Michael Deffner, scoundrel

By: | Post date: 2009-04-26 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

In what little you get about Tsakonian online, you will on occasion see reverent references of Michael Deffner (1848-1934), renowned Tsakonologist, who so loved Tsakonia that he made his home in Leonidion, who wrote the renowned 1881 Grammar of Tsakonian and the renowned 1923 Dictionary of Tsakonian.

The problem with what little you get about Tsakonian is, it hasn’t been written by linguists. So no, Michael Deffner is not renowned among linguists: he was a clunky amateur, and anyone who mentions his name before Hubert Pernot either knows nothing about the linguistic study of Tsakonian, or is giving their patriotism precedence over their science. Costakis long superseded his dictionary. Pernot says about the phonetics of the grammar and the dictionary that “Mr Deffner, as the Greeks would say, has ‘made a sea’ of the phonology of the language”; and those Greek-speakers among you who have just mentally translated τα ‘κανε θάλασσα know how contemptuous Hubert is being. And as for his impassioned defence of the Doric heritage of Tsakonian, those fascinated by the Spartans (and not by what is truly interesting about Tsakonian—how much it has been restructured away from the mainstream of Greek) owe a far greater debt to Pernot than to Deffner. Deffner never saw a connection too tenuous to Doric. Pernot on the other hand started out in the 1890s a Doric skeptic, and if he admits any Doric in his 1934 grammar, it’s because it really is uncontroversial and tested.

Now that isn’t reason enough to castigate Deffner. He was early on the scene (though hardly the first—Deville’s thesis on Tsakonian is 1866); he was an archaeologist and not a linguist; and well, he cared. I find the anecdote relayed on YouTube about him creepy and not praiseworthy, but it does demonstrate commitment. (Deffner’s song son died in Prastos. When Deffner went up from Leonidion, he stopped outside, transfixed by the Tsakonian laments, and started transcribing them.)

No, two little episodes have made me resent Νιχάλη Δέφνερ. The first was what he did when Dirk Hesseling suggested Tsakonian might be a creole. Dirk Hesseling is someone who does not get enough appreciation in either fields he worked on. He was a hellenist by trade; his most important contributions to Modern Greek linguistics have been his publication in 1897 of the 1543 Torah in Judaeo-Greek, and his publishing with Pernot of the Ptochoprodromos poems in 1910.

Hesseling was interested, as a Hellenist, in how the Hellenistic Koine came about from the dialects of Greek; this led him to study creoles, and made him one of the first to do so. He doesn’t get enough love in creolistics either, because he was a generation too early, and he published in Dutch. Peter Muysken and Guus Meijer, Dutch creolists who publish in English, has written a couple of appreciations of his work, which can be retrieved from Radboud University’s repository (whose cafeteria I have dismissed elsewhere): “On the beginnings of Pidgin and Creole Studies: Schuhardt and Hesseling”, and their introduction to a volume of Hesseling’s work (D. C. Hesseling, On the Origin and Formation of Creoles, Story-Scienta, 1979.)

The Radboud U caf is not the closest I’ve gotten to Muysken. In my historical linguistics lectures, I’d namechecked his work on mixed languages. A couple of years later, I was crawling under a desk trying to find an IP for him as a visiting scholar. But my professional disgruntlements are for another post.)

So Dirk Hesseling was one of the first people to invent a hammer; and it was only natural for him to look for other nails in the history of Greek. One such nail that his friend Pernot had identified was the oddball development of Tsakonian, a language that both morphologically and phonologically looked a lot simpler than Standard Greek. Mightn’t creolisation have taken place here too? The Peloponnese has had many a stranger walk in over the centuries; Hesseling pinpointed the Avars as a likely candidate, and went to press:

  • Hesseling, D. C. 1906. De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland. (Comptes rendus de l’Academie d’Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde, 4th series, part 8.) Amsterdam. 37 pp.

Deffner’s response was to call a town meeting of Leonidion, to condemn the anthellenic outrage. As Pernot sniffed years later, “That’s not the proper way to conduct linguistic scholarship.” But whether Hesseling was right or not (and creolisation isn’t the only reason for grammatical structures to melt down), what Deffner did was not scholarship.

Even that, you might give a pass on; Deffner was engagé, virtually a local; and this was hardly the last time that Greek scholars reacted to external debate with a vote of condemnation. What he did in 1921, however, was a sin against the Holy Spirit. You know, the unforgivable type.

Laographia, the journal of the Greek Folklore Society, has been the main place where Greek dialect texts have been published. The folklorists weren’t doing so to be linguists; but because the linguists of the time deemed linguistics to end at the word boundary, the folklorists were the only Greek scholars to publish sentences longer than four words until well after the Second World War. And since Laographia was a Greek folklore journal, you’d expect what it published to reflect, well, Greek folklore.

Which brings us to:

  • Deffner, M. [Δέφνερ, Μ.] 1921a. Δείγματα Τσακωνικής (Samples of Tsakonian.) Λαογραφία 8. 159-180.

This publication was reprinted in the same year as the self-published Α πεντάμορφο του κόσμου. Παρανύθι για τα καμπζία Τhα Τσακώνικα γρούσσα. (The Five-time Most Beautiful in the World. A fairy tale for children. In the Tsakonian language). Athens; and again in 1926 included in Επτά Ωραία Παραμύθια (Seven Beautiful Fairy Tales.) Athens. It was also submitted to the Philological Society of Constantinople as ms. 495. (The Philological Society collected dialect data, and had lent some manuscripts to the Historical Dictionary in Athens. When 1922 happened, Athens held on to what it had. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the manuscripts; I wouldn’t automatically assume they were destroyed, but they haven’t turned up to my knowledge.)

Now, when you read Deffner’s text, the Tsakonian strikes you as somewhat odd, compared to the rest of the Tsakonian corpus. I was of course looking for relativisers, being an opoudjis; it struck me that this text did not use πφη, like every other Tsakonian text, but πφου—which looked like πφου(ρ) “how”. And which also looked a lot like Standard Greek που. And the content was Snow White; of course the Grimm tales were common currency throughout Europe, but this version seemed a lot closer to Disney than I’d have expected this far south.

You’ve worked out what’s happened, right? I don’t even know if Deffner intended this as deliberate fraud; he didn’t outright say “I collected this in the field” instead of “I cooked this at my desk in St Lenid, with the mixed Tsakonian of the learnèd St Lenidians around me”. But if you’re submitting the translation to the Philological Society of Constantinople and Laographia, what the hell were you expecting people to think?

Something for Deffner to ponder in the hereafter.

Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll end up lower down still than him. If I’m to judge from reactions to the Klingon Hamlet such as this (screw you, Christie St Martin), or this (screw you, Fark commenters), or this, or…. blah blah. Whatever. Btw, however ideologically unsympatico I may find Jonah Goldberg, I found his analysis of Klingon fandom pretty insightful. But all that is a topic for a non–Greek-linguistics blog…


  • […] 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). But it was a […]

  • Σίφι says:

    I have to confess: I committed the same sin last night on Facebook, substituting a modified Standard Greek form and hoping it worked. Of course, I didn’t go submitting it to any journals, so hopefully my sin can be forgiven. Deffner did submit them, so send him to hell if you must — just make sure the French keyboard designer(s) go with him! (It is still driving me crazy! One would think that Greek or another non-Latin alphabet keyboard layout would have been harder for me to learn, but they weren’t.)

  • Still enjoying your posts enormously! Did you manage to get my mail?

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