Saturday, March 11, 2017


I have a theory that one of the reasons one rejects or discards a language, is because that language is an imperfect medium for communication. If one does not possess enough words in a given language to express that which they wish to communicate and need to resort to another language in which they have greater facility to do so, then it is logical to suppose that over time, the language in which the speaker has the larger vocabulary will be preferred over the former, at which time, the former will gradually be discarded.
Within our own community, the absence of “words” primarily stemmed from the socio-economic background of most of the first generation migrants. Coming from a rural background and settling in an urban centre for the first time, those migrants did not possess the vocabulary of the city. They could neither express nor articulate names for consumer goods, trade, or even concepts such as wages, or compensation. The hybrid Greeklish that was subsequently developed to fill in the lacunae, was an admission that their own language, tailored as it was to a completely alien rural reality, was a medium considerably lacking in the ability to address their new environment.
Younger migrants and second generation Greek-Australians also found that their idiomatic Greek was severely limited in being to articulate the school or social experiences of growing up in Australia. The requisite ancestral words simply did not exist in order to discuss the difficulties of growing up, or the issues of the day. Slowly, English, the most accessbile became the preferred medium, for its words for multiple uses abounded and the Greek language receded to where it generally tenuously survives today, the kitchen of yiayia (this apparently is how grandmother is pronounced nowadays in Greek-Australian, with the emphasis on the first syllable).
As a child I remember being bundled into a living room, sardine-packed with relatives, there to watch, what was referred to as an «Ελληνικό Βίντεο». All of us would scour the screen, for this was our tool to Re-hellenisation. Through such videos, I learned that Greeks say εμπρός when answering the telephone, not άλαου, the way my grandmother did, and, thanks to Stathis Psaltis, that a σούζα, was a wheelie. Sadly, under the influence of said videos, I also thought it expedient to ask my teacher, Tamtakos’ question: «Ντου γιου λάικ δε γύφτος Γκρικ;»which earned me a detention, my educator forming the opinion that I was a precocious seven year old making indecent suggestions to her.
Nonetheless, the fact remained that in those days, when communication with Greece was sparing and except for the weekly VHS tape, access to media from Greece was almost non-existent, such small exposures to Greek media as we were able to glean had a powerful effect upon us linguistically. I remember my uncles in the eighties, most of whom had been brought up in Australia, laughing gleefully as they repeated word for word, all of Harry Klynn’s expletives, from one of his comedy tapes, for up until that point, they did not possess the words to swear properly in Greek. At that point, our polite, bourgeois family structure transformed into something earthy and refreshingly robust.
Nowadays, should we choose to be so, we are swamped by Greek media, via cable television, radio or the internet. Nonetheless, in my daughter’s kindergarten class, of the four third generation students of Greek background attending, only one speaks and understands Greek. This, is not only because the parents of the three children choose not to speak to their children in Greek, but also because they themselves lack the skills to express anything more than simple concepts in that language. As a result parents feel uncomfortable and insecure about passing on a medium that they themselves have not mastered.
Yet all is not lost and paradoxically enough, technology can come to the rescue in order to provide children with a linguistic experience in line with the modern urban world, in Greek, that will assist them in supplementing their vocabulary and learning new expressions: Kαρτούνια, as we called them in Greeklish back in the day, more commonly known as κινούμενα σχέδια. For, unlike the days of old when parents would pay large sums to secure Greek DVD’s that would be played to children ad nauseum, there exist on the internet, an inexhaustible supply of Greek language media that young children can be exposed to. Many of these are Greek dubbings of known children’s favourites, such as Peppa Pig, Ben and Holly, Charlie and Lola, Fireman Sam, Thomas the Tank Engine, allow children to seamlessly flit from one language to the other, comparing and contrasting vocabulary, in the manner of a true bilingual.
Animated well known children’s tales, Greek myths, and even tools for teaching the alphabet, by way of jingles and cartoons (the Ένα γράμμα, μία ιστορία series that can be found on youtube is brilliant in this regard) can also be found, so that children can be introduced slowly and gradually to vocabulary and linguistic experiences in an age appropriate manner. Furthermore, in viewing cartoons about Aesop’s fables, or even the well-constructed Zouzounia series of Greek songs for children, the child is being inducted into the traditional world of Greek thought, history and poetry and absorbing cultural references that might otherwise be lost. Of course, all the while they are developing an attachment to Greek culture as something absorbed rather than imposed, imbuing them subconsciously with a profound sense of identity.
Additionally Greece does not belong to the Anglosphere, cartoons dubbed in the Greek language are sourced from a multitude of other countries, such as Germany or Russia, and thus the cartoon experience in Greek actually becomes a multicultural phenomenon, providing for a richer experience than that which would otherwise be offered solely by way of English media.
As a result of my own daughter’s exposure from a young age to Greek language cartoons, (as part of a daily diet of family members speaking Greek to her as well,) she has, at the age of four developed a vocabulary in that language far broader than that which I would have possessed at the age of ten. This is simply because she is, via the medium of television, being exposed to words and expressions that no one around me in my time would have known even existed. Since the amount of media available on the internet is diverse and not repetitive, there is always something else to explore and engage with. All the while, the facility to express any though whatsoever, is being built. Thus quite apart from being greeted each evening with expressions such as: «Ώστε ήρθες απαίσιο τέρας,» I become stumped by questions such as:
- Μπαμπά, τι είναι πίδακας;
- Πίνακας;
Ξέρεις τι είναι πίνακας.
- Τι είναι πίδακας, λέω.
- Είπαμε, πίνακας.
- Όχι μπαμπά, πίδακας.
- Δεν ξέρω μάνα μου.
Εμείς δεν είχαμε τέτοια πράγματα στο χωριό του παππού.
I had to resort to the dictionary to learn that a πίδακας is a spurt or jet of water.
Cartoon Greek language learning does create some idiolectic discontinuities. Even though we understand each other, my daughter does not speak the way I do. At home, among my family, I make of use my father’s regional dialect, replete with its idiomatic expressions. My daughter’s accent and expressions on the other hand are modern Athenian, signifying how a linguistic spoken tradition can, through various influences, in this case, the fact that Greek cartoons invariably utilize the Greek of the capital, come to an end.
Greek cartoons, carefully selected, though valuable in introducing children to a diverse Greek linguistic world and supplementing words, expression, attitudes and customs that we may not know of or have forgotten, will only get us so far, however. For if the opportunity to practice and interact with others in the language, as a language of daily life, does not exist, then sooner or later that language will again be discarded, not as an imperfect but as an irrelevant medium. Utility therefore is key and March, the month in which we all speak Greek, is as good a place as any, to start putting words in our children's mouths. In the words of PJ Masks, dubbed in Greek as «Πυτζαμοήρωες,» έτοιμοι για δράση!

First published in NKEE on 11 March 2017