Linguashmucks: Motorcycle Boy 1, Purity of Greek 0

By: | Post date: 2009-09-22 | Comments: 14 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
Tags: , ,

Enough teasing: at last, here is the translation of Motorcycle Boy’s post “Linguashmucks” (Οι Γλωσσοκόπανοι).

To lead in: my friend Diana, of the blog Surprised By Time (bringing the Mediaeval Peloponnese to life) forwarded me a link, and suggested I blog about it. The link was to an article in the Athens press (here in its Englished version), on a research project about high school students’ use of SMS spellings in their written work. It’s a phenomenon happening throughout the Western World, as the mode of literacy is changing. No shortage of instances in English: here’s a random instance from Zambia. And throughout the world, people make their woebegone conclusions about how it signals the End of Western Civilisation.

But in Greece, mobile phones were late to take up Greek characters; and SMS and Chat are still often the domain of ad hoc transliteration of Greek into ASCII, Greeklish—which had previously flourished in the 1990s, as Greek script was hard to get online at all. So SMS Greek intruding into schoolchildren’s assignments is even more ideologically loaded in Greece than elsewhere. And the attendant rhetoric on the End of Western Civilisation is even more unbalanced.

The Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog had noticed the rhetoric too; and derided it in a post called Τα γκρίκλις φταίνε (και) για την Άλωση!: “Greeklish is to blame for the Fall of Constantinople, too!” (The link is the Byzantine manuscript use of abbreviations, not a million miles away from SMS.) In the ever-informative discussion threads that Team Fortier manage there, someone linked to a discussion board where one of the original researchers had posted. And who’da thunk it: the researchers did not say the things the Athens press said they did. Journalists distorting scholarly research: you heard it here first, folks.

Because Nikos Sarantakos had covered the topic, and because SMS spelling panic is a commonplace thing in the world, I begged off posting. But in far-off Ulaan Bataar, a motorcyclist also noticed the rhetoric around the research project…

… so a week later, Nikos put a miscellanea posting up, including this:

Χάρηκα επίσης το άρθρο “Γλωσσοκόπανοι” στο ιστολόγιο Λευκός Θόρυβος και, γιατί να το κρύψω, το ζήλεψα λιγάκι.
I also enjoyed the posting “Linguashmucks” at the blog White Noise; and why hide it, I was somewhat envious of it.

Me too. Enough that I thought I should share in English. The posting is hilarious, and apposite in its righteous fury.

I’m inclined to quibble with some of its points, and I hope we can have a discussion through it here; but I don’t want to detract from any of its awesomeness. Except for the dig at Esperanto, but that’s something that’s worth talking through too: Esperanto is not dead, but how does it live?

And the answer is not denaskismo, the notion that Esperanto is only a real language if it has native speakers. That’s offensive to the overwhelming majority of Esperantists who aren’t; in fact, the link randomly googled above is the first instance I’ve found of a native speaker of Esperanto who’s stuck around—most of them (George Soros is only the most famous) want nothing to do with Esperanto.

And we could also bring up, as imposed dead languages “from above”, Classical Arabic and Hebrew; but it’s not clear how imposed they are, and how dead they are. The more interesting thing to consider, I think, is, could Puristic Greek have ever succeeded in displacing Demotic completely, or in maintaining its diglossia like Classical Arabic has—and if not, what was its fatal flaw? I have my suspicions, but I think they can wait for a future post. For now, I defer to the gentleman on the bike from Mongolia…

[I’ll try not to annotate, but the reference to “Kostopoulos’ publications” are contemporary “lifestyle” magazines (starting with recently revived Klik), who wear their fashionableness on their sleeve by frequent codeswitching to English. The Fat Man is the current prime minister.]

I was reading this someplace the other day: there was a survey done, apparently, by the Department for Kindergarten Teachers of the University of Western Macedonia, on High School students in Kozani. It showed that many of them write in Greeklish even in their school assignments. Comments on the results followed closely by various concerned citizens, worried about the extinction of Greek spelling and the consequences for the Greek language. I had a good laugh; that happens to me every time the results of some research undergo analysis by the clueless.

Now, if you don’t get the joke, pull up a seat, and let me remind you of a thing or two about the Immortal Greek Tongue. Who knows, we might have a laugh together.

So, we here in this country of stones have been cursed, to have had some utter loafers live here before us. These loafers didn’t know what else to do with their time, so they sat around and came up with philosophies. And any number of related sciences, too. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they came up with those philosophies, the bastards went and left behind some written texts—just so they could torment their descendants with them. These written texts were later taken up by Civilised Humanity, to their great admiration. (Insert exclamation point here.) Of course, Civilised Humanity then burnt most of those texts, in case they fell into the hands of unsuspecting serfs and gave them any curious notions. The ancient texts that weren’t burned were copied by pious monks, with the appropriate level of care to ensure there were no deviations from Christian morality. (And if there were any, then so much the worse for the deviations.) This bunch of stuff more or less passed on to Modern Greece as “Ancient Greek Literature”. And they turned our brains to chicken wire with it in High School, because it was compulsory to teach it to us from the original. (Original my ass.)

At any rate, There’s two things you should keep from this story:

  1. The pathological relationship of Greek citizens with the Ancient texts: texts they flipped off in school, and flip out on in middle age.
  2. The hysterical idealisation of the Ancient Greek language, because many of its words are used in modern Western science.

As the years went by, the Ancients died: wise they may have been, but they were not immortal. Then some Roman overlords came over to this country of stones, and the locals rushed to suck up to them. So much so, they even declared the Romans to be Continuators of Hellenic Antiquity, and they worship the Two-Headed Eagle to his day, considering it to be “Greek heritage”! Don’t talk to me about the European Union and all that crap: the Greeks had already worked that all out from the time of the Byzantine Empire! Lord have mercy, that’s how far ahead we were as a people!

As you know, then came the Turks, who we civilised as we do, even though we were their subjects. We would have accepted them too as Continuators of Ancient Greece (like we did the Byzantines), if the Europeans hadn’t poked their noses in, and set us straight. (Acting out of pure altruism, and motivated by their admiration for Ancient Greece. Of course.)

In a word, the spoken language of Greek territory has been through a myriad changes, like any living language in the world has. And when the Greek State was established, it ended up looking like a mutant puppy with two heads. Why so? Because, presumably in an attempt to efface the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Greek citizenry of the time, some people decided that “we don’t give a shit what you speak among yourselves, but the language of the country shall be ONE, and DIFFERENT.” A language also known as Puristic. In which some foreign-trained intellectuals (also known as “scissor-arses”) created a language which had NOT PREVIOUSLY EXISTED. And they imposed it. In school, in church, in public discourse and the public domain, as a language to impress on people and to oppress them with. Something even worse than Papa Stalin: he might have forbidden local languages, but at least he was replacing them with a LIVING language.

We know that dead languages are maintained exclusively in museum exhibits, and we know that languages created “from above” have never been alive (see the failed experiment of Esperanto). That’s why Puristic disappeared, leaving behind it some pensioner teachers, some uneducated politicians who keep using phrases like εις την παράταξή μας “in our side of politics” (the correct grammar is εις την παράταξίν μας), and some journalists with a bogus sense of decorum, admiring themselves for saying κατά παρέκκλιση “as a deviation”. You know what I’m talking about.

But it remains true that Modern Greece has never acquired a uniform language. Nor did it get uniform spelling, syntax, or anything of the sort. We transitioned from “wooden” Puristic to “Demotic Enhanced”, then we ended up with “Plain Demotic”, but we’re still trying to work out if you spell “train” as τρένο or τραίνο.

And while:

  • Greek teachers presume to do a linguist’s job, imposing arbitrary grammatical rules;
  • authors write however the mood takes them, either using local dialect, or following the vernacular of their suburb, or even inventing a language of their own;
  • the State communicates in a farrago of Demoticising Puristic;
  • the Church stays faithful to Old School Puristic—

the citizens of the country speak their own language. Which makes sense, right?

Language (any language) is, first and foremost, an instrument used to achieve communication (so the sender of a message understands the same thing as its receiver). At the next level, language is a semotic object of study, and its analysis a scientific undertaking. Why do we use the second person plural when we’re trying to be polite? Why do we use the word εξουσία [lit. “being out, being allowed”] where English power, or αυθεντία [lit. “being-in-oneself”] to describe what others call authority? And many other interesting questions like that, ranging from the classification of the vowels in a word, to accentuation, intonation, and so on.

Now, set aside the scientific side of the issue, and let’s look at the practical side. The practical side tells us that people choose to use the most descriptive, and lexically most economical utterance, to make themselves understood in daily life. When daily life is transfigured into artistic creation, what is lexically most economical is displaced by what is poetically apposite. So the two following cases are equally possible:

Case A:

Jimbo: Chief, gi’s a number eight, would ya?
Chief: Yer arms fallen awf, ‘ave they?
Jimbo: Aw, carn boss, I’m arse-deep in the chassis here!

Case B:

Jim, the wastrel, emerged from beneath the disentrailed car soaking with sweat.
“Could you give me a French key number eight?” he begged the workshop boss.
The Boss scratched himself languidly, turned another page in the sports section, and did not even deign to look at his tortured employee.
“You can good and fetch it yourself: I’m not your servant!” he spat.
Jim, the wastrel, sighed, feeling the full weight of the car pressing on him. It would be no use to remind the Boss of the awkwardness of his position: no Boss has ever understood the awkward position of their employee. He choked back his sobs and started to extricate himself from the car.

You can see from the foregoing the linguistic richness of an artistic work (or the linguistic onanism of the author, according to their talent), in contrast with the plain usage of language (strictly utilitarian usage, to put it like Soti Triantaphyllou), when it is used for primal communication.

But the trick is, that primal communication is what evolves language. The need for quick communication, as precise as is feasible, creates new words, expressions, and so on. And to achieve that, it grabs whatever it can find. I repeat: a living language grabs whatever it can find.

The first “percussive drill for home use” is imported into the country. People choose to call it /blakendeker/, because of its brand name. They do the same with “vehicles with a four-wheeled drive”, calling them /dzip/.

The first “personal electronic computer” comes in, and people decide to substitute that mile-long phrase with the initialism established in English, /pisi/. They do the same with /dividi/.

On other occasions, people hellenise French words, creatine /kuzina/, or they transform English infinitives, creating words like /parkaro/, /kularo/, etc.

That’s what people do. Throughout the world, at all times. They reconfigure, they deconstruct, they transform language at their convenience. FOR their convenience.

And that’s what the kids in the survey are doing, making an asset of the absence of Greek characters on their mobile phones and in their /tsat rum/ (or should I say “chambers of internet communication”?) They are creating new circumstances for communication: it’s as simple as that.

Does that put Greek teachers out? Well we never liked Greek teachers.

Does that annoy Hellenomaniacs? Well we never had much time for necrophiliacs.

Does that infuriate intellectuals? Well we never saw them eager to get off the throne of their language fetish.

Because museum rooms may be beautiful but they are not liveable, especially for living organisms—like language.

Two notes in closing.

1. The meaning of the direction the language is taking, which I’ve already noted, is yet to be analysed. But not by me: I’m simply observing the “new” language, though I am not taking any part in its formation.

2. The use of foreign words or expressions in our vernacular (as I’ve described it) is different from the La-de-da pretentious wannabe elitism, which has clustered around the publications of the neurotic jumped-up peasant Kostopoulos, and dictates that Greek words should be replaced with their English equivalents. (There was a similar phenomenon in the ’50s and ’60s with French words.) I can accept (if grudgingly) the dominance of English-language culture, which dictates that “I worship thee!” gets replaced with /respek/, and “we’ll talk” with /sii ja/. But I feel nauseous at crap like what I heard the other day, during The Fat Man’s interview at the Thessalonica International Fair: the Prime Minister is looking around to find the journalist, Tony Boy tells him “on your right side, Sir”, and the idiot journalist takes it upon himself to enlighten The Fat Man in turn, with the startling sentence: “over here, Sir, on the right /korner/.” I don’t feel nauseous because I’m obsessed with the Greek language, but because I loathe puffballs who picture themselves as Mr Halifax, Lord Intendant of Buckingham.

Here endeth the lesson.


  • Anonymous says:

    PUERO da gloriam! Cheers

  • opoudjis says:

    Non nobis, Angele, sed Pueri Motorcycletistae da gloriam.

    I guess I should translate more. Saves me coming up with my own ideas. If only I didn't have a backlog of posts of my own!

  • Angelos says:

    As a professional translator (of just about the dullest kind of text there is, namely EU official documents), I can only doff my figurative hat in admiration at your masterpiece.
    Three cheers for The Motorcycle boy, without whose original your translation would never have been written!

  • opoudjis says:

    But… it wasn't boring! The slang of the original Jimbo-Boss exchange, in fact, was inventive enough that I've considered commenting on it in a separate post.

    I'm no longer an academic linguist, so I can't put the insight to much use, but I've concluded that the interesting big questions about language change (as opposed to language structure, but even then….) *are* sociological.

  • TAK no problem at all! I just wanted to make clear that the above script is a sociologist's point of view -not a linguistic one.

    Nick, ha-ha, thank you again, you made my script look less boring!

  • opoudjis says:

    … In fact, Modern Greek liked the idea of a derivational affix more than the practical reason (familiar conjugations). Modern Greek in fact had *eliminated* -ρω as a verb suffix, substituting it with a swathe of -ρνω: it decided -ρα was an Aorist suffix, so the Present had to have -ρνω. φέρω became φέρνω, σπείρω σπέρνω.

    Why -ν-? Because of an analogy with -νω elsewhere. And it's a pretty wide-ranging analogy: it's now λύνω, not λύω. Basically Modern Greek doesn't want bare vowels, or liquids, ending its present stems, because they end aorist stems.

    So importing a Romance -άρω derivation suffix actually went against that trend; but once it got the template, English was as subject to it as French and Italian. German too: fifty years ago the slang for "speak" was σπρεχάρω.

  • opoudjis says:

    By La-di-da, I rendered (unimaginatively) Μανταμσουσούδικος "to do with Madame Sousou", a pretentious society matron in literature. (Greek wikipedia only likes to its author and its movie adaptation; there was also a TV adaptation.)

    Modern Greek treats foreign verbs borrowed into the language as if they're nouns—they need to have a derivational suffix added to legitimate them as verbs. Especially because non-denominative verbs are a pretty closed set, in Modern as in Ancient Greek. After all, when Ancient Greek borrowed Latin verbs, it did the same (although it's really Byzantine Greek, I guess): δεφενδεύω, ἀππλικεύω, not δεφένδω, ἀπλίκω.

    And having a nice familiar derivation suffix right next to your tense suffix guarantees you won't get any oddball aorists. I mean, what *would* the aorist of δεφένδω be? ἐδέφενσα? Whereas people knew well how to form the aorists of -εύω verbs, so that presented no problem. -άρω doesn't quite obey that (and the aorist gives up and adds a vowel, φρικάρησα); but the notion of a derivational suffix for loan verbs in Greek is entrenched.

    (I can't find any Latin verbs borrowed into Hellenistic Greek but am probably not looking in the right place. ἀγγαρεύω is denominative within Greek so doesn't count.)

    Contemporary slang has -άρω, which was a default for Romance loans, patterned after the Italian infinitive I guess; so φουμάρω "I smoke" from fumare. Likewise μπαρκάρω "to embark". -ίζω gets used with Turkish words; where I had "flip off", the original has σιχτιρίζω, from Turkish siktir "fuck off". I *think* Pontic prefers -εύω.

  • Wm says:

    Which bit of The Motorcycle Boy's Greek was rendered as "La-de-da" in your translation?

    Why φρικάρω and not just φρίκω (asks the dilettante classicist)?

  • opoudjis says:

    > I liked reading that script very much -are you sure that is mine Nick?

    Well, the use of Australian slang in the Jimbo–Chief exchange isn't. 🙂

  • TAK says:

    @The Motorcycle boy: don't get me wrong; I really loved your post! You may view the debugging of the etymologies of κουζίνα and παρκάρω I provided as an indication of my professional maladie… And, of course, nobody is perfect!

  • I liked reading that script very much -are you sure that is mine Nick?

    TAK, is probably right about the etymology of above words, but they came to Greece via French or USA -following our limitless worship for the "foreign lifestyle". At least, that's what I can presume from the historical facts -but I am not always right -OK?

  • opoudjis says:

    @TAK: Thanks for the parallels. Actually the slang in the original is so inventive, I'm halfway inclined to say its a much better example of literature than its socialist realist companion.

    Thanks for the debugging of the etymologies, although of course that doesn't detract from MB's larger point.

    I'm a bit surprised: do Greeks really wait until middle age to venerate their forebears? Is that concomitant with the natural conservatism of middle age? (Which also makes me wonder whether the Left tries to counter-appropriate the ancients to its own ends. I'm guessing no.)

  • Language says:

    I second TAK's congratulations, and offer heartfult kudos to the excellent Motorcycle Boy.

    Incidentally, following your link to the Wikipedia article on Kozani, I found this section on etymology:

    According to prevailing opinion, the name comes from the village of Epirus Kósdiani, the origin of settlers of Kozani in 1392. The settlement was first named Kózdiani, which then, it was changed into Kóziani, and in the end into Kozáni.[2]

    The name "Kozani" probably may also derive from the South Slavic kožani < koža 'skin (goatskin)'.[3] The name of the city in South Slavic languages is Кожани (Kožani).

    Am I wrong in thinking the Slavic etymology makes much more sense than the first one, with its strained reshapings? (We won't even get into what "probably may also" is supposed to mean.)

  • TAK says:

    Great job, Nick!

    What I enjoyed the most were the two examples with the garage boy, which inevitably bring to mind Raymond Queneau's Exercises de style (wonderfully rendered into Greek by Achilleas Kyriakides in 1984) and the more recent graphic equivalent by Matt Madden 99 Ways to Tell a Story .

    Now, one thing that the motorcycle boy got wrong is the etymology of κουζίνα – which is not French but Venetian Τριανταφυλλίδης, κουζίνα . The same goes for παρκάρω, which is of either Italian or French provenance, but certainly not of English Τριανταφυλλίδης, παρκάρω .

    However, verbs like κουλάρω (to be cool or to stay calm) or φρικάρω (to freak out) are indeed hellenized English words.

    The fact that Ancient Greek is a language form that All Greeks hate when students and adore when middle-aged is indeed pathological and requires a group-analysis (of the whole nation, I think!).



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