Language registers, diglossia, and the Greek language struggle

Many languages are spoken in different registers for different levels of formality. For instance, Martin Joos recognizes the following five “registers” in English:

  • Static: the most formal register reserved for laws, contracts and other legal documents, religious ceremonies. Highly reliant on fixed (static) phrases, which may be archaic in their wording;
  • Formal: one-way participation (nonfiction book, academic article, lecture). Most extensive vocabulary, precise/pedantic use of technical vocabulary, precise definitions;
  • Consultative: two-way professional communication, e.g., teacher/student, senior/junior researcher, doctor/patient,…;
  • Casual: ordinary informal speech;
  • Intimate: between close family and friends. Nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression), intonation, and private/insider vocabulary and references may make speech hard to understand to an outsider.

English may have an enormous vocabulary, but it is a “weak-grammar” language. In languages with more complex grammars, the same five basic settings of course exist, but the distance between the registers becomes a matter of more than just vocabulary and the (dis)use of some formal expressions. For instance, in German, there is a noticeable difference — even in “High German” regions — between the standard literary language and the Mundart (spoken vernacular). In Flanders, older people still speak West-Flemish, Limburgish,… dialects to each other, while in formal settings even they will revert to standard Dutch (which used to be known by the rather politically incorrect name of ABN or Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands/Common Civilized [!] Dutch).

In extreme forms, the distance between Dachsprache (lit. “roof language”, umbrella language) and spoken vernacular may reach the point of diglossia — the coexistence of two distinct languages. In the parts of Germany closest to Holland, Plattdeutsch (Low German, or Plattdüütsch, if you like) coexists with standard [High] German (Hochdeutsch). In fact, the Plattdeutsch and Dutch dialects across the border are a classic example of a dialect continuum. In the Arabic-speaking world, different local vernaculars (e.g., Moroccan and Syrian Arabic) are sometimes not even mutually intelligible: hence, a permanent state of diglossia exists between the local vernaculars and their common Dachsprache, Modern Standard Arabic (based on the classical literary language).

Ancient Rome knew a similar state of diglossia, between the literary Latin that we learned in school and so-called Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, i.e., common speech).[*] After the fall of the West-Roman Empire, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin diverged into the separate languages we now call French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian,… (In fact, the very definition of a Romance language is its descent from Vulgar Latin.)

Without going down the rabbit hole of the evolution of ancient Greek, suffice to say that the classical (Attic) Greek some of us still learned in school existed in diglossia with Koine Greek (common/vernacular Greek). Unlike for Vulgar Latin, there is a substantial written corpus of written Koine Greek, above all the Christian New Testament and the Septuagint (the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Tana”kh/Christian Old Testament).

Over time, with the rise and fall of the Byzantine/East-Roman empire followed by Ottoman and other foreign rules, Koine Greek evolved into the vernaculars of different parts of the Hellenosphere.

The emergence of Greek nationalism in the late 18th-early 19th Century culminated in  Ioannes Kapodistrias becoming the first Prime Minister (1827-1831) of a newly independent Greece. Obviously, the Greek nationalist intelligentsia was keen on establishing a standard Greek language — but which Greek language?

One school of thought, led by Greco-French linguist Ioannis Psycharis, argued in favor of refining and unifying the cluster of vernacular Greek dialects into one standard Demotiki Glossa (“people’s language”, i.e., Demotic Greek). Another school, led by Prof. Georgios Hatzidakis, considered Demotic to be little more than an argot and instead strove to create/reconstruct  an archaic, neo-Classical Greek which they called Katharevousa (“purifying” [form], originally conceived by Greek Enlightenment figure Adamantios Korais). Thus, they hoped to recapture the splendor of the ancient literary language in a modern idiom.

Tempers grew hot between the groups, occasionally reaching the level of literal fistfights rather than mere literary “battle” between Demotic and Katharevousa poets, authors, and playwrights. After the 1912-3 liberation of Macedonia and later the establishment of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, the latter would become a stronghold of the Demotic faction, as against the Katharevousa faction at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

One might naively expect the most conservative and nationalistic element of society to have embraced Katharevousa. In fact, things were not so simple: Psycharis himself was an early proponent of the Megali (Greater [Greece]) idea, and the at least somewhat anticlerical Korais associated both Demotic Greek and its direct ancestor Koine with the “corrupt” Byzantine church establishment. The pre-WW II dictator Metaxas appears to have favored Demotic, as he considered the complexity of Katharevousa to be an obstacle to his goal of cultural Hellenization of all minorities.

A third, pragmatic (ahem) middle view took hold in parts of the political establishment (most notably with the great Liberal politician Venizelos): namely, a form of institutionalized diglossia. As per Venizelos’s 1917 school reforms, early schooling of children would be in the much easier Demotic form, while once they advanced beyond the first few grades of primary school, the instruction would switch to the more demanding Katharevousa.

What tipped the scales permanently in favor of Demotic appears to have been the great influx of Greek refugees following the Greek-Turkish War and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which both set the borders and mandated a forced population exchange.  Many of those refugees had spoken Turkish all their lives and needed to be taught Greek nearly or completely from scratch. The obvious approach, if they were to be acculturated quickly, was to teach them “easy Greek” first and “high Greek” later. “Later,” in most cases, never came.

One last push for Katharevousa was made during the Colonels’ Regime (1967-74): a 1972 official pamphlet dismissed Demotiki as a mere “jargon” that “doesn’t even have a grammar” but appears to have had limited appeal at best.

Upon the restoration of democracy, one final language reform took place. On 30 April 1976, Article 2 of Law 309  defined Modern Greek as:

.. the Demotic that has been developed into a Panhellenic instrument of expression by the Greek People and the acknowledged writers of the Nation, properly constructed, without regional and extreme forms.

and stipulated that it be the language of instruction in schools starting with the 1977-8 school year. Finally, the polytonic accent/diacriticals system was abolished in 1982.

This “Standard Modern Greek” (as linguists call it) is recognizably different from the classical language taught in European secondary schools. You immediately notice the “h” being dropped, the “eta” being pronounced as “i”/”ee” rather than nasal é, the “beta” almost invariably being pronounced as “v”, and in general a disregard of much of the declensions, cases,… and other grammatical intricacies that those of us who went to a continental European Atheneum or Gymnasium, or a British “public school”, wracked our brains learning.

All the same, proponents of Katharevousa won the argument in one major area: the replacement of foreign loan words in Demotic by “native” Greek neologisms (ahem). A computer, for instance, became ypologistí in Standard Modern Greek, a router dromologití, and a printer an ektypotís  (unless you mean the profession, which is a typographos).

This latter phenomenon has a parallel in modern Hebrew. Going back to the first modern Hebrew lexicographer, the intrepid Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, linguists tried to coin Hebrew neologisms for modern concepts and artifacts that Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew had no words for, rather than import foreign loan words. This process (to which I will dedicate a separate blog post) continues to this day at the hands of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Some of these coinages are universally accepted (machshev/thinking machine for computer, tzag or masach for display or screen, monit for taxi, kinor for violin, …), others never caught on (sach-rachok, itself a calque of the German Fernsprecher, never displaced telefon), yet others coexist as formal terms with informal vernacular (meteg with the English “switch” [in IT contexts] or the German Schalter [for a light or power switch], teka with the German Stecker [plug], natav with “router”,…)  [**]

And of course, the French Language Academy succeeded in displacing (at least outside slang) “franglais” terms like “le computer” with “l’ordinateur”, “le printer” with “l’imprimante”, “un file” (the English word, not the French for a traffic jam) with “un logiciel”, etc. and even “Email” by “courriel” (a portmanteau of “courrier électronique”) …


[*] Vulgus=the common people, hence the derogatory meaning of “vulgar” (EN) or “vulgair” (NL, DE, FR,…) in other languages.

[**] Amusingly, native Israelis often stare at me when an immigrant like myself refers to “do’al” (short for doar elektroni, the proper word for Email) instead of “mail”…


One thought on “Language registers, diglossia, and the Greek language struggle

  1. I find it interesting that neither English nor Japanese seem to care about loan words (beyond mangling their pronunciation so that the native language they originate from probably doesn’t recognize them).

    In fact as far as I can see English speakers as a whole have never concerned themselves with linguistic purity – probably a good thing given its origins as a way for Norman men at arms to chat up anglo-saxon barmaids.

    Japanese is somewhat similar although in the nationalistic past of the early 20th century some attempt was made to come up with purer Japanese terms for various new activities and devices. About the only ones that have really stuck are ones for baseball terms (baseball itself is yakkyu = field ball etc.) and some of the electrical ones (e.g. denwa = electric speak = telephone). I suspect that a number of the den ones stuck because they were simpler than the loan alternatives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s