On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek
Johanna Hanink

Very interesting article. Thank you for your love of my country and culture. Yes, it is a pity we have no real knowledge of how the ancients pronounced our language. But this is the fate of all languages and all things for that matter. Everything changes. The English probably do not know exactly how Shakespeare spoke and that is only 500 years ago. May I add an observation that might be helpful. One problem with classicists is that they ignore approximately 2000 years of Greek history. Rather blatantly and arrogantly, as you point out (and, therefore, rather ignorantly I would add), they mill around the same single one room of a big palace.

For anyone who is familiar with ancient Greek and is interested in modern Greek, as you are, I would recommend the so called Holy Scriptures. No, I am not religious. At all. But: The greek language of the New Testament (as well as the greek translation of the Old Testament) is a language that bridges classic Greek with modern. In my generation we learned a so-called “katharevousa” which is very similar to the Greek of the scriptures. It is similar to the language Marcus Aurelius or Plutarch used, but even simpler, and at least 60–70% understandable by virtually every Greek of my or my mother’s generation (or maybe even today, I think, even though they may stubbornly pretend otherwise). The katharevousa was the official Greek language at my time and every textbook and virtually every newspaper used it, and everyone today is also familiar with it and partly uses it, instinctively, within the present-day simplifications. During Byzantine times the Testament Greek evolved further toward this present-day katharevousa and by the 10th century, or even much earlier (maybe back to Testament times) the pronunciation of it must have been much the same as in modern Greek, since we have Church hymns that have been sung the same way since those days and since the Church language itself has been preserved (as “holy”). What is indeed “ancient”? Plato to us? And only that? What about Homer to Plato? Or Plato to Plutarch?

Classicists are students of one particular appearance of the language (and even just one dialect!) that covers less than 3–6 centuries (and I am being very generous in the length of time), and as far as they are concerned, Homer is for the archaeologists, and Byzantium for the eccentrics or those who seek alternatives to catholic or protestant dogma. For a continuous culture and language that spans 4 thousand years during which it has been dynamically evolving in contact with many other cultures, classicism is the love of one rose in a garden of numerous flowers. I have nothing against the love of one rose. I just thought to comment on your (excellent) thoughts by putting it in the perspective of its garden. In any case, if you enjoy making the connection between the ancient and the modern Greek, read one of the gospels (John’s is quite good). You will have great fun…

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