Saturday, October 29, 2011


The Greek version of the latest edition of my place of origin's brotherhood's newsletter is largely unintelligible, comprised of dubious spellings and imaginative grammatical constructions that connote fluency in Swahili and only a passing acquaintance with Modern Greek. Considering however, that the brotherhood in question is over the venerable age of seventy years, the fact that it persists in communicating to its ageing members in a form of Greek, however garbled, is praiseworthy, especially considering that many of its community counterparts these days increasingly choose to adopt English as the primary language of communication. This, despite our large numbers and numerous schools and other institutions, is not surprising. Modern Greek is language in decline, gradually disappearing from use in Australia.
It was Cavafy who, in his evocative poem: "The Poseidonians," told the story of the inhabitants of a Greek colony in Southern Italy, who: "forgot the Greek language after so many centuries of mingling with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners. The only thing surviving from their ancestors was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites, with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths. And it was their habit toward the festival's end to tell each other about their ancient customs and once again to speak Greek names that only few of them still recognized." This tokenistic treasuring of redundant tribal totems is most haunting and not without parallel closer to home.
While Greek may be the primary language of discourse for first generation migrants aged sixty and over, the same cannot be said of members of our community who arrived here at a young age and grew up here, or the generations that were born here. Increasingly, English is the language employed in most facets of life, and primarily in the family home. When Greek is spoken, it is usually spoken only to the pappou and yiayia generation and even there, that said generation is more and more, employing broken English in order to communicate with their children and grandchildren. Consequently, upon the demise of that generation, it is evident that the opportunities for speaking Greek will be severely curtailed, for it is relatively unheard of for Greek to be spoken with convincing regularity among members of the latter acculturation generations, especially without this eliciting a raised eyebrow and a sarcastic comment. Where Greek is spoken among the latter generations, it is usually done so in a fetishistic fashion, with the coining and adoption of words that establish a common Poseidonian origin for those engage in the discourse, such as "re, malaka, megale etc." Generally speaking however, it is a register that is avoided. One of the reasons for this, is an insecurity with regard to competence and an inherent fear of making mistakes.
As an aside it is of interest to consider, tentatively, so as to avoid the risk of making gross generalisations, that such limited intra-generational Greek language use as is employed by the second generations often differs according to gender. Though it is postulated by anthropologists that women are more likely to retain and pass down a mother tongue and customs, it is interesting to note that slightly more second generation males than females use aspects of the Greek language in their daily discourse towards each other. There may be a multitude of complex reasons for this, including family relationships and gender relations within them, the gender-biased composition of our social organisations that facilitates communication in Greek with more ease for males than females and a host of other factors that truly require further examination.
The phenomenon of limited intra-generational Greek discourse among the second generation and next to no discourse among the third generation, is a logical and not unnatural outcome of our sojourn in these Antipodean parts. The more one is acculturated to a society, the more one is exposed to its dominant language and the more that dominant language will permeate not only one's own personal spoken medium but also its underlying cultural constructs and suppositions, the more the original spoken medium will emerge hybridised. This is especially so in our community, where the vocabulary of our agrarian in origin first generation was generally limited at best and unable to reflect the challenges and concepts denoted by an urban environment, even in its own tongue. Despite growing up in a consciously monolingual family, right up until the age of thirteen when my grandmother visited us from Greece, I was convinced that the Greek word for market was marketa, for I had heard no other. The same applies for friza. My grandparents discovered the fridge in this country and, especially given the paucity of media for communication with the mortherland during the fifties and sixites, could not have known that this was deemed a psygeio, by their family back home. From there, it is but a short leap to jettisoning one's imperfect idiom, for one in which you can be fully understood and in which you can express yourself with greater ease, for it is frustrating and annoying to attempt to make one's deeper feelings understood through the use of a language that you lack the mastery of to employ to that purpose, especially considering the vast generation and communication gap that was opened between a first generation that threw itself wholly into the hard work of establishing roots in this country, leaving their offspring to bring up themselves and thus, not fully transferring to them, despite their best efforts in constructing schools for the purpose, a functioning and fluent mother tongue. Sum total: a significant component of the reason why the loss of fluency in the other tongue is marked down the generations, can be ascribed to those latter generations' exclusion or marginalisation from the social pursuits of the language-bearing generation, where the mother tongue could be learnt and practised, thus providing it both relevance and utility. The inherent contradiction here is starkly tragic. Ours is a gerontocratic community that values children more than anything else but seems unable to emancipate them. As a result, those offspring are often excused from the rules and scrictures of their forebears constructed community, and sadly, the language that is required to navigate one's way within it.
That English is deemed to be the primary language of the latter generations and the corollary redundancy of Modern Greek can be evidenced by the following instructive anecdotes. First generation clients who walk into my office often feel compelled, by the perceived difference in our ages, to instruct me in broken, highly unintelligible English. They will not switch to Greek, even when entreated to do so, primarily in order to save time, and will persist in slaughtering the English language even when spoken to in Greek, as if there is an unwritten understanding that English is the only acceptable register when communicating with the younger generations. Other members of the first generation become decidedly uneasy when they discover that they are communicating with members of the latter generation possessed of a greater facility for Modern Greek than themselves, as if it is offensive to challenge the keepers of the mother tongue by matching one's abilities with their own. On one occasion, I was accosted by an irate monolingual client for providing her daughter with a legal phase in Greek to be conveyed to her mother in order to facilitate her understanding of a particular legal process. The hapless daughter was unable to replicate the phrase and my client chastised me both for confusing her offspring by speaking to her in Greek, and inconveniencing her, by asking her to speak the language. Truth be told, I was contrite to say the least.
This is generation that will insist that its progeny marry its own kind, in order to preserve the mother language and traditions and will also be the first to conceal the fact that regardless of the much coveted and dearly won phyletic homogeneity of their family, neither language or traditions have been preserved with any real capacity for viability save a cursory «Χρόνια πολλά παππού,» if they are lucky. Nor is it the language spoken to third generation children by their parents. To be fair, this is also the generation that has largely assumed the responsibility and the logistics for conveying their grandchildren to Greek school, above and beyond the counter-productive cautionary tales and 'horror-stories' of their own offsprings' Greek school experiences that do much to render their children's attitude to Greek language learning a negative one, from the outset. There is not much point expecting one's child to adopt a positive attitude towards going to Greek school, if they are already burdened with their parent's prejudices against such institutions. The first generation also bears the brunt of assisting their grandchildren with their homework, as I found out during my stint as a Greek school teacher. In general, I found that second-generation parents, in the majority, did not supervise their children's homework or take it at all seriously. On the other hand, it was easy to detect from the children that would hand in their homework, lovingly executed in polytonic and with katharevousa suffixes, the hand of a first generation helper. Such contact and intervention is vital for language acquisition. In many cases, second generation parents find it inconvenient to send their children to Greek school and only do so in order to stem the flow of nagging from their parents. For it is trite to mention again that in the vast majority of second-generation Greek homes, Greek is no longer the language spoken and thus, Greek from being taught as a mother tongue, is now taught as a foreign language, with obvious implications for the standard of learning, especially in Australia, where fluent foreign language acquisition is not a priority.
A few months ago, in an interview with a community radio program, I was asked my opinion on the state of "Ellinomatheia," that is, Greek language learning in our community, which is in steady decline. My response was that as a community, we have not developed a language policy commensurate with our aims as an ethnic group. Do we wish our children to be fluent in the Modern Greek language, on a level with their counterparts in Greece? Is this desirable or achievable? If not, do we wish to admit defeat and claim satisfaction with the parroting of a few token phrases, such linguistic incapacity to be justified as long as a child "feels Greek?" What is it that we want out of Greek language learning? How does the fact that English is the primary language not only of everyday conversation but also of instruction the Greek language impact upon our objectives? And, quite frankly, how do we separate lip service paid to the importance of the Greek language, from the generation of actual enthusiasm, drive and hard work to ensure that the language survives. What structures do we create in order to deal with changes in our community demographic and to assess how this impacts upon Greek language learning? These are obvious questions and yet we are as incapable as a community to arrive at a consensus as we are, to collaborate in order to realise our aspirations. Ultimately, it is my view that these are questions that the first generation must still decide, as sadly, the latter generations in many respects lack both the competence and the passion to do so.
There is an element of self-loathing among the latter generations about the level of their skills in the Greek language, at least for the time being. Yet this is not without historical precedent, as Cafavy proves: "And so their festival always had a melancholy ending because they remembered that they too were Greeks, they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia; and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become, living and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life." If such a state of affairs is to be arrested and tens of Greek school teachers rescued from unemployment, a concerted and long-lasting effort to make the Greek language relevant in our community through rigorous education, integration into our existing communal life and the facilitation of social opportunities where it may be spoken by all generations must be made. That is, if we still have the ticker, or the guts. Time will tell.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 and 29th October 2011