“O wily painter, limiting the scene,
From a cacophony of dusty forms,
To the one convulsion.”
Growing up, my favourite Asterix character, from the eponymous comic series, would have to have been the bard Cacofonix, whose name evokes the emission of decidedly unpleasant sounds. The name Cacofonix is particularly more apt than its French original, Assurancetourix, for ‘assurance tous risques’ means comprehensive insurance and does nothing to reinforce the enduring image of an unbearably bad singer who causes thunderstorms through his music, and whose fellow villagers will go to extreme lengths to avoid being exposed to his dubious musical talents. Most notably, Fulliautomatix, the village smith, bangs him on the head with an anvil at the merest hint of breaking into song, while Unhygienix, the fishmonger, is known to slap a not so fresh sea bass upon his countenance.
A “cacophony of diversity”, this being a “cacophony of 251 tongues”, is the manner in which Craig Butt and Alison Worrall of The Age newspaper recently sought to portray the linguistic pluralism of Melbourne, where, according to them, in an 11th July 2014 article entitled ‘Melbourne language study reveals a cacophony of diversity’, “more languages are spoken in Melbourne than there are countries in the world”.
Unfortunately, it appears that instead of being enticed into luxuriating in the mellifluity of the plethora of utterances emanating from diverse tongues, the reader is possibly drawing the inference that, in no uncertain terms, rather than being an exemplar of linguistic and ethnic harmony, the concatenation of foreign tongues spoken results in some type of community dissonance. In fact, it is cacophonous, a Greek compound word that means ‘bad sounds’.
The old English word employed prior to cacophony being coined was babble, which some claim derives from the legend of the tower of Babel, where God confused the tongues of the original monolingual inhabitants of this planet in order to blight them for their arrogance, in the process inventing other languages. The Bible does not record whether the ensuing sounds emitted were cacophonous. The ancient Greek myth that maintains that the god Hermes confused the languages, causing Zeus to give his throne to Phoroneus, is also ominously silent as to matters of the euphoniousness of the sounds emitted by the new tongues created as a by-product of divine gerrymandering.
Butt and Worrall’s choice of language is unfortunate, and one would hope that their clumsy choice of words is not intended to express the opinion that linguistic diversity, aurally at least, is a negative experience. Perhaps “a polyphony of diversity”, or a “polyphony of 251 tongues” would be a more apt and invariably less offensive term that conveys no emotion as to the co-existence of many languages in multicultural Melbourne. Nonetheless, in the piece, Butt and Worrall go on to make some interesting assumptions about the classification of languages. Under the umbrella of northern European languages, they rightly include German, Dutch and Afrikaans. Yet under the umbrella of southern European languages we have French, Italian, Greek, Maltese and Spanish. Eastern European languages include Albanian, Serbian, Romanian and Russian, even though Albania is far further south than France, a country that shared borders with Germany and is but a stone’s throw away from England, and the languages of the ‘southern group’ belong to different sub-families, Maltese, for example, belonging to the Semitic family of languages. Should the reader comprehend this as a sub-conscious presentation of a ‘hierarchy’ of languages, with northern being the most superior, followed by the southern as semi-superior and the African languages at the bottom of the chart? Many bilingual readers certainly thought so, though I would hazard that again, nothing of the sort was consciously intended.
Once the reader surpasses these contentious points, they can appreciate the important issues raised by Butt and Worrall in the article, identifying municipalities where various ethnic languages enjoy dominance in Melbourne (33.8 per cent of Sunshine is Vietnamese speaking, 29.4 per cent of Campbellfield is Arabic speaking, 20.8 per cent of Keilor Park is Italian speaking and 14.8 per cent of Clarinda is Greek speaking), they highlight that demographic change, occasioned by rising house prices, can have an impact both on ethnic community cohesion and language. We have already seen this in our community which, emanating from a few core centres in inner Melbourne, has become diffused throughout the metropolis. As a result, except for a few areas of dense concentration, the ‘Greek neighbourhoods’, where the majority of the residents spoke Greek and practiced elements of Greek culture openly are now a matter of history and lore. Younger members of the community can no longer afford to live in the areas where their parents reside and it is axiomatic that in moving to other areas, the opportunities afforded to employ a daily use of their ancestral tongue would be limited. A study of how such relocations impact upon their maintenance of their language would be revealing.
Butt and Worrall also make another important observation: owing to the unprecedented high housing prices, emerging migrant communities are increasingly being pushed to the physical fringes of the metropolis. This may act as a double-edged sword, permitting the sort of cohesion that allows the ancestral language to flourish but also inhibiting assimilation, at least in the short term. Monash University population researcher Bob Birrell, referred to in the article, terms such a phenomenon as ‘segregation’, and it is arguable that the Greek demographic exodus from the inner Melbourne suburbs in search of the quarter acre block are a major factor in both our integration and subsequent language loss.
Butt and Worrall make their observations from the perspective that language maintenance is important to ethnic communities, who use it as a way of maintaining their culture and identity. One would assume that this is therefore important to multiculturalism as a whole. However, there is no explanation as to how this linguistic diversity is important to monolingual Anglo-Celtic Australians, save for the stated view that economics and demographics may endanger such linguistic pluralism, somehow implying that it may be worth preserving.
Such an explanation is necessary because language loss among established ethnic communities can be encountered even in areas where there is a high concentration of residents from the same background. Factors such as intergenerational non-communication, the espousal of different economic and cultural values and how they impinge upon language maintenance and of course, the shift in priorities over a period of time, all play a role in language erosion. This is certainly the case with the Greek community, where in some municipalities of Melbourne, such as the city of Moonee Valley, the high concentration of residents of Greek background does not translate to the maintenance of a closely linked sense of community, any note-worthy form of infra-ethnic socialisation or functional language retention among latter generations, despite the existence of a number of Greek language schools and early learning facilities therein.
Butt and Worrall’s piece should constitute the starting point, at least in our community, for a proper debate about the state of the Greek language in Melbourne, across the generations. Priorities need to be identified and a unified course of action determined to either arrest language decline or at least agree on the basic acceptable level of proficiency, if it is determined that language maintenance is important, both to ourselves and mainstream society, for already there are emerging, cacophonous voices, both in Greece and locally, that maintain that such an endeavour is, at this time, a waste of resources. In an increasingly diverse and diffuse community, given to much chest-beating about our identity, the outcome of such a debate, should there ever be one, would be thought-provoking indeed. Until next time, therefore, let Hellenophony prevail, albeit cacophonously.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.