Phanariot: an apology for Schleicherian bias

By: | Post date: 2019-01-25 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

I was recently perusing Peter Mackridge’s paper Some literary representations of spoken Greek before nationalism 1750-1801, and I got sidetracked by an incidental footnote on diacritics use in Karamanlidika in the 18th century.

And now, to unpack.

Peter Mackridge is the emeritus professor of Modern Greek in Oxford. He has written a wealth of papers and books on Modern Greek, and has always been a keen observer, both of how the language works, and of the particularities of its diglossic history.

Latterly Peter has taken an interest in the language of the Phanariots. The study of the history of Modern Greek is a much broader and fuller thing now than it used to be; but the Phanariots have mostly been off-limits until now in any study of Modern Greek; and indeed, little has been said about 18th century Greek in general. As Peter notes in his paper, it is the chunk of the history of Greek least well served by surveys, dictionaries and grammars. (The 16th and 17th century outside of Crete have not been that much better served, but Eleni Karantzola has been active in redressing that imbalance over the past decade.)

There are two straightforward reasons why Phanariot Greek has been something Greek historical linguists have instinctively shrunk away from; and I will admit to have shared that prejudice in my own time. The Phanariots were affluent Constantinopolitan artistocrats under the Ottomans, who occupied high office in the administration of the Ottoman Government, and particularly in the rule of Romania on behalf of the Ottomans. They were urban and urbane, they were multilingual and cosmopolitan, they were loyal Ottomans and unsavoury intriguers; and their Greek was full to the brim of Turkish and Turcisisms.

Almost as full as Greek in Greece now is of English and Anglicisms, in fact.

Modern Greek historical linguistics has had some blind spots it’s needed to get past. That you need to understand Kartvelian languages to work out Pontic, for example. Or that Greek borrowed words from other languages even when it isn’t obvious where they did. Or that there is a lot more Puristic in Modern Standard Greek than the ostensive victors of the diglossia wars would like to think.

And a more pervasive bias than that, one I’ve shared, is a Herderian and Schleicherian view of language change, as tied up with the expression of ethnicity, and as paralleling the evolution of lifeforms. There are sophisticated takes on those views which are still current: historical linguistics continues to have a lot to learn from evolutionary biology, and much of sociolinguistics is about the nexus between language and identity.

There are also unsophisticated takes on those views. Not just Herder’s Blood and Soil nationalist romanticism, or Schleicher’s original notion that there are primitive languages for primitive peoples (or even his subtle variation, that there are overcomplicated languages for primitive peoples). Those have been rejected in polite company; but there are lingering romantic notions in thinking about language change that have outlived them. For example, that rural and oral language is the only true object of study of the historical linguist, and that urban and written language is subject to contaminating, artificial influences, and of secondary interest, if of any interest at all. It’s a naturalistic bias, and it’s a puristic bias. You can see how easily it can turn to cultural purism, with the untutored village folk seen as the only true teachers of the language, and with the learnèd influence on the language derogated, if not disavowed; something that gets in the way of forming an accurate picture of how Standard Modern Greek works to this day.

You can also see why the only mention Triantafyllidis makes of Phanariot in his monumental history of Greek is to raise his eyebrow at how much Turkish there was in their written texts. An untutored Herderian villager would never speak such a farrago, surely.

Any non-Greek linguists sneering at this point would do well to examine their own conscience. The dismissal of written language as not the proper domain of linguistics is a reaction to generations of prescriptivist dunderheads; but it is a biased reaction all the same, and it does not admit the fact that spoken language in literate societies is profoundly influenced by whatever neogrammatically incorrect nonsense takes place in written language. (Nor will fleeing to the Rousseauvian paradise of preliterate societies give you back your pristine language organism: preliterate societies are just as subject to changes in register and genre, and contamination between them.)

There is artifice in human language. There is a lot of artifice. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.

So, the bias against looking at Phanariot is a deep one. It’s informed by comic-book tribal politics: the Phanariots were aristocrats and intriguers, they were the bad guys. It’s informed by nationalism and purism: the Phanariots were collaborators and Turcophiles, they did not speak pure Greek (although, as Peter informs me, some of them were consciously puristic in their Greek, the page after another author seems to be cramming as much Turkish into their text as they can get away with). It’s informed by Herderian Romanticism: the proper object of historical linguistics is to be found among shepherds and peasants, not among dragomans and patriarchs. But it’s also informed by Schleicherian Romanticism: the proper object of historical linguistics is the “natural” evolution of language, and what the Phanariots were doing was anything but natural.

I am glad that in my dissertation, even though I dodged Herder to the extent I could, I did not dodge Schleicher. I was doing a global dialectal survey, and to do it I needed to work on a simplified model of language change, factoring out sociolinguistics as much as I could, rather than work on everything at once. It was a better use of my time to survey all the peasantries of Greece for how they were using the complementiser I studied, than to expend effort diving deep into what the townsfolk of Athens or Leonidio were doing, and how Puristic Greek (or, in the case of Leonidio, how second-language Tsakonian and dying-Tsakonian conspired with hubris) influenced it.

But it was a simplification, A simplification that had me keep seeing Phanariot in the corner, and thinking, nah, that’s not the proper object of my study.

I’m glad Peter is on the case now. And I’m sorry my next contribution to that topic is going to be so tangential to what he is on the case about.


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