Saturday, February 12, 2022


Over the holidays, a mother heard my children and I speaking Greek to each other at the park. Introducing herself, and her child who spoke perfect Greek with an Athenian accent, we chatted in Greek for a while. 

“Where are you from?” I asked her eventually. “Your daughter’s accent is Athenian, yet I’m guessing you were born here. Did you go back and live over there?” 

“No,” the mother replied. Both my husband and I were born and raised here but we love languages and we wanted our daughter to learn Greek properly, so we only speak to her in Greek. She gets her accent from the Greek children’s shows she watches. By the way, how can you tell I was born here?” 

“Your Greek is perfect,” I responded. “But the give-away is the slight lisping of the s, which is the way most Australian women pronounce that sibilant. It invariably gets transferred into Greek.” 

“No way, Professor Higgins, she laughed. “When did you come to Australia?” 

“Like you born and raised here,” I responded. 


From that moment on, the mother switched to English. Even though I continued to speak to her in Greek, she could no longer maintain the conversation in its original language. When I pointed this out to her, she would switch to Greek, say a few words and invariably go back to English, laughing as she realised how she was changing register. “It just feels weird speaking to someone my age in Greek, who isn’t from Greece,” she observed. 


A few days later we ran into an elderly family friend we hadn’t seen since the Pandemic. After greeting me in our own regional dialect, he, looking at my three year old son, asked:  

Χαβαγιού μπόιΟυάτς γιερνάιμ;” 

“He doesn’t speak English,” I informed him. 

Γιου νο νο γιερνάιμ?” he persisted. 

“He doesn’t speak English,” I repeated. 

Ουάτς ρονΓιου σάι?”  

“He doesn’t speak English,” I reiterated 

Μέμπι γιου ουάν α λόλα;” he continued. 


My interlocutor’s difficulty can of course be explained. The emerging social conventions which drive language use provide that English is the language that we now use to speak to the younger generations of our community. Thus to speak in Greek to a member of that generation is a social transgression. 


This, I learned the hard way a few years ago. Chancing upon a university friend on the street, we chatted to each other in Greek. I then asked her teenage son, who was waiting patiently next to her, how he was going at school. Turning to his mother, he screamed: 

“I’ve told you, don’t you ever speak in that language to me.” 


Recently, I have been tasked with trying to find an erudite, Greek-Australian primarily Greek speaking friend, a partner. As he has chosen to restrict himself to female Greek-Australians, he laments his lack of success in these terms: “Every time I open my mouth to speak Greek, they tell me I remind them of their parents or grandparents. This is a turn off.” My suggestion, that he present himself as a Greek from Greece apparently has paid dividends. Exoticism plus authenticity when it comes to linguistics is apparently sexy. The revelation as to the place of abode and the two investment properties in Clayton can come later. 


The manner in which psychology and social conventions drive language use is not studied at any deep level in relation to the manner in which Modern Greek is spoken in Australia. On the other hand, Manuela Pellegrino, in her ground-breaking study: “Greek Language, Italian Landscape: Griko and the Re-Storying of a Linguistic Minority,” explores social mores as intrinsic to an understanding of the context in which a language is spoken. Granted, there are vast differences between Griko, as spoken in Southern Italy and Greek as it is spoken in Australia. Nevertheless, Pellegrino, describes a process where in contemporary times, the elder generation of fluent Griko speakers stopped speaking the language to their children, not through any persecution or racism, but rather for practical reasons: their children being expected to learn the Salentine dialect of Italian spoken in their area as well as official Italian, it was felt that Griko was useless and an impediment to their education, assimilation and progression within society. Thus, while children learned the language or at least were able to comprehend it by listening to their elders, it did not develop into a language to be used with their peers.  


Most tellingly, Pellegrino describes a situation where Griko was not even allowed to develop into a gerontolect, a medium used by the younger generations, solely to communicate with their elders. When she in particular attempted to speak to her elders in Griko, they would laugh her off and switch to Salentine Italian, commenting in Griko: “Back then things were not like today.” Thus, for the mother tongue Griko speakers, context is everything. If you were not around when Griko was the main language of social intercourse, you are not automatically included within its linguasphere. I am advised by friends that a similar situation prevails here in Australia with younger members of the Pontian community attempting to speak dialect to their members, only to elicit a smile but ultimately, an exclusion. 


Pellegrino further outlines how Griko-speaking grandparents would relay an instruction to their first born in Griko, who would then relay that instruction in Salentine Italian to their younger siblings, who in turn would relay that instruction to their children in formal Italian, suggesting that a multiplicity of registers can be a social norm in a multilingual environment. 


Understanding the social registers of a language and how they can be used to include or exclude people will assist us in comprehending why the Greek language is in decline in Australia, a fact rendered undisputable by Professor Joe Lo Bianco’s extensive study “Pharos: Revitalising Modern Greek,” commissioned by the Modern Greek Teachers’ Association of Victoria. In particular, such an understanding can assist us in identifying when members of the older generations employ Modern Greek as a means of excluding members of the younger generations from their deliberations or participation in clubs, brotherhoods and other community institutions or other social settings and indeed how language relates to power in general. For example, while I will speak to members of my own brotherhood in dialect in a social setting, when asked to deliberate publicly or provide advice on a legal or procedural issue, I will do so in the Modern Greek register, as its underlying connotations lend my contention greater voice and render them less prone to subversion. Interestingly, while a large number of active members of such clubs will insist upon such deliberations taking place in Greek, in the home/private sphere they are happy for their progeny and grandchildren to address them in English, suggesting that social power imbalances are contextual and influence when, where and how, languages are spoken. 


Most of all, a study of the psychology of the language will explain why second-generation parents who are fluent in Greek, who have the best of intentions choose not to speak to their children in Greek. It will most importantly, delineate a social framework within which latter generations may speak Greek to each other without this being considered socially awkward but rather forms an organic part of the multi-lingual reality of this country. Further, such a study would also be able to trace the organic interrelationship and overlapping between Greek registers and English, suggesting that situational use or code switching can be a social norm rather than an aberration to be deplored and lamented over. 


In her book, Pellegrino also makes the following timely observation: “We talk more about Griko than in Griko.” Unless we are able to found a relevant social discourse for the Greek language in which all generations may participate, the continued existence of the Greek language in Australia will prove untenable. It is time we explored the deep-seated feelings we have for our mother tongue in a variety of social settings and study their psychology as a condition precedent to maintaining an idiom that may express our cultural memories as well as the sum total of our developing experiences as a sociolinguistic entity in this country. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 February 2022