Sunday, April 02, 2017


Distinguished Greek-Australian poet Dina Amanatidou OAM concludes her latest collection of epigrammatic poetry "Existential" with the following ominous poem:
The Greek language book will not survive for long
in Australia, in the circles of time.
It will survive as long as our generation.
There may be some exceptions of youth
who will speak, write and read
in Greek. However, their first language
will be English...

Of interest is to note the poet's implied view that even if the second generation of Greek-Australian migrants do choose to produce literature in the Greek language (and she is correct, very few do), then this literature somehow possibly lacks the linguistic validity and authenticity of that produced by the first generation, since, for those few who do, for whatever reason, choose to write in Greek, English is their mother tongue, and therefore, their Greek pretensions, however well meaning, are ersatz. The poet here makes sense. If we accept the proposition that each generation has less facility in the Greek language than that which has come before it, then it follows logically than when and if they do seek to express themselves in a literary context in Greek, the result will more often than not, be a parody or pastiche of that original language. Already a disturbing genre of poetry has emerged whereby second-generation Greek-Australians seek to pander to mainstream conceptions of multiculturalism by spicing up their verses with sprinklings of "ethnic diversity" in the form of ill-fitting song lyrics or clichéd sentences. Considering that these are invariably rendered in an ungrammatical and unorthographical manner, the poet Dina Amanatidou's prognostications are prescient to say the least.
Validity and authenticity aside of course, it is an often recited mantra of the ideology of the Greek-Australian community that we are not only “Greeks,” but also “proud Greeks,” this pride stemming from a conviction that Greek civilization (by which the pre-Christian era is ordinarily meant) has proved to be superior to that of any other and we ought to revel in this fact, it providing the necessary “justification” or evidentialry proof that is required in order for a latter generation Greek-Australian to become convinced that espousing a Greek identity is a worthwhile pursuit indeed. Such arguments imply that a) latter generations are uneasy about espousing a Greek identity (and it is important to note that in a post-modern diasporic world where everyone is free to form and espouse a multiplicity of identities, it is so difficult to define what is meant by the Greek identity that accusations about rejecting it are almost meaningless) and that b) prospective adherents need to be provided with some convincing arguments as to why they should choose to espouse such an identity.
Thus, missionaries for Hellas wax lyrical about ancient Greek civilisation, democracy, theatre, philosophy, the beaches and a purported easy going lifestyle as keys to conversion. Yet to expect me to become a Hellene because of the exploits of Alexander the Great or the penmanship of Sophocles is tantamount to expecting me to love and identify with my parents because they have a real estate empire, a PhD and a superior taste in dramatic irony. Only the latter is true and I do not love them because they are better than anyone else, but because we belong to each other. Similarly, I do not choose to identify as a Greek because I have become convinced that the Greek culture is any way superior to any other, or because I believe that adhering to it will provide me with material and other benefits, but rather because it is the culture I have been brought up in, within the Greek-Australian context, and my sense of self is inextricably interwoven within its warp and weft. Re-branding a la Peter Ekonomides, is completely irrelevant in my view. I am one with the product. I can see through the "brand." 
It is exactly for this reason that missionaries of the Greek language are wasting their time when they try to convince us of the "positive" attributes of the language in order to encourage or rather plead with latter generation Greek-Australians to learn Greek. These arguments are similar to those provided by Greek culture missionaries. There is the "mine is bigger than yours" approach, ie: "the Greek language has been written for over 3,000 years." So what? So has Chinese. And while we are at it, Ancient Egyptian was written for over 4,000 years, as was Assyrian, a language far older than Greek which survives to the present. What of it? We should revel in the antiquity or youth of any and all languages.
Then there is the "mine penetrates yours argument, ie: "There are x (the number varies constantly but the figure 40,000 features regularly) Greek words in the English language." How this becomes a conclusive argument for the adoption of the Greek language when there is no language that has not engaged in linguistic exchanges with others and especially when instances of Greek borrowing from Phoenician, other Semitic languages and Persian can be identified in ancient times, intensifying during the time of the Roman Empire and continuing unabated to the present, is anyone's guess. Further, how knowing that the word 'physiognomy' is of Greek origin or that the word algebra is of Arabic origin or that indeed the word penguin is of Welsh origin, provides sufficient motivation for one to learn any of those languages is a mystery.
A corollary to 'mine is in yours,' is the "if you are good in yours, you can better appreciate mine," argument, most recently articulated by our august prime minister. According to this argument, being a Greek speaker can somehow improve your English, because it is assumed that being a Greek speaker from, let's say Doncaster, Greek derived words such as Haliaeetus pelagicus, (Sea Eagle), or Glycyrrhiza glabra (liquorice) are always at the tip of your tongue. Consequently, could we not invert the PM's argument, propounding that a good knowledge of English assists in learning Greek, for one is more likely to come across Greek-derived words in their daily English discourse and can then transfer them accordingly? I did so, when studying ancient Greek and attempting to master the polytonic accent system. Remembering which Greek-derived words were transliterated into English with a h, such as Haematoma, Hysteria, History etc allowed me to know which vowels to accent with a voiceless glottal fricative (δασεία). The argument thus becomes circular, and leads us nowhere.
My personal favourite is the: "Greek is an official language of the European Union and/or an important language of trade," argument which though in use for a while, has been tacitly dropped from the discourse, as has the "Greek will help you with your career" argument. It appears that the missionaries believe that in the current socio-economic climate, this argument no longer has much currency, if you will pardon the pun.
The truth is none of us really need convincing about the merits of the Greek language. As a people obsessed more than others about their identity, we all come from a background where the importance of retaining the Greek language, as a means of retaining the Greek identity was stressed. And herein lies the rub. That was a value stressed and imposed by the first generation. It is not always a value that was actually adopted or passed on to the latter generations.
When I see friends accosting mothers as they wait to pick up their children from Greek school with phrases such as: "Why are you torturing your children?" or when I speak to parents who are both fluent in Greek but admit that they choose not speak to their children in Greek because they believe that their offspring spending time on Greek will somehow diminish their standing among their peers or their educational and career prospects (and it cannot be doubted that Greek-Australian parents are being told by English-speaking educators that acquiring a second or third language "slows" a child down, an interesting piece of advice, given that the people who give it are not linguists and are invariably monolingual), I can only conclude that the downturn in Greek language fluency is not simply one of attrition, but rather one of psychology. For deep seated psychological reasons, people are choosing to reject the Greek language both as a medium of daily use and as an expression of an identity. And whereas within previous generations the choice to reject was made democratically, ie, but those who could but chose not to retain the language, nowadays, this choice is made undemocratically, by parents, in advance for their children. In other words, in order to allay our own prejudices, desires for social acceptance and progress, we are often depriving our children of linguistic choices, with all that this entails.
The Greek language in Australia is not about superiority, advantage or for that matter multicultural ghettoisation. Put simply, it is a matter of life: the medium in which a significant number of people in Australia communicate and negotiate the world around them. It is a medium that embraces the vast gamut of literary, political and other endeavours of a people that have made a difference to the world. It forms the backstory but also the foreground for our own presence in Australia and a looking glass by which we can see ourselves for who we really are. It is a key, via translation, to the entire European corpus of literature that is generally not taught in Anglo-centric schools. It is, in a word: vital to our existence and consciously depriving it from our children, is what will, at least for a generation or two, create the ersatz human beings that poet Dina Amanatidou so decries.
In 'Mortal Remains,' Margaret Yorke admirably reinforces this view of vitality and this March, the month of speaking Greek, we ought to take heed, for this truly is a struggle of life and death:
“Soon the two men were chattering away sounding excited, they could only be discussing trivialities yet their voices, their gestures might lead the observer to suppose they were arguing about life and death. Such was the Greek manner of conversation.” 

First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 April 2017