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Usually, Professor Georgios Babiniotis would take pride in the fact that the Greek word “pandemic” – previously hardly ever uttered – had become the word on everyone’s lips.
After all, the term that conjures the scourge of our times offers cast-iron proof of the legacy of Europe’s oldest language. Wholly Greek in derivation – pan means all, demos means people – its usage shot up by more than 57,000% last year according to Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers.
But these days, Greece’s foremost linguist is less mindful of how the language has enriched global vocabulary, and more concerned about the corrosive effects of coronavirus closer to home. The sheer scale of the pandemic and the terminology spawned by its pervasiveness have produced fertile ground for verbal incursions on his mother tongue that Babiniotis thought he would never see.
“We have been deluged by new terms and definitions in a very short space of time,” he told the Observer. “Far too many of them are entering spoken and written Greek. On the television you hear phrases such as ‘rapid tests are being conducted via drive-through’, and almost all the words are English. It’s as if suddenly I’m hearing Creole.”
With nine dictionaries to his name, the octogenarian is the first to say that language evolves. The advent of the internet also posed challenges, he concedes, but he has never opposed adding new words that translated and conveyed technological advances. “I included them in the Lexicon,” he says of his magisterial 2,500-page dictionary of modern Greek language. “But where possible, I also insisted that if they could be replaced by Greek words they should. I came up with the word diadiktyu for the internet and am glad to say it has stuck.”
No tongue has been spoken as continuously as Greek, used without respite in roughly the same geographical region for 40 centuries. Its influence, as the language of the New Testament and as a vehicle of thought for golden age playwrights, scientists and philosophers, helped it withstand the test of time.
But Babiniotis, a former education minister, worries that the resilience that has marked Greek’s long history is at risk of being eroded by an onslaught of English terms that now dominate everyday life. In the space of a year, he says, Greeks have had to get their heads, and tongues, around words such as “lockdown”, “delivery”, “click away”, “click-and-collect” and “curfew”.
As shopping restrictions in Greece were reinforced on Friday against a backdrop of infection rates rising again, click inside – a system allowing consumers to enter shops if they have made an appointment beforehand – was also introduced by officials desperate to keep the pandemic-hit retail sector going.
“There has to be some moderation,” Babiniotis sighs, lamenting that even government announcements are now replete with the terminology. “We have a very rich language. As the saying goes, ‘the Greeks must have a word for it.’ Lockdown, for example, could be perfectly easily translated.”
There was a certain mentality, he said, that had enabled English to flourish in places it shouldn’t be. “Ever more shops are carrying English-language signage as a way, I’m afraid, of having greater sales and outreach. Instead of artopeio, Greek for bakery, we’re seeing shops calling themselves ‘bread factories’, while barbers are now ‘hairdressers’. Next we’ll have ‘hair stylists!’ It won’t stop.”
This is not the first time that a war of words has erupted over Greek. Arguments over the language, between proponents of change and traditionalists advocating a return to its Attic purity as a means of reviving the golden age, go back to the first century BC. Controversy continued through 400 years of Ottoman rule, becoming especially explosive in the run up to the war of independence in 1821.
The struggle over whether purist Greek, or katharevousa, officially inducted as the language of the state after the revolution, should prevail over demotiki, the commonly spoken vernacular, raged until 1976 when demotic officially replaced katharevousa as the language of the state.
“For Greeks, language has always been a sensitive issue,” says Babiniotis. “I know what I say troubles some, but it is the duty of a linguist to speak out.”
Babiniotis’s protestations have been fodder for cartoonists and the butt of debate. But he is not alone.
The emergence of “Greenglish” – Greek written with English letters – as an unofficial e-language since the arrival of the internet has also sparked alarm. Facebook groups have emerged, deploring the phenomenon. “A lot of youngsters use it to message one another because they think it’s easier,” says Susanna Tsouvala at the Polyglot Bookstore, which specialises in foreign language textbooks in central Athens. “Spelling’s easier and they don’t have to use the accents required in Greek, but ultimately it’s going to be our language’s loss.”
For many, book publishers have become the last line of defence. At Patakis, one of the country’s most established publishers, inclusion of foreign words in any work is carefully monitored. “Books are guardians of the language,” insists Elena Pataki, whose family-run firm publishes books for all ages. “We published a business book about family-owned enterprises and made a conscious choice to limit references to foreign terms.”
Babiniotis has a point, she says.
“Why should Greeks in their 90s have to understand English to go and shop? The pandemic has produced a global language for a global problem. My hope is when this is over, we’ll hit delete and forget all these words.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Greeks had a word for it … until now, as language is deluged by English terms | World news