Saturday, February 21, 2015
It was a few years ago now that I was engaged in marching towards the Shrine of Remembrance, clad in full revolutionary regalia. Two elderly women, who were marching directly in front of me, were busy chatting to each other in an idiom that appeared to be that employed by sundry Slavs residing in the geographical region of Macedonia. Almost immediately, a voice barked: «Ελληνικά! Μιλάτε ελληνικά! Σαν δεν ντρέπεστε! Έχουμε εθνικήεορτή!» ("Greek! Speak Greek! Aren't you ashamed of yourselves? This is a national celebration!")
The two elderly ladies did not look in the direction of their admonisher. Instead, they stopped talking altogether and marched mutely on, their faces completely expressionless. One guessed that this was not the first time that they had been castigated for speaking their preferred language and I felt some sympathy for them, as they had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to attend the Greek Independence Day March and their choice of linguistic medium should not have been considered as divesting them of patriotism, or casting aspersions as to their ethnic or cultural affiliations.
A week or so earlier, I had attended my local church and being a reader therein, went behind the iconostasis in order to obtain a blessing from the priests. At our church, there is an elderly, Greek-speaking priest and a young, Australian born counterpart. Having obtained the blessing, the young priest was enquiring as to my parent's health when the older priest interrupted: «Ο Κώστας ξέρει ελληνικά, και πολύ καλά μάλιστα.» ("Dean speaks Greek and he speaks it quite well.") The admonition was clear, as was the young priest's reaction. Rather than switch to Greek, he terminated our conversation altogether.
These two incidents in turn remind me of countless other times where, at Greek functions, disgruntled members of the first generation, crossing the dance floor in order to go to the toilet, would pass by the tables of the youth relegated to the rear of the hall, catch snatches of conversation and exclaim: «Ελληνικά! Μιλάτε ελληνικά!» In no situation did the admonished youth, all of whom were possessed of passable linguistic capabilities in Greek, switch to that language. Instead, they ceased their chatter until their critic passed, and continued along in English.
This is to be contrasted with the Greek youth of Northern Epirus, in modern day Albania. Despite its lip-service to international socialism, Enver Hoxha's regime in Albania was thoroughly nationalistic and in many areas populated by Greeks, speaking Greek was prohibited. Nonetheless, during my travels to that country after the fall of the regime, I was amazed to witness countless youth not only able to speak in Greek but actively choosing to do so. Their rationale was quite simple: "We are not them and they could never force us to be them. We speak our own tongue." Similarly, those whose families had been forced into internal exile in regions where only Albanian was spoken and who had grown up not knowing Greek, were able to pick up the language and become fluent speakers after only a year or two. The difference between these youth and ours is marked and perhaps can be explained by the fact that for the Greeks of Northern Epirus, Greek is a language not only of identity, but also of aspiration, it providing the key to induction within a society that until recently was comparatively well off. Further, unlike the case of English, the alternative daily language is seen as the language of the oppressor.
In Australia however, even among the generations that are still competent in Greek, Greek language use is a matter of nuance and register. Primarily, Australian-born or Australia-raised speakers will use Greek only to communicate with their monolingual parents, other elders, or recent arrivals, though in most cases such recent arrivals relieve us of the hysteria that hits when we are compelled to speak in Greek, for most are conversant in English and will magnanimously switch to that language in order to facilitate conversation. It is however, inordinately rare for two Australian-born Greeks to converse with each other in Greek. In many situations, there is a tacit understanding that to initiate a conversation with a person of one's own generation in Greek is a social faux pas tantamount to rudeness. Possibly, this is due to the fact that there appears to be an unspoken understanding that we should all speak Greek, we do not want to, or find it inconvenient to do so, and therefore placing someone under the pressure and discomfort to perform in this manner is downright reprehensible. Further than this, to speak in Greek is to assume the role of the monolingual first generation, with all the connotations, negative and otherwise, possibly leading us to conclude that rightly or wrongly, the role of the Greek language in our community has been for the first generation to communicate its imperatives to the latter generations, and for those latter generations, to respond, in the appropriate register.
However, this is not always so. Take this snippet of a conversation I was privileged enough to listen to at a recent panigyri I attended, taking place between two fluent speakers of both Greek and English in their late sixties:
- Bill, I want two σουβλάκια. Get two.
- So you want two, τώρα?
- Yes, two, είπα. Can't you hear me?
Consequently Mr Bill walks up to the purveyor of souvlakia. He notices that the balding purveyor is "young," approximately in his early forties, so he speaks to him in English: "I'll have two souvlakia" (notice how in English, the Greek plural for souvlakia is retained.) The purveyor, who is actually a recent arrival from Greece, asks: «Να σουβάλω τζατζικάκι;». Mr Bill turns to his wife and asks: "Do you want tzatziki?" Upon being instructed that the answer is in the affirmative, Mr Bill turns back to the vendor and states: "Yeah, βάλε, but not too much."
Here in this small conversation, reside a good many of the paradoxes and contradictions as to the status and role of the Greek language within our community and between the generations. The fact of the matter is that though March may be "Speak Greek Month," and while we all agree in principle, that the maintenance of the Greek language is important for a multitude of reasons, in practice, there are deep social and psychological reasons as to why we are on the whole, ambivalent about the Greek language, its relevance and use and it is high time that these are honestly and openly examined and addressed.
This is especially so given that a dearth of representative youth organisations, have actually lent their enthusiasm to the Speak Greek In March campaign, save for NUGAS. One wonders whether this is because they a) were approached and were not capable of providing any effective support, b) given that they enjoy a marginal position within the Greek community were not approached or c) like all other Greek organisations are not representative enough to make a difference to the campaign. Either way, the fact that the laudable Speak Greek in March campaign is an endeavor originating from the first generation, albeit from a sector of the same which is fully bilingual and active in broader Australian affairs should be noted. For this is, albeit couched more diplomatically, tantamount to the crusty patriarchs of old directing their errant children to speak a language that they have chosen not to speak. As such, the real question, which is what does it tell us about the latter generations and perception of their parent's language, that after half a century, the impetus to preserve the Greek language still has to come from the first generation, is still being ignored.
In the case of the slavophone ladies at the march, it could be argued that speaking in a language one feel comfortable with does not in any way detract from one's perception of their identity. The question therefore, moving forward and which must be addressed, if a coherent language policy is to be developed within the community is what that identity actually comprises, together with the role the Greek language is to play within it.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 February 2015