Historic blunders

7th March 2003 at 00:00
It's easy to get muddled saying yes and no in Greek. If you don't want any more stuffed vine leaves just shake your head and mutter "ok". If you do, say "neh". It is counter-intuitive, but don't complain. Your linguistic tangle is nothing to what the Greeks have had to put up with. Their problems date back to the 19th-century vision of a powerful and independent Greece uniting citizens scattered round the world. This was known as the "megali" or big idea. Unfortunately it spawned a rather divisive cousin.

Over the millennia the language of Homer, the oldest in Europe, had evolved, magpie fashion, stealing words from the Turks, Arabs and Slavs. In the 1830s, the new nation's rulers decided to get rid of these and revive the Greek of their great ancestors. Katharevousa was the result. Created by a nationalist, this pseudo-classical language was introduced to a largely illiterate people used to chatting away in "demotic" Greek, a southern dialect. Not for them the complexities of classical syntax and grammar, they were far too preoccupied with where their next meal was coming from.

However, the elite - or anyone who wanted to get on - embraced the "cleansed" Katharevousa. Lawyers, politicians, priests and professors all mastered it even though no one was absolutely sure how to pronounce many of the words.

A country so recently united became divided. Right-wing nationalists favoured Katharevousa, those on the left championed the language of the common folk. In 1901, students in Athens rioted when it was proposed to translate the Bible into demotic Greek - 14 people died. Children suffered too. In 1917, primary pupils were allowed to be taught in demotic Greek.

But in 1967 the military junta which seized power insisted that all schools adopt Katharevousa - demotic Greek was banned, even on sweet wrappers. The colonels rewrote the history textbooks too, though the children did not understand the new versions. And so it went on. Ordinary people felt alienated from the state and many regional dialects were lost.

In 1974, the junta fell and two years later demotic Greek was declared the official language of the country. Unfortunately they still haven't got round to translating the road signs...

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