2009-09-15

Lerna: Epilogue

Καλοσωρίζω κάπως καθυστερημένα τους αναγνώστες του Βήματος που ενδεχομένως να βρέθηκαν σ' αυτό το ιστολόγιο, και τους καλώ να εντρυφήσουν όσο τους βαστά στα νερά της Λέρνας...

I never did close off the Lerna series of posts, on the count of lemmata of Greek and the urban legends that have grown around its misinterpretations. Part of the problem with closing it off is, I already wrote my epilogue half-way through the series, at IIId, before I started counting—and pointing out the futility of counting, with a stinging anecdote from Richard Feynman about the Modern Greek relation with their forebears. From the Big Picture view, I don't have much to add to what I said then:
Lerna is a hoax, and Lerna is an annoyance, and Lerna is an embarrassment; but it will not die, because more than anything else, Lerna is a symptom. It's a symptom of what Feynman found. And the way to singe the head of the Hydra is to get over that nagging sense of not measuring up to the Hellenes.

Those following the Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos' Blog (or as I choose to call them, Team Fortier), will know that the debate about How Many Words Of Greek has continued in the letters page of the Athenian press, in Eleftherotipia and Vima. The course of the debate, with its sleights of hand, has been tracked by Team Fortier's Stazybo Horn. The newspaper Vima has just published a group letter from Team Fortier. ("A team of existing or non-existing individuals, whose scientific knowledge of Greek is impossible to confirm, has lately been attempting to dispute that the Greek language is the richest in the world." The syntax of the original is considerably more tortuous.) The letter includes my signature and links back to this blog, so I'm acknowledging the debate here.

[EDIT: Oops, that's monstrously unclear. "A team of existing or non-existing individuals" is what Team Fortier has been called in the pages of Eleftherotypia by its implacable foe, Theodore Andreakos.]

Not that there is much to acknowledge. Those who would claim that Greek has a gazillion bajillion words know not what words are, what a logical argument is, and how little an inflated word count pissing match proves. Their passion and love for the Hellenic tongue did make me almost feel a remote sympathy for them—especially once I started looking at them through an outsider's lens, rather than up close, as an anthropologist rather than a fellow Greek. And when Stazybo Horn commented here that he wishes he could see their heads explode as they read my posts, I didn't gloat in response, because I kind of felt pity at a Hellenism that has to resort to such flimsy grounds to assert itself.

My pity didn't last long; what with the threats and accusations of unGreek behaviour, and the suite of non-linguists telling linguists their business, and the digging up of dirt on anti-Lernaeans (and on pro-Lernaeans, to be fair), and the parading of phantom 120-volume dictionaries of Greek. My pity certainly does not extend to missives like this (which launched the debate across from Eleftherotipia to Vima):
2009-08-19. From Theodore Andreakos: With this letter, I wish the inform my friends, the readers of Vima, that there exists a Team which proclaims that it admires the Greek language, while it does everything to mock it and put it down internationally, with all the misinformation they have long been spreading against it in print and the electronic media. The head of this team appears to be an N. Sarantakos, who goes by the title of author and translator, residing, so he writes, in Luxembourg, and maintaining a website. He and his team claim, in particular, (1) that English is supposedly the richest language in the world...

And what though Sarantakos has been online (maintaining a website) for close to twenty years, has published extensively works on language, on bridge, and fiction, and has been hiding in pretty plain sight as an EU translator, we clearly need sleuths of the calibre of Theodore Andreakos, Educ. Insp. (Ret'd), Hon. Prof. Tech Coll., to ferret out Team Fortier's deep dark purpose. Whatever that may be. To which I can only say, (a) *I*'m Spartacus, and (b) what do I have to do to get in the employ of the Bilderberg Group? They've just convened in Athens and all...

Theodore Andreakos, Educ. Insp. (Ret'd), Hon. Prof. Tech Coll., won't be convinced by anything anyone from Team Spartacus Fortier has to say; there's plenty of evidence of that in the newspaper correspondence. And it was not for him that I wrote. I wrote for Dokiskaki, who demanded of the scholars, "it would be good for what's correct to exist somewhere as an easy read; else the sensible will end up mad." And because I had some facts to contribute to the debate, and it was meet that I did.

I note with disappointment though, that noone from the linguistics establishment in Greece has weighed in. (Foivos Panagiotidis did, but he's a prof in U Cyprus.) It's your field that's being taken for a ride in hobbyhorses....

21 comments:

  1. richest language...there is no such thing...

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  2. @Mike: As indeed I've argued at http://hellenisteukontos.blogspot.com/2009/06/lerna-iiid-why-we-do-not-count-lemmata.html and http://hellenisteukontos.blogspot.com/2009/06/lerna-iiib-why-we-do-not-count-word.html .

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  3. I never liked the looks of "noone." ;-)

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  4. @Peter: I miss noöne myself, but I'm embracing analogy with everyone, and I've never liked the looks of no-one or no one: hyphens don't belong in a small function word in my book. I'll admit that if I must be copyedited (and this blog clearly isn't), I won't get away with noone, and no one is the least objectionable of the alternatives.

    FWIW. And while there are some spelling minutiae I can still get worked up about, this ain't one of them...

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  5. opoudjis,

    I serendipitously came to your blog after googling the word αάατος. A fortuitous find indeed.

    Cheers,

    ~Peter a.k.a. "lastgreek" (Montreal, Canada)

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  6. You are welcome, though you must have followed a circuitous path, since I don't think I've ever posted about the first word in the Greek dictionary!

    I'm surprised you didn't get here from my other blog, which recently got pretty obsessed with Quebec for a month. You do have a beautiful city there—though I couldn't make sense of your Greek restaurants. :-)

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  7. I of course went googling for you, Peter aka Lastgreek, and was I flabbergasted to find your blog: it turns out I've just cited your post on Stelios Foustaleris, in a post I'm halfway through writing for my other blog on Cretan music. Thanks for the resource!

    Whether you *like* the use I put the citation to is another matter. :-) (I'm talking about how identity gets constructed selectively, so there was no room in 80s TV programming of Cretan music for a boulgari or for tabachaniotika. But if you're interested, we can take this up once I finish my post there.)

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  8. Eek, that's not your blog, you just comment there. Oh well. The coincidence was too good to be true.

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  9. For the record... my "circuitous path":

    John Chadwick, Lexicographica Graeca,

    ---> αάατος,

    ---> www.sarantakos.wordpress.com,

    ---> www.languagehat.com,

    ---> www.hellenisteukontos.blogspot.com.

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  10. I'm very pleased to have been an intermediary!

    I remain baffled by the near-universal obsession among Greeks with the supposed unchanging perfection of their language. I yield to no one (ahem) in my love of Greek; the desire to learn the ancient language was one reason I picked the college I did, and I soon branched out to the modern one and fell in love with Cavafy and Seferis and Makriyannis and... well, lots of people. The idea that it is somehow inherently superior to other languages is simple human-all-too-human nationalism, and forgivable as such, but the idea that it has not changed in over 2,000 years (well, OK, it's dropped a few endings and gotten sloppy with the cases, but let's sweep that under the rug) is just plain loony, and as far as I know unique to Greeks; the Chinese are just as proud of their equally ancient language, but no Chinese pretends it was pronounced the same in the Tang dynasty as it is now. Very strange.

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  11. @Language: in fact, the language has NOT changed that much in the past 2000 years (if you can read German, try to get hold of this paper: Kapsomenos, S. G., 1958. «Die griechische Sprache zwischen Koine und Neugriechisch», in the Proceedings of the XI. Internationalen Byzantinistenkongress, II 1, Munich. Or try the updated Greek edition Σ. Γ. Καψωμένος, Από την ιστορία της ελληνικής γλώσσας. Η ελληνική γλώσσα από τα ελληνιστικά ως τα νεότερα χρόνια. Η ελληνική γλώσσα στην Αίγυπτο. 2003, σελ. ιε΄+124 (€ 8). ISBN 960-231-054-5. It's really revealing!).
    The cosmogony that transformed ancient Greek to the direct ancestor of modern Greek, Koine, took place in 4th/3rd c. BC as a result of the changes brought to the Greek world by Alexander's Empire and it is thought to have been completed to a very large extent by 3rd c. AD. (at the latest)

    I agree with what you say:
    "The idea that [Greek] is somehow inherently superior to other languages is simple human-all-too-human nationalism"
    but the fact that contemporary Greeks have to turn to such an ancient phase of their language/civilization (before 4th c. BC.) to find sth. to be proud of is not simply a nationalistic reflex act. It often makes me wonder how pathetic and sad they must be feeling about themselves and all the other phases of their civilization...

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  12. I do not dare disagree with my godfather TAK, the more so since he's a practising academic and I'm not; but the threshold we set at for Modern Greek at 1100 (and in reality the Dark Ages just before that) is still justified. If you pick up Ptochoprodromos or Glycas' Prison Verses, you immediately recognise it as Modern Greek.

    I don't have quite the same recognition with Leontius of Neapolis or even the Proto-Bulgarian Inscriptions—let alone the papyri or the Gospel of Mark. They're well on the way, and I vaguely remember being surprised by some of the things Kapsomenos pointed out (it would be 15 years since I read that paper, so I can't remember what). The neuters in -in in Leontius are clearly Modern, for instance. But a language with a productive future and dative is still not quite my language.

    I know what TAK is hinting at, but I'll spell it out for the record. We have had eleven hundred years of the Byzantine Empire. Eleven hundred years. And the only thing most Greeks care to know about the Byzantine Empire is one day out of all those eleven hundred years. 29 May, 1453.

    That's not Gibbon's fault, with his exquisitely phrased takedown of the East Roman Empire. That's the fault of Greeks reducing their history to two points: 431 BC, and 1821 AD.

    There's a very funny post that Sarantakos linked to yesterday, which does a takedown of the moral panic in the press about SMS transliterations. It has as good a nickel summary of the language paranoia of Modern Greece as I've seen, and its origins in the Modern Greek inferiority complex—and that also illuminates why Greeks skip everything between 431 BC and 1821 AD. I'll translate it here when I get time, it really is worth it.

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  13. 'That's the fault of Greeks reducing their history to two points: 431 BC, and 1821 AD.'

    Nicely put, Nick!

    As for language and literature: as a practicing academic working exactly in the field of early modern Greek literature, I do not question the threshold we set at c. 1100: the only surviving texts written in a language that, no matter how mixed, is still decisively closest to modern Greek come from the first half of the 12th c. and, thus, signal the emergence of modern Greek literature - though, as you know, not all scholars are agreed on this.

    On the other hand, the linguistic features we find in these texts must have been the result of a process that we know that began with Koine, but we do not know exactly when it ended due to the lack of textual evidence. Or perhaps we do know when it ended (in 1976, when after centuries of delay demotic Greek was finally recognized as the official language of the Greek state!), but there are so many data we lack for the period in between, esp. for the years 500-1100.

    In any case, I view the language of the Gospels and the papyri not as identical with but rather as the direct ancestor of modern Greek - I carefully noted this in my previous comment. I cannot tell you exactly when modern Greek as a language was born (we would have to agree on the features that signal the birth of a language first), but I can surely tell you, following Kapsomenos, that all the major features (suprasegmental, phonological, morphological, syntactical) that distinguish modern from ancient Greek were already there in Hellenistic-Roman times...

    Sarantakos post is indeed great!

    Best wishes,

    Your godfather

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  14. Oh, and motorcycleboy's post is even greater and linguistically speaking more innovative!

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  15. Before I forget, languagehat . . . many thanks for the www.motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com heads up on your blog.

    I remain baffled by the near-universal obsession among Greeks with the supposed unchanging perfection of their language.

    You should see how Greeks "obsess" over their firstborn (look ma: no hyphen, no space) son!

    The idea that it is somehow inherently superior to other languages is simple human-all-too-human nationalism . . .

    It's definitely not nationanlism, lh. (G reece is one of the least nationalistic states in the E.U., which explains the calamitous situation it finds itself in today.) I would say it's more pride---pride in knowing that they possess the most beautiful, most euphonic, language to ever grace God's creation. (Have I mentioned that I'm Greek? ;-) )

    TAK: ...in fact, the language has NOT changed that much in the past 2000 years.
    Indeed: a discernible continuity throughout its long and proud history.

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  16. Greece is one of the least nationalistic states in the E.U.

    I find that an... odd statement, since mentioning M*c*don*a to a Greek, in my experience, elicits responses that I can only categorize as nationalistic.

    a discernible continuity throughout its long and proud history.

    Yes, but not a phonetic continuity. Greek, like any language, has changed a great deal, and the idea (expressed by men as intelligent and cosmopolitan as Seferis) that the ancients pronounced all those different letters and combinations as /i/, just like modern Greeks, is very silly indeed.

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  17. I find that an... odd statement, since mentioning M*c*don*a to a Greek, in my experience, elicits responses that I can only categorize as nationalistic.

    It's the Mediterranean temperament. Those bloody blokes flare up at the slightest perceived provocation. ;-)

    Yes, but not a phonetic continuity.

    How many different ways are there in pronouncing one of the most ancient of Greek words ἀέρας?

    Of course there have been phonetic changes. It would be "very silly indeed" to think or argue otherwise. Nevertheless, the changes have not been so great that the sound of Greek as spoken today in Athens would be perceived as barbarian to the ear of a Greek of 4th century BC Athens.


    Cheers,

    ~Peter

    P.S. Anybody have a good recipe for Macedoine salad? :-)

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  18. Yes. Start by chopping a lot of Greeks into bite-sized pieces ....

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  19. *̊facepalm*

    On the bright side, at least John didn't start with the guys north of the border... :-)

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  20. Oops! I somehow had missed the coronis of this marvelous series! And giving me the credit for the inspiration --thanks but really not worth it!

    Thanks to you Nick, for this wonderful journey into the scientific details of the methodical study of this very old but still very young language of ours.

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  21. We have had eleven hundred years of the Byzantine Empire. Eleven hundred years. And the only thing most Greeks care to know about the Byzantine Empire is one day out of all those eleven hundred years. 29 May, 1453.

    It's funny when you think about it. They only know 1453 and yet have no clue how insignificant it really is.


    ~The ghost of George Maniakes

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