GREEK NO MORE
The Greek ‘community’ in America is a useful comparative tool when reviewing issues that pertain to Greek-Australians simply because it serves as a ‘here’s one we prepared earlier model,’ by virtue of the fact that Greek migrants found similar conditions in America as they did here, both culturally and politically. It follows logically that give or take a few κομπολόι χάντρες, what occurs in America, will be paralleled here.
The Greeks of America seems to be enmeshed in the throes of a belated language debate. Unlike the debate here however, which is centered upon how we should preserve the Greek language, it being taken without argument that that is a desirable outcome, the debate in America has a different focus: Whether the Greek language, a language which supposedly no one understands anymore, should be re-imposed.
In contrast to the lip-service paid in this country to multiculturalism until recently, America has from the outset promulgated a national myth whereby all its citizens, regardless of creed or colour are considered equal as Americans. While attachment to traditional cultures is overlooked, the expectation is that all citizens will adhere to the values of Americanism. While this sounds sickening, it is evident from the heated way Greek-Americans will defend everything from the invasion of Iraq, to rampant exploitative capitalism and American neo-imperialism, that in the one hundred or so years of Greek mass migration to America, the official values of the United States have found fertile ground. Above all, they are Americans and everything that conflicts with that, is to be extirpated.
Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos was stunned and then horrified, during his recent visit to America to discover that the vast majority of his church’s adherents no longer spoke Greek, so much so that he publicly upbraided Archbishop Demetrios of America for not doing anything to preserve and promote the Greek language amidst his flock. The question of whether the Church should assume the responsibility of promoting a language, one which also taxes the minds of our Greek neo-American brothers, is beyond the scope of this diatribe, and its writer’s expertise. Nevertheless, it is undoubted that the Church traditionally has sought to inextricably link itself to aspects of the Greek identity and the Patriarch’s reaction can be understood in this context. Archbishop Demetrios’ guilty school-boy response was as wet as a saturated antiminsion: “No one understands Greek here.”
This reaction caused outrage among Greek-American circles which pointed out that the Church should not involve itself in such ‘retrogressive’ activity. These vocal circles maintain that the Greek language is not only to all ends and purposes ‘dead’ within the community, save for a few ‘recent migrants’ as they contemptuously call them, but that its resurrection is too late and undesirable. After all, they are Americans, first and foremost and the Greek language is a mere relic of a past they are not so proud of, the years BA, ie, before Americanisation.
While we leave our Janissaries in America to the fanaticism of the newly-converted to disrespect more and more of their religious leaders and turn their backs on their traditions, we are comforted by the fact that there does exist a core of Greek-Americans, youth among them, who despite the rhetoric of their would be-leaders and determiners of social policy, are thoroughly convinced of the importance of the Greek language and take steps to preserve it. They are to be applauded as their community leaders are to be denigrated for failing them.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, a new annual ritual has been established, that of announcing every year that the number of students undertaking Greek at VCE level is falling dramatically. The traditional antiphon to this ritual is a hushed silence and then a shrug of the shoulders among all those who read the paper along Lonsdale Street and then an aphorism spoken with the decided inevitability of a Jeremiah prophesying the fall of Jerusalem: «Η γλώσσα μας θα χαθεί.»
Possibly, though this would be disastrous in our case. For while our American cousins have their American values to substitute for their discarded old world, Greek identity, no such ready-made, true blue identity exists for us here to assume, save for the solace and sanctuary provided by the catechumen’s membership to a football team. The day we lose our language is the day we lose our identity and our links with the past. While this may entail a certain amount of freedom, it will also dissolve the ties that bind us to each other and ours will be a mundane existence to the extreme. No more flooding Lonsdale Street with Greek flags and celebrating the win of an irrelevant country in the European finals for instance.
George Orwell wrote in his masterpiece “1984” that “if there is any hope, it lies in the proles.” (ie. the common man.) While the scholarly study of Modern Greek is necessary and desirable in order that one speaks and writes the language correctly, a drop in numbers of students formally studying that language does not signal the beginning of the end. Most of the first generation still cannot write properly. As an oral language, Greek is still strong, spoken in its various forms in the homes of Greek suburbia throughout Melbourne by all generations. Unlike the American Janissaries, we are also to a large extent immensely proud of our language and this is something we need to capitalize on if we are to retain it.
A language is only lost when it is considered no longer of any use. While the structure of today’s Australia renders formal knowledge of any language irrelevant, we must persevere in our attempts to ensure our children obtain a Greek education, whether that be in the public, government controlled sphere or through our own privately-controlled methods. Furthermore, we should delight and revel in the fact that Greek is still the lingua franca, or rather lingua Graeca of our community and promote its use. The common man still has use for Greek and it is up to us to ensure that its utility is a lasting one. In this respect, it is comforting that a recent group of VCE students recently wrote into the Greek section of this publication, and in perfect Greek, set out their views on why a decline in language use is taking place.
Finally, a word for our Janissary cousins. The State of Israel, formed some two thousand years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, was able to resuscitate a dead language and have it spoken by over two million people in the space of fifty years. Why? Because they wanted that language with all their hearts and because it was intrinsic to their existence. It is time to work out what is intrinsic to yours.
published in NKEE on 25 October 2004