, the vernacular evolved freely, unconstrained by the straitjacket of a glorious past.

The Greek language spread across western Eurasia with the conquests of Alexander the Great. While it never displaced the native languages it did become the lingua franca of political and commercial communication in the post-Alexandrian world known as “Hellenistic” :


Greek coin hordes have been unearthed from as far east as Afghanistan and Central Asia. This particular coin depicts Euthyemus, a king who ruled an area encompassing some portion of the present-day Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor. You can click to enlarge and still read the Greek word for “king” :


It is the “Koine” Greek of this period, a language slightly less “rigorous” than Attic, into which the Hebrew Bible was translated in Egypt and in which the New Testament was composed. The distinctive features of Koine are thought to be the result of many non-Greeks acquiring Greek, which as always language purists considered a source of debasement, contamination and irredeemable vulgarity. But compared with modern Greek, Koine was still a highly inflected, synthetic language close to its Attic roots. I would judge Koine less distant from Attic than medieval Latin was from Augustan classical.

In the early Byzantine period the New Testament lent prestige to Koine, but by the 8th or 9th century CE the Koine of Byzantine writers and the Orthodox church itself had become removed from the spoken language. Just imagine, how much evolution any language goes through in 1000 years. When ever you hold the language of a particular historical period as a standard and use it for writing, in just a few centuries the spoken and written languages will inevitably go their separate ways. By the time the Seljuk Turks staked their presence in the middle of Asia Minor, the Greek language had had more than 1300 years of evolution since Aristotle ! So during its long history Greek would always go through cycles of normal “degeneration” and corrective “neo-Atticism”.

But few people could perfectly imitate the “purest” Attic and there would always be varying degrees of conformity to classical norms — “high”, “middle”, and “low” styles. At the highest level a few writers, like high-IQ zombies, would painstakingly reproduce a Greek that might have been appreciated by Demosthenes as punctilious yet unimaginative. Most, however, wrote in a mixed or “middle” style, based either on the Biblical Greek that was already alien to the spoken language of the Middle Ages ; or on the speech of the elites of Constantinople but with lots of ancient Attic words and “flavours”. In short, the language of writing had an artificial life and logic all its own.

Much of the difference between ancient and modern spoken forms of Greek was probably already present during the Byzantine period, complete with grammatical evolution, pronunciation shifts, numerous Latin loanwords, and shifts in meaning of native words due to Christianisation. Many Turkish words entered vernacular Greek under the Ottomans, but probably the biggest effect of the Sultans was that the Greeks sought to maintain identity with a strong link with the ancient past. Because the Ottomans placed the Orthodox Church in charge of Greek affairs the life of the language continued the classicising pseudo-Attic ossification of the previous millennium.

That does not even address the fact that spoken Greek also had many “dialects” — really separate Hellenic languages — in the Pelopponesian heartland of Greece, in southern Italy, along the Black Sea (not far from the recent Sochi Olympics), in central Asia Minor, in Crete, in Cyprus, on many of the smaller islands, etc. In the southern tip of Italy you can still occasionally see trilingual signs — in Italian, in Greek, and in another language written with the Greek alphabet. Given a different political history all of these might have become distinct, separate, and national languages, a little like Spanish, Italian, and French. And today we might be referring to the Hellenic subbranch of the Indo-European family containing several major languages.

But the situation at the end of the 18th century was that the weight of a glorious past had helped create a bed of many layers separating the educated from the unschooled masses of the Hellenic-speaking peasantry. There were the numerous levels of the written language, the common spoken form of the Greek elites of Constantinople and Athens, and the separate vernacular evolutions everywhere else. The long shadow of Athens, and perhaps also the need to preserve a Christian identity under the Ottomans, deformed the evolution of the Greek language. It had never had its equivalent of Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia or Petrarch’s “lingua toscana in bocca romana”.

All hell breaks loose with Greek independence and the emergence of The Language Question. For nearly 2000 years there had been an informal consensus that Greek would live in two parallel universes of spoken and written, each with a life of its own. But with the birth of the nation-state, and under Western European influence, it suddenly became important to decide on a common written language around which everyone could rally. Would the Greeks emulate the progressive European model and create a standard language largely based on the spoken language of the metropolis, or the conservative model of reviving as much as possible of classical Attic ?

To simplify there were two camps : (1) the “pragmatic classicists”, who favoured the adoption of the spoken educated language of Athens and Constantinople, but purged of 2000 years’ worth of Latin and Turkish loanwords, along with new spellings and reinvention of modern concepts often using Attic roots ; and (2) the “romantic nationalists”, who wanted the naturally spoken language, also known as Demotic, complete with “barbarous” Turcisms, Latinisms, etc. intact. There were even some fringe elements who wanted to revive Classical Attic pure and simple.

But the cycles of classicisation and vulgarisation in Greek language history would not go away just because Greeks now had independence. From the minds of the conservative and classicist camps would emerge a strange, griffin-like creature called Katharevousa, a “purified” language whose grammar was definitely not classical, and was sort of based on the educated speech of Athens and Constantinople, but still with all manner of artificiality in grammar and vocabulary that made it very different from natural speech. It had to be taught at schools like a foreign language. Yet Katharevousa would vie with Demotic to be the “true” language of Greece and the medium of government, education, journalism, science, and literary prose.

By contrast, Demotic thrived in poetry, and by the late 19th century most modern Greek literature was in Demotic. But even Demotic was not totally natural. It could not have been. Since Greek had a bewildering variety of dialects, the demoticists sought a compromise that could be neutral for as many as possible from Macedonia to Cyprus to Anatolia. Ionian had a prominence of place because there, under Venetian rule rather than Ottoman, it had developed a vernacular literature all its own. Demoticists also drew heavily on folk songs and popular mediaeval literature.

Again, this is about the written language. Everybody spoke Demotic, more or less. The question had to do with written and official language. The Demotic-Katharevousa split was a war of competing visions of romanticism : Demotic wanted to be just like the Europeans, cherishing the national myths of a folkloric, “natural” past of the people, usually defined as peasants ; whereas Katharevousa hankered for the glorious past when Hellas was great.

In some ways Katharevousa was the most absurd development in the long, strange history of the Greek language. Its lexicon, already not intended for everyday speaking, would nonetheless often have two separate forms of a word, a pseudo-classical one for formal speaking and sometimes an outright Attic word for writing. Imagine a Greek member of Parliament in 1900. He could choose from amongst three words for “fish” — not three words with slightly different meanings, but three words expressing exactly the same thing.  In ordinary conversation, he would have just said ψαρι /psari/ (Demotic), but during a Parliamentary debate he might speak about οψαριον /opsarion/ (Katharevousa). But if he were writing a report on the Ottoman harassment of Greek fishermen, he might write, perhaps to just show off, ιχθυς /ichthys/ (Attic).

Writers led the war against Katharevousa on behalf of Demotic. When Homer and the New Testament were translated into Demotic at the turn of the 20th century, riots broke out in Athens and the translators were accused of being pro-Turk traitors ! This is when the Language Question acquires a left-right orientation, with the Left being tribunes of Demotic and the Right the defenders of Katharevousa. When the Liberal Party controlled the government, there were reforms which chipped away at the place of Katharevousa in education and administration; naturally, the right reversed or weakened these reforms when they were returned to power. Liberal governments might order the printing of textbooks in Demotic. Then subsequent right-wing governments, invoking Family, Property, Church and Language, would order new ones in Katharevousa.

But there were many odd twists. The dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas feared the influence of the communists on Demotic, so his government commissioned an official state grammar of the popular language. But at that time the Communist Party of Greece regarded Demotic as “bourgeois liberal” and insisted on addressing workers in Katharevousa.

Demotic got a tremendous boost from the Greek resistance to the German occupation, both communist and noncommunist ; and after the war Katharevousa was basically a lost cause. Yet when the infamous colonels came to power in the 1967 coup, they did not simply try to weaken and undermine Demotic.  They banned it from schools !!! Demoticists were driven out of university faculties. The popular language, the regime argued, was mere slang, not fit for serious exercise of thought. Thus, the actual language of Greeks was once again associated with communists, hippies, atheists, and other degenerates. If the language question were still alive today, Demotic might be associated with gay vegetarians calling for an end to the mutilation of Palestinian clitorises by meat-eating multinationals.

Katharevousa’s last stand accomplished nothing. When democracy was restored in 1974, the widespread backlash against the colonels’ regime even convinced the mainstream right to drop their traditional insistence on Katharevousa.  Demotic became the official language of Greece in all spheres — in 1976 !!! It was the first time in 2300 years of Greek history that the spoken language and the “official” language would coincide.

However, in their century of conflict, Demotic and Katharevousa ended up influencing each other, with the spoken Demotic naturally acquiring some Katharevousa characteristics and Katharevousa loosening up a bit.  But that’s another story, and I’ve already told you the history of the Greek language is a bit warped.

Note : I have tremendously simplified a very long history and elided many many details. I barely acknowledged the existence of Mediaeval Greek. And I have surely touched some sensitive political issues near the end. But it was for the sake of telling a little known but fascinating tale. The history of Greek also illustrates very well the idea of diglossia — something most Anglophones have little notion of. I drew most of the above information from several histories of the Greek language, my favourites being Horrocks and Mackridge.

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6 Responses to ελαδιοξιδιολατολαχανοκαρυκευμα

  1. Pincher Martin says:

    Excellent piece.


  2. Whyvert says:

    Ionian had a prominence of place because there, under Venetian rule rather than Ottoman, it had developed a vernacular literature all its own.
    Interesting. I wonder why? Anything to do with venice had a big printing industry unlike Ottomans?


  3. Michael says:

    Fascinating! Might I ask, what would the third mystery language on southern Italian signs be, the second language in the Greek alphabet?


  4. By the way this post has been by far the most popular and visited of all my blogposts. And it attained that status within days of posting. It’s almost as though everybody who can read English from Greece, Cyprus and the diaspora has looked at it !

    A Cypriot going by the moniker Meidei posted this comment elsewhere which I reproduce with his permission :

    The issues pertaining to the Greek language are still divisive. There’s a number of people in positions of power as well as a large segment of the general population that are convinced that Modern Greek has 7 vowels just because it has 7 letters of the alphabet that are called vowels (α ε ι η υ ο ω). This lead to the symbolic book burning of a modern school grammar reference book 1 and it’s withdrawal from the school curriculum, because it dared suggest that Modern Greek has only 5 phonemes that are vowels (that is /a e i o u/). When 140 linguists co-signed an article dispelling this myth, their list of names was shared all over the internet as “These are the 140 neomarxists who want to simplify the Greek language and make it easy enough so illegal immigrants displace us from our country”.

    Some even try to prove their claim that Modern Greek has 7 vowels, by arguing that ω is longer than ο (and η is longer than ι) and “prove” 2 that by recording words with the ω in a stressed syllable, and comparing it with ο in an unstressed syllable, which is obvious bullshit to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Greek phonology: all stressed vowels are half-long. A stressed ο is as long as a stressed ω, and an unstressed ω is as long as an unstressed ο. And they sound exactly the same. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t confuse them in writing.

    1. Which was actually a pretty decent work. It achieved a good balance between prescription and description, given that it was supposed to be used as a reference book in middle schools.

    2. That blog is countering the “ω is long” argument. The blogger is an EU translator and amateur lexicographer who often blogs on language politics in Greece.


  5. And the title of the blogpost “ελαδιοξιδιολατολαχανοκαρυκευμα” is a parodic neologism and hapax legomenon meaning “chopped cabbage”. It was invented by Iakovos Rizos Neroulos for the comedy Korakistika as a way of mocking Adamantios Korais, the advocate of an early form of Katharevousa. (Source is Horrocks.)


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