Saturday, January 21, 2017


When I was a lad, the way we distinguished the inner circle from the outer, was by discerning people’s ability to speak in the Greek tongue. Once in a while, we would come across a strange phenomenon, especially at school: Peers whose parents were Greek and yet they had no facility in their mother tongue. In our binary way of looking at the world such ersatz “Greeks” were a conundrum, for they defied classification. Our identity was therefore enclosed within the syllables of an arcane tongue, enunciated mostly within earshot of English speakers (otherwise we generally spoke to each other in English, which would invariably elicit, from our elders at Greek functions, the following command: ῾Μιλήστε ελληνικά,῾ sometimes suffixed with the appellation κοπρόσκυλα), thereby proclaiming to all and sundry, our perceived ties of kinship and cultural affiliation.

Several decades on, it cannot be disputed that the primary language of discourse among second generation and increasingly, many first generation Greek-Australians, is English. Similarly, increasing numbers of second and third generation Greek-Australians have little or no fluency in Greek. Despite earlier generations considering the maintenance of the Greek language to be one of the key pre-requisites to perpetuating a “Greek” identity, it appears that quietly and over a long period of time, subsequent generations have managed to develop their own ideology of identity, to which lack of knowledge of the language of the mother culture is not inimical.

Thus, in Melbourne it is de rigueur to consider oneself a passionate Greek, even when one does not use or is not fluent in the Greek language. According to this view, what takes precedence over prescribed cultural, religious and linguistic criteria as determining Hellenism, (which give rise to innumerable questions as to: 1. Who determines these? 2. Can they be changed to reflect changing values or experiences? 3. Why are these the criteria of Hellenism and no other?) is how one personally feels about their own individual ethno-cultural identity. Proving that the task of defining Hellenism has been a work in progress since times ancient, without any clear resolution, are the endeavours to establish the Hellenism of the Macedonian Kings in order for them to take part in the Olympic Games. In those times, religion and language, were the key determinates. Cavafy’s Poseidonians, on the other hand, occupy a middle position between the archetypal two approaches. Having lost their language, and not comprehending the significance or meaning of the traditions they had preserved, they still clung to these, regardless of the fact that their ostensible irrelevance caused them angst, because they still felt that they comprised part of their identity. Here, it is not language but consciousness, coupled with the perpetuation of practices, that formed the Poseidonian conception of being Greek.

For me, there is something counterintuitive in the widely and deeply held “Hellenism without Greek” approach to identity emerging within Greek communities of the Anglosphere. After all, language encodes unique cultural practices and perspectives in a singular way. In the case of the Greek language, it provides an unbroken continuum wherein three millennia of shared thought and experience that be expressed in a manner that can only be approximated by translation in other tongues. While it cannot be denied that non-Greek speakers can identify as Greek, it follows logically that such an affinity hangs of the tail end of the Greek speakers they have come in contact with or grown up around and is not plausible beyond a generation, simply because the lack of the ability to receive and communicate information in the language of the ethnic group to which identity is claimed, eventually inhibits participation and an understand of that group. The lesson we learn from Cavafy’s Poseidonians therefore, is that while they “felt” Greek, however burdensome that “feeling” was, that feeling did not endure and they were eventually completely Romanised.

It is in this context that Greek deputy foreign minister Terence Quick's recent controversial comments to Greek Americans in Tarpon Springs should be understood. At a recent gathering, he expressed his disappointment at the fact that all of his hosts were using English instead of Greek, despite the fact that the aim of the gathering was to seek the Greek government’s aid for Greek to be taught in schools in the region: “The Greek language should be a powerful reference point for the Greek Diaspora, as is Orthodoxy. Here in the US we have now reached the fourth and fifth generation, and Greek is fading. If you, the parents, and grandparents do not support the Greek language in your own gatherings, then Greek will be extinguished…. So, despite all the previous Greeks who spoke in English, I will speak in Greek, which is the mother of all languages. "

There is a certain irony in a person by the name of Quick chiding expatriates for not speaking Greek and exhorting them to do so. It goes without saying that Quick's own ethnic background would challenge many Greek-Australians’ conception of what it is to be Greek.

Quick’s contention, that it is ridiculous to seek assistance from a beleaguered Greek state for Greek language education while at the same time displaying a non-commitment to the perpetuation of that language and its relevance within a multi-cultural society by not using it in diasporan social contexts, seems logical and could equally be applied in Australia as well, where though much lip service is paid to the importance of maintaining the language, as an ideology, daily practice indicates other priorities. Quite possibly, the mere act of seeking Greek language education when one is not prepared to use the language, should be seen as yet another Poseidonian ritual. However, as a representative of the Metropolis, Terence Quick’s placement of the Greek language at the centre of his conception of the Greek identity, seems to suggest that what is Greek is truly in the eye or the consciousness of the beholder, or stakeholder for that matter. His revealing comments seem to suggest that we are entering a Meta-Greek era, an era where, given the increased distance and time spent away from the motherland, our experiences, priorities and attitudes towards our mother culture have diverged to such an extent that old constituent elements are being discarded and new identities formed that bear marked differences to the culture that spawned our original cringe. For example, among various Greek-Australian sub-cultures, such as the Pontian or Cretan, it is arguable that dancing has taken centre stage as the key component of ancestral identity.

In inclusive multi-cultural societies where a multiplicity of social realties exist concurrently but in reality the Anglo-Saxon one predominates, ethnic languages have proven to be the casualties of such identity reformation, coming as this does, off the back of postmodern cultural relativism. It will be interesting to see to what extent the anglophone Greek identity which has already emerged, will be considered as "Greek" by the denizens of the motherland, not known for their inclusive outlook, for a number of factors, language and geography chiefly among them, already preclude such an acceptance. It will be fascinating, to gauge as to whether or not such an identity assumes the form of a watered down, de-hellenised Greekness that is the penultimate state to total assimilation or can actually articulate the Greek-Australian experience plausibly down the generations and be the jumping off point for an entirely unique identity in its own right.

Rather than pontificating to the Poseidonians about their parlance, thus cutting them to he Quick, Terence Quick would do well to study the social and psychological conditions in which language loss came about in the first place. Further, if Global Hellenism, a concept that the Greek State has propagated, is to be plausible, it has to be sufficiently broad and sophisticated as to encapsulate the multi-faceted fabric of the societies in which it has arisen and respectful of the people whose daily lives are its constituent elements. It is a coalescing of historical processes that cannot be driven by the Greek state alone. Such a task requires a little less grandstanding and a good deal more introspection and collaboration, for in this game, that of maintain and developing unique Greek identities, there are no quick fixes.


First published in NKEE on 21 January 2017