As most of you know, even though a native English speaker, I grew up in Greece. My bilingual status makes me uniquely qualified to describe the unusually passionate relationship Greeks have with their language.
Incidentally, this post came to be because of a question my editor had regarding the correct usage of a common Greek name (hi, Lorelei). She had encountered it as both Demetrios and Dimitris, and could not understand when each form would be used. When I explained that Demetrios might be used in official documents, but everyone will use Dimitris in everyday life, I felt compelled to offer some back story.
During the 400-year-long Ottoman occupation, the language picked up a number of Turkish words. Following Greece’s 1821 war of independence, a number of scholars led by Adamantios Korais rejected these influences and argued in favor of a return to a more classical language.
But the language itself had changed significantly through the ages: 9th-century BC Homeric Greek was quite different from the 5th-century language Pericles used. The language had changed even more in the years leading to Alexander’s Hellenistic period, when Greek picked a number of words used in Alexander’s empire. And the Byzantine era had further changed Greek.
At the same time, Greek was spoken differently in various parts of the country. Even today, Cretan Greek has marked differences from, say, Corfiot Greek.
Korais and the rest of the so-called archaists solved this conundrum by creating a hybrid language called Katharevousa (“Clean”). They arbitrarily chose the language of the Hellenistic period as a point of reference, probably because this was the language the Gospels were written in, therefore people were more familiar with it. By doing so, they gained an important ally: the Greek Orthodox Church. Predictably, Katharevousa became the formal language of the new state.
However, a number of other scholars rebelled against Katharevousa and supported Demotiki (from “Demos,” or community – ie the language of the community). This is the language as it had been shaped by the centuries, acknowledging and accepting the various influences, from the Byzantine to the Ottoman empire.
Once political factions started taking sides, the passions surrounding the two versions of the language became so strong, that in the late 19th/early 20th century their respective defenders actually fought in the streets, triggering, quite literally, a minor civil war. On one hand, you had the ruling classes (conservatives, royalists and the Church) who favoured Katharevousa. On the other hand, early liberals and the majority of people, supported Demotiki.
The picture below dates from November 8th, 1901, when 11 people died and 80 were injured during street fights for and against the translation of the Gospels into Demotiko. Because of the troubles, the government of Theotokis resigned and Theotokis himself was almost killed at the victims’ funeral.
Tensions ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century. During Greece’s civil war (1946-1949, or 1943-1949 according to others) both Communists and Royalists used the language to easily distinguish their followers from their opponents.
Finally, in 1982, the left came to power after more than 50 years, following a seven-year-long military junta (1967-1974). Interestingly enough, one of the first laws passed concerned the language. The Colonels had supported wholeheartedly Katharevousa, despite the fact that the vast majority of people preferred Demotiki. The association between the hated junta and Katharevousa proved to be the final stroke against it, and the Socialists (PASOK) were able to pass a series of laws collectively referred to as “linguistic reformation” in favour of using Demotiki as the state’s official language.
Part of this reformation referred to the use of a single dot above vowels to indicate intonation (monotonic), replacing the Hellenistic usage of half a dozen different signs (polytonic). I vividly remember the fiery reaction against this, especially by the Church, as I was a highschool student at the time – and had finally managed to master the old spelling…
Thus ended an over-a-century linguistic war that saw quite a few casualties – and I mean this in the most literal sense. Nowadays you can still hear Katharevousa at church, where some priest or other will occasionally give a speech in a bastardized version of it. Church documents also use it on an everyday basis, complete with the Hellenistic spelling.
Interested in finding out more about Katharevousa? As always, Wikipedia comes to the rescue.