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The Legacy of the Greek Language

Dean Kalimniou reviews Professor George Kanarakis' The Legacy of the Greek Language - a must-have book for all Greek Australian households

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16 May 2017

The Portokalos, Windex-infused conception of Greek linguistics would have almost every single word in the English language derive from a Greek root. For many Greeks, this patrimony forms an intrinsic part of their identity, which is why the 'fact' that there are 40,000 to one million words of Greek origin in the English language, depending on who one speaks to, is often offered as a reason as to why reluctant diasporic offspring should study the language of their forefathers. The need to prove that our language has gone boldly where no other languages have gone before, is thus symptomatic of an inferiority complex that ties national pride, not just to over-achievement, but also an acceptance of one's cultural superiority over all others, in all fields, in this case, linguistics.

There is, however, no need for exaggeration or inflation of facts or figures when it comes to the Greek language for, from times ancient until now and for often complex reasons, the Greek language has profoundly influenced tongues, transcending the boundaries of proximate language families. In this context, Professor George Kanarakis' tome: The Legacy of the Greek Language, recently launched at the Greek Centre under the auspices of the Greek Studies Program of La Trobe University, the Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria, the Greek-Australian Cultural League οf Melbourne, and the Hellenic Writers Association of Australia, is a must-have book for all Greek Australian households. Not for the jingoistic reasons outlined above but rather because it outlines just how deeply the Greek language has contributed in shaping the language, grammar and even thoughts of various other cultures over the centuries, or in some cases, relatively recently. In doing so, it does not crow over the superiority of the Greek language or culture. Instead, it analyses the manner in which such contributions occurred, and most importantly, the historical and social factors that facilitated such a contribution, which are surprisingly diverse.

Of course, the fact that this monumental endeavour, comprised of a compilation of essays by noted linguists throughout the world, had its genesis in Greek Australia is of great significance, one that lends credence to the assertion in the book, that within the context of the reception of various aspects of the Greek language by so many other tongues, we can truly speak of "Globo-Greek".

Of great value especially are the essays on the Greek influence in the Coptic language, for this language relationship was uniquely engendered in a manner similar to the spread of the English language in India, that is, via conquest and colonisation, with Greek being the language of the ruling class. Thus Greek was not only a language of administration and intellectual activity, but also, more enduringly until today, as a language of theology and as a medium with which to record Coptic itself. Consequently, Coptic is not only peppered with Greek loan words, but also Greek grammatical forms that are otherwise alien to the dialects of that language. It is hoped that revised editions of the book will examine the trickle-down influences of related languages and cultures, such as Meroitic in Sudan, where, in the kingdoms of Nobata and Alarodia, Greek was the official language for centuries, and of course, the various Ethiopian languages, considering the important diplomatic and religious ties shared by the Greek world with that region.

The corollary with Coptic are the articles on Bulgarian and Russian, which are interesting considering that at the time of first contact, Greek was the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire, a dominant power and thus able to export culture, religion and alphabet as well as political might. In the case of Bulgarian, these cultural ties endured even as political power waned, and the fact that the word order of such Balkan languages corresponds in large part with that of Greek, should not go unnoticed.

The essay on Albanian is also of profound interest, as it delineates not only how languages that exist in close proximity with each other can influence each other grammatically and via vocabulary, but also how such languages can converge and diverge several times over the course of a millennium of inter-association, while dialects spoken in areas more remote to Hellenism, such as the Northern Albanian Gheg, preserve Greek loanwords in more archaic forms, providing the linguistic archaeologist with a treasure trove of information.

Moving towards the east, the article on Arabic is instructive, because our modern western orientation often causes us to forget that the Greek language and culture was diffused both more broadly and deeply in the east than in the west. The plethora of loan words existing in Arabic are symptomatic of a wholesale movement to understand much of the philosophy and science of the Greeks. Given that the bulk of these works were mediated into Arabic by way of Greek-speaking Syriac scholars, the addition of an article on the Greek influences on Syriac/Aramaic would also have been valuable. Since the aforementioned language forms part of my linguistic reality at home, I am constantly amazed at the presence of Greek words, calques and ideas within it.
Similarly, the article on Hebrew fascinates the reader by exposing the old Greek elements embedded within that language from ancient, to medieval and modern times, exploring the usage of such words as diyatiki (diathiki) for will, timyon (tameion) for treasury, tuganim for fries, from the Greek "taginon" meaning frying pan, lagin from the Greek "lagynos" meaning flask and even the remote pakres from "epikarsion" a redundant Greek word for a striped garment.

As a speaker of Chinese, I am fascinated by the process in which, phonologically and culturally, Greek words are received into Mandarin. An article by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Korea about the phonological challenges entailed by the reception of Greek words into that language is also fascinating, and with its companion Japanese article, marks a Cavafian spread of the influence of the Greek language, way beyond his Hellenistic Indies.

The well-constructed article on Turkish informs the reader just how many Greek loan words were adopted by the Turks as they entered Asia Minor, and, given that in turn, Turkish lent many of its own words to Greek, this piece constitutes the best argument for the publication of a companion volume, in which the influences upon the Greek language by other languages since times ancient is examined. Arguably, such an endeavour is sorely needed and would prove most challenging for the cherished stereotype of the Greek language existing in blissful and splendid superior isolation for much of its existence, with each linguistic borrowing being equated to subjugation, contamination, and cultural decay.

Nonetheless, within the 30 languages which the book examines, to whom largely Greek influence has been spread via other dominant world languages, the legacy of the Greek language is shown to be both complex and awe-inspiring, as it is extensive and long-lasting perhaps suggesting patterns for the future development of languages within the context of globalisation. In facilitating a study of such awesome scope, Professor George Kanarakis thoroughly deserves our heartfelt gratitude.

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