Saturday, March 17, 2018


On the morning of the Sunday of the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, I was ensconced in the Epirus tent, clad in full Vlach regalia. As pedestrians were rather light on the ground, I decided to amuse myself by playing jazzicised versions of Epirot folksongs on the violin. Five bars into: «Δεν μπορώ μανούλα’,μ», a heavily accented voice asked:
"Χαλό, γιου Κών;» It was an elderly gentleman, clad in a suit and wearing an Athens 2004 Olympics cap.
«Ναι,» Ι responded in Greek.
«Γιου δε γουάν σπίκ ον δε ράντιο;» the old man persisted in broken English. He spoke slowly, haltingly, the words stumbling across his tongue and escaping his mouth with perceptible difficulty.
«Ναι, παρουσιάζω το Ηπειρώτικο πρόγραμμα,» I informed him, again in Greek.
«Άι λίσεν έβερυ γουίκ. Γιου βέρυ γκουντ. Άι λάικ βέρυ ματς,» the old man persisted.
«Μιλάτε ελληνικά;» I asked.
«Οφ κόρς ρε. Γιου στιούπιντ;» the elderly gentleman inquired incredulously. Slowly, sonorously, over the course of the next minute, he intoned: «Χάου άι λίσεν του γιου μπλάρρυ ράντιο ιφ άι νο σπικ Γρήκ ρε;» 
«Δεν θα ήταν πιο εύκολο για όλους μας αν μιλούσατε στα ελληνικάI asked him, with a view to facilitating a speedier and somewhat more comfortable discourse.
It was at that point that for some inscrutable reason, the old man lost his temper.
«Ά γκε φάκ!» he exclaimed and walked off. I picked up my violin and shaken, played Waltzing Matilda in a minor key, as a tsifteteli, instead.
Sometime later, my daughter joined me in the tent. An elderly woman passed by the tent and noticed her.
«Κόρη σου είναιshe asked me.
Να τη χαίρεστε«Να’στε καλά.»
Turning to my daughter she asked: «Χάβαγιου ντάλι μου;»
My daughter responded with a blank stare of non-comprehension.
«Γιου γκουτ;» the old lady persisted.
“It’s easier if you speak to her in Greek,” I advised. “Her English is still not that strong.”
«Γιου γκο του δα σκούλ;» the old lady inquired.
Silence from my daughter.
«Ουατς γιουρ νάιμ ντάλι;»
«Μιλήστε ελληνικά,» I advised her again.
«Δεν σας καταλαβαίνει
Ουάι γιου νο σπικ; Γιου σάιthe old lady persisted, smiling.Having received no response, she gave my daughter a pat on the head and walked off, whereupon my daughter mystified, turning to me, asked: «Γιατί δε μιλούσε η κυρία ελληνικά;»

It is widely held that grandparents are the chief repositories of Greek language and culture within our community. This is because they are the ones that have largely experienced that language and culture in its native context and it still forms the primary medium of their daily discourse. However, of late, a convention has evolved within the community, whereby, while Greek can be and is used as an intra-generational tool for communication and even as an inter-generational mode of communication, this does not extend to the third generation, especially when addressing members of that generation that do not belong to one’s family. Instead, it is customary to address such children in English, regardless as to how bad the speakers English actually is.

In some bizarre cases, as the first dialogue herein suggests, members of the older generation persist in speaking English to their younger interlocutors, even when it is apparent that both speakers are fluent in Greek and that communication would be a good deal more convenient in that language. I remember one particular elderly gent who attended my office in order to seek legal advice. His English was parlous and despite my constant efforts to encourage him to speak in Greek, for the sake of brevity and so that I could understand him, he persisted in speaking a close to unintelligible form of garbled English. Having pleaded with him to speak in Greek and even appealed to his hip-pocket by informing him that most lawyers charge in six minute intervals, so that it would be cheaper for him to speak in Greek, he blissfully ignored my ministrations. At the end of the excruciatingly long consultation, I asked him: “Why didn’t you speak Greek? Wouldn’t it have been easier for both of us?”
“Because English is your language, not Greek, you smart-arse” he snapped. “You were born here.”

Circumstances like these suggest that on the odd occasion, the Greek language or its non-use is wielded by native speakers as a tool of exclusion, against other generations. For reasons of their own, they may feel threatened by members of the younger generation and the only way to preserve a feeling of ascendancy, is by creating a language dichotomy, whereby the ‘legitimate’ language is reserved for use by ‘legitimate’ speakers, while those deemed to be upstarts or not worthy, are directed to speak in English, a language, in this case, of disempowerment. Over the years, in pursuing my own literary endeavours in the Greek language, not a few well-meaning members of the Greek community literati have suggested emphatically that I cease writing in Greek. Apparently, being Australian-born, the only language I am authorized to write in, is English.

Generally however, and especially when it comes to the third generation, the convention of employing English in inter-generational discourse does not come from a desire to exclude, disempower or marginalize. Instead, it seems to derive from the opposite: a deeply held assumption that the latter generation has lost the Greek language altogether, and so, to address a child in Greek, would form a barrier to communication, or indeed, in some instances, cause trauma. This comes in marked contrast to the practices of a generation ago, where grandparents were considered the main point of contact between younger generations and the Greek language, and their use of the Greek language as a means of communication with grandchildren and as a method of ensuring cultural continuity, was unquestioned.

Nowadays, many elderly Greeks, will, when questioned as to why they speak to younger generations in English will not only state that it is because they assume that most of them do not speak Greek but also because it is considered rude to do so. The social transgression here apparently comes in the form of unduly exposing a child’s ignorance of the Greek language, if one speaks to that child in Greek, and the child does not respond. Apparently, this is a social transgression identified and excoriated as such by the second, ie. parental generation.

On most mornings, when I take my daughter to school, we sit in the playground while she tells me her favourite vampire stories and tales of Greek mythology, in Greek. An elderly lady sits nearby and smiles. She holds her grand-daughter in her arms and speaks to her in broken English. A few days ago, as we were discussing whether skordalia could be plausibly used as a vampire repellent, she commented:
“It’s good that you speak to your daughter in Greek.”
“Well, we are Greek, what else could I do?” I responded.
“My grand-daughter doesn’t speak Greek. Her mother isn’t Greek,” the old lady offered wistfully.
“My wife isn’t Greek either,” I told her.
“So how does she learn Greek? From her γιαγιά;” the old lady asked.
“From all of us,” I responded. “The family, the community, even from you right now.”
“My son and my daughter-in-law have told me not to speak to my grand-daughter in Greek,” the old lady confided sadly. “They say that it’s going to slow her down at school and that its going to make her feel inferior to the other kids.”
“Do you agree with that assessment?” I asked.
“Well,” the old lady mused, “I brought up my kids speaking Greek. I didn’t think that was a problem. We all thought it was natural that we should pass on our language to our children. But somewhere along the line, we discovered they don’t feel the same way. They don’t want to pass on the language. They speak to their kids in English. In the beginning, I told them: “let them at least learn Greek from me, whatever they learn can only benefit them,” but they told me categorically not to speak to the kids in Greek. What can I do?” she shrugged. “I brought up my kids in the way I thought was best. Now they are doing the same. And even in families where the parents are homogenous, they are not teaching their kids Greek anymore.”
When the bell rang, the grand-daughter was balancing precariously upon a bench. ῾Μη,” her grandmother shouted spontaneously. ῾Θα πέσεις. Σλάουλυ, σλάουλυ.᾽ And she looked up at me and beamed.
Once the last of the first generation of Greek speakers is no longer with us, a tangible linguistic and cultural link of continuity with our place of origin will be sundered. Depriving the latter generations of the rich repository of memory, shared tradition, perspective and outlook that can only be transmitted through the ancestral tongue, even before the demise of the generation that can pass it on, is tantamount to committing cultural suicide. Considering that among native born Greek Australian peer groups, social interaction in the Greek language is by convention rare, contact with native speakers is vital if our community is to retain the Greek language into the future. For this reason, this March, let us encourage the elderly members of the community to defy and ultimately smash pernicious convention and speak to our youth, unashamedly and unhindered, in Greek. And let us actively seek out ways in which we can harness and support their linguistic expertise, tying it to such key concepts as family, connection and community, in order that our emerging youth may contextualise that linguistic expertise to their lived existence, thus ensuring our linguistic survival as a distinct and relevant part of the multicultural fabric of Victorian society, well into the future.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 March 2018