Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tracing Greek language from age of Linear B

By Vivienne Nilan - Kathimerini English Edition

Geoffrey Horrocks, author of the noted book on the history of Greek.

Geoffrey Horrocks, professor of Comparative Philology at Cambridge, has written widely in his field, but is probably best known for his monumental work “Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers,” published by Longman Linguistics Library in 1997.

Now the Greek publisher Hestia has brought the book out in a Greek translation by Melita Stavrou and Maria Tzevelekou, who also provide a helpful introduction, setting the work in context, evaluating Horrock’s contribution and explaining their translation methodology.

Horrocks is visiting Athens this week and he spoke to Kathimerini English Edition yesterday ahead of the launch of the Greek edition of his book at the Benaki Museum.

We asked what attracted him to the study of Greek. “From an early age I was always interested in languages,” he responded. “I heard people speaking foreign languages and wondered what they were saying to each other about the world.”

“The key moment was at the age of 13, when I had to choose between German and Greek at school,” Horrocks said. “It was completely arbitrary, almost like tossing a coin. I chose Greek mainly because the alphabet looked intriguing. Then I found I really liked it.”

Horrocks went on to study Ancient Greek at university. His acquaintance with the modern language began after travels and the desire to communicate with the people he met. Since then his research has taken him into every aspect of the language, from the epic tradition and Ancient Greek dialectology to the syntax of Modern Greek.

As a historical linguist, Horrocks sees the big picture as well as the details. For instance, he views the fraught language question, which long bedeviled Greece and even led to bloodshed between rival supporters of demotic and katharevousa or purist Greek in the early 19th century, as the continuation of an age-old gap between the written and the spoken language.

The standoff between the opposing views grew more intense in the 19th century, he explains, because the Greek state was being recreated and decisions had to be made about which resources, including language, were to be used.

Judicious blend

In recent years, much of the fire has gone out of that debate and users of the language now feel free to exploit its entire range.

“The language is a huge resource and we’ve now got what people were advocating way back,” he said, referring to a judicious blend of the language’s rich resources.

Does he see the classical past as a burden or a source of enrichment for Greek?

“Sometimes it is both,” he said. “But Greece has achieved so much since 1850 and done so well in difficult circumstances that it should take pride in what it is is today.”

He doesn’t see it as a problem that younger Greeks do not want Ancient Greek to be compulsory in schools.

“The language has liberated itself from the political and ideological burdens of the past,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve seen serious journalism and academic discourse making use of elements of katharevousa.”

Covering as it does the history and structure of Greek through all its stages from Linear B to classical, Koine, medieval and Modern Greek, “Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers” has become a standard work of reference. How did he decide what to include and what not to include in it?

“There was no clear plan from the beginning,” he said. “The book evolved. As a historical linguist I wanted to explore under what circumstances a written language develops and the effect that has on the spoken language. I left out what was not related to that central development.”

Lingua franca

Does he see English becoming a lingua franca in the way that Greek once was?

“It already is, in some ways,” he said. “Such languages need an empire with resources to promote them and we do live in a kind of American empire where English has a special status. People will learn English if it helps them to get ahead. It already is a globalized language, but it won’t be forever.”

There is no reason for Greeks to see the burgeoning influence of English as a threat to their own language, Horrocks says. “Change is change; it isn’t necessarily either progress or decay,” he said. “Language changes according to the needs and circumstances of the people who use it.”

Borrowed words from English should not arouse concern. After all, as he pointed out, English is a classic example of a language that has absorbed words from everywhere and not lost its vigor.

Hestia have done local scholars and other readers a valuable service in making his account of the development of Greek since the second millenium BC available in Greek.

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