Saturday, July 30, 2011


Recently, while discussing the relative merits or otherwise of a particularly pernicious and corpulent lady from the ancestral village, one of my aged great aunts remarked to me: "But what do you expect from such a zhaba." This decidedly non-Greek word placed the author upon a train of inquiry that fruited this week's Diatribe.
In the general Greek consciousness, it is held that the Greek language is somehow superior to others. Proponents of this point of view tend to point to the languages' distinguished pedigree, that it was the first written European language that has survived and riding the orgasmic wave of patriotism, climax triumphantly with the proposition that Greek has lent vast numbers of loanwords to other languages, forms a large percentage of these and thus is inherently logical, superior and pure. This rather extreme view belies an inherent uneasiness as to its veracity. Yet this is nothing new. The plague of foreign loanwords has been with us ever since our ancestors descended into the Balkans, mixed with the proto-Hellenic aborigines of the region and acquired a veneer of their civilization. Thus words like τύραννος and Κόρινθος from the outset are loanwords from our more advanced co-habitants. Depending on which part of Greece Greeks settled in, they also adopted Thracian, Illyrian and Phrygian words. During the classical period which has left us with so many gems of literature, Ionian and its sub-dialect, Attic, were developed to full effect. Aeolian, spoken in Thessaly and Boeotia was used for pastoral poetry and odes, while Doric, the language of the primitive Spartans, Epirots and Macedonians generally fell by the wayside, surviving only in the shrinking Tsakonian dialect today and in Albanian grammatical forms. By the time of the Roman conquest and owing to the invasions of Alexander, Greek in its standardized koine form enjoyed unparalleled prestige. The Greek alphabet was even used to transcribe the language of the Kushans in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the 'scourge' of loanwords was unrelenting. The word κουστοδία, or armed guard along with a plethora of other Roman words entered the vocabulary, as did a multitude of Semitic words, with the advent of Christianity.
Sometimes words that appear decidedly non-Greek were in fact coined in Greek, borrowed by another language and re-loaned back to Greek with interest in a lectical transaction that would confound even the most adroit hedge-fund banker. Thus lasagna is said to derive from the ancient Greek, a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips and from which lagana, a type of bread eaten in Greece also is derived. Similarly, Bath, is derived from the latin Bagno which in turn is said to be derived from the Greek balanion.
Word borrowing achieved epic proportions during Byzantium where erudite scholars, the ancestors of today's linguistic Pharisees and word-Νazis, lamenting the 'corruption' of the Greek, took it upon themselves to write in unintelligible 'purified' 5th century Attic. Works by Irene Palaiologina Choumnaina are written in something approaching the spoken Greek of the period, are homely and comfortable. The stilted and convoluted prose of Anna Komneni however sometimes reminds one of the stuffiness of Persian court poetry, with the farce of the Junta thrown in. Interestingly though, it is through her chronicle that we gain the first recording of the Vlach language and Slavic words such as «ντόμπρος» (lit. good) to describe an upright character can also be traced to this period, granting our language great richness and diversity.
The Ottoman Empire merely exacerbated a trend that had begun in Byzantium with the mass migration of Slavs, Vlachs and Albanians into Northern Greece and Peloponnesus respectively. Most of the villages in Northern Greece bear Slavic names from the time of the empire of Serb Stefan Dusan over the area. Thousands of foreign words entered the Greek language as the inhabitants lived with each other, conversed, expressed thoughts and ideas. Bistritsa, the name of several villages, means clear running water in Bulgarian. In my mother's village, a central hill that encloses a vast network of caves, stalagmites and stalactites is known as "Goritsa," which in Slavonic, means little mountain.
Yet, in constructing a new national identity from scratch, our leading scholars continued the Byzantine and strangely Freudian tradition of obsession with purity. First with kathareuousa, 'purified' Greek, and its milder form, demotic, it was the deliberate policy of successive governments and thinkers to impose a form of Greek on the populace. A dialect of Peloponnesian was foisted upon the Greeks as the most 'acceptable' form of the language and our rich dialect tyradition was left to wither on the vine, the butt of jokes and scorn by self-confident southerners. Pontian-speakers of a certain age relate stories of being beaten at school for not speaking 'proper' Greek even though Pontian Greek preserves a unique array of ancient forms. In Greek movies, a particularly uneducated or dense person is type cast as speaking dialect.
Purity of language or superiority of same is an illusion that went out of academic fashion with the suicide of Hitler. Every language has to play a part in the unique facilitation of global communication. No language has ever remained unsullied by foreign penetration. Whatever puritans may say, intertextual intercourse is a fact of life, and what's more, is rather fun. Many of our everyday words, from, πόρτα to μπρίκι to γιαούρτι happen to be loan words. So much for the purity or superiority of our language. If this were the case, then there would never have been a need to borrow. Yet the borrowings, this time from English, continue. Purists must realize that abstinence from intertextual intercourse creates frustration and ultimately an absence of fertile thought.
To be asked as a child by Asia Minor dialect speaking grandparents to grab the μπαγκράτς (bucket) and take it to the γκαντούν' (corner) is to engage not only in world-wide communication but into their own personal history as refugees. To my question to my aunt as to the Greekness of the word zhaba, the answer was "of course, we are Greeks aren't we?" Zhaba is a Greek word. Borrowed from Albanian, which in turn borrowed it from the Slavonic it can either mean bullfrog or huge. And this remarkable borrowing does not end there. For it is no coincidence that zhaba sounds inordinately like Jabba and George Lucas appears to have engaged in some fantastic intertextual intercourse of his own.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 July 2011