Greek to Us

Jason Pedicone |

Why we should be trying to bring students of Ancient Greek closer to modern Greece's language and culture.

The Athenian Parthenon today and as the backdrop to The Entry of King Othon of Greece in Athens, by Peter von Hess (1839).

People who care about Greek language and culture should invest more in Ancient Greek. Non-Greeks have little reason to learn Modern Greek. It is a difficult language written in a different alphabet and spoken by less than 1% of the world’s population. Indeed, in Anglophone culture, Greek’s difficulty has made it the very byword for unintelligibility: it’s all Greek to us! But even for people with Greek heritage living outside of Greece, Modern Greek is dying out. As is the case with most immigrants, language fluency seldom persists past the second generation born in a new country. These days, it’s not uncommon to meet even second generation Greek Americans who don’t speak Greek. To name a few, Zach Galifianakis, Jennifer Aniston, and John Stamos are all of Greek descent, but none of them speak more than a few words of Greek. They don’t have a reason to.

On the other hand, Ancient Greek is relevant to many non-Greeks for intellectual and cultural reasons. Because of the foundational contributions of the ancient Greeks to human culture, all students of history, philosophy, political science, and literature benefit from a knowledge of ancient Greek culture, mythology, and language. Furthermore, since the New Testament was written in Greek, the Greek language of the Hellenistic period, called Koine, is relevant for all Christians as the very word of God.

Learning Ancient Greek should be a great opportunity for people to forge a connection with Modern Greek culture and language, but the way Ancient Greek is currently taught outside of Greece discourages students from building this connection. Students are told that ancient Greek culture has little to do with what is currently going on in the Balkan peninsula. Often, there is a racialized element to this argument. “Achilles’ epithet in Homer, after all, is ξανθός / xanthos, ‘fair haired.’ Have you ever met a blonde Greek?” I was asked once in an undergraduate class on ancient Greece. It is a question that reeks of racist, Neoclassical attitudes towards Greece that fantasized about “the Dorian Invasion,” a mysterious immigration of Nordic people into Greece. As if the so-called “Greek Miracle,” the remarkable period of cultural, artistic, philosophical, and political development in ancient Greece during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, could only have been the work of blond-haired, blue-eyed people.

The idea that modern Greece is somehow degenerate also appears in Romantic poetry and writing about Greece. As Byron puts it, in the Childe Harold: "Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great! (2.73). Or take Chateaubriand in his Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem: “The Greeks, enslaved, degraded, can no longer remind you of their ancestors, except by the beauty of their sky and the majesty of their ruins.” These sentiments justified the taking of the Parthenon marbles to England by Lord Elgin, and Schliemann’s hurried excavation of ancient Greek ruins resulting in the destruction of late antique and Byzantine sites above them.

Derogatory attitudes towards modern Greece still color the way Ancient Greek is taught today. Beginning Greek students are sat in front of the ancient Attic dialect, a complex, literary form of Greek used by the ancient Athenian elite in philosophical dialogues, highly stylized tragedies, and legal proceedings. They learn a complex system of pitch accents which most Greek professors don’t even bother to attempt to use when speaking Greek themselves. And they acquire a reconstructed scholarly pronunciation of the language that, if useful for understanding the various Greek vowels, renders the language spoken in Greece today incomprehensible, and leaves them unable to communicate with modern Greeks.

They are told that this disconnection doesn’t matter. Because, just as the modern Greeks have little to do with the ancient inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula, Modern Greek is “very different” from Ancient Greek. As a graduate student eager to learn Modern Greek, I encountered a professor who cautioned me that pursuing this path would "confuse" and potentially "corrupt" my understanding of Ancient Greek.

And yet, if one actually bothers to learn both languages, it is exceedingly obvious that there is no truth to the claim that Modern Greek has nothing to do with Ancient Greek. In fact, as western languages go, the Greek language displays remarkable continuity. Let’s consider the sentence, “The person teaches Greek letters” in the languages of ancient and modern Athens:

Ancient Greek: Ὁ ἄνθρωπος διδάσκει τὰ ἑλληνικὰ γράμματα.
Modern Greek: Ο άνθρωπος διδάσκει τα ελληνικά γράμματα.

As is immediately apparent, save for a few small differences in diacritical marks, the two sentences are almost identical! No other western language displays this kind of continuity between its ancient and modern forms. One finds ἄνθρωπος / anthropos, the Greek word for “human,” in almost exactly the same form in yesterday’s newspaper in Athens, in the Bible, in the dialogues of Plato, in Homer, and even, once they are transliterated, in linear B tablets from 1400 BC.

This continuity comes from the remarkable history of Greek and Greece. It is partially the result of Greece “missing” the Renaissance, since an official vernacular form of the language could not blossom under Ottoman rule as one did in Italy or France. Rather, during the Ottoman period, Ancient Greek was kept alive in the scholarly stronghold of Constantinople until its fall in 1453, and then spread to the rest of Europe along with the scholarly refugees. Following the Greek War of Independence in 1821, in an effort to disassociate Greece from its Ottoman past and forge a Greek national identity, Greek intellectuals instituted Katharevousa, a policy of “cleaning” the Greek language of foreign words and replacing them with Ancient Greek words. Over the course of the next two centuries, these reforms led to an ongoing debate between proponents of Demotic, the language of the people, and classicizing Katharevousa, the language of scholars and the governing class. As late as the 1970s, Katharevousa was the official language of the Greek state, in which newspapers were written and university classes were taught. The result of this tension is a language that today includes both demotic and classicizing forms, but is much more enriched by Ancient Greek than any Romance language is by Latin.

This history is why the two sentences above are nearly exactly the same in both languages. And yet, a student of Ancient Greek taught as it traditionally has been in the United States will feel like a stranger in a strange land in modern Athens, where her years of language training will enable her to do little more than read street signs. This is a massive missed opportunity, both for the student, and for Greece.

But one could imagine a different approach. Ancient Greek could be taught in a way that emphasizes the close linguistic connection between ancient and modern Greece. Students could learn both pronunciations of the Greek language simultaneously, and students of Ancient Greek could be encouraged to learn Modern Greek, a simpler, more approachable form of Greek with a thriving community of native speakers and ample language learning resources. Students could also begin their Ancient Greek reading with more texts from the Hellenistic period, the New Testament, or Greek novels of the Roman period written in more accessible Koine. If we moved Ancient Greek pedagogy in this direction, Greece would annually gain thousands of educated, cultured philhellenes, who would feel an immediate connection to its language and culture. I can think of few better ways to build strong connections between Greece and the international community.


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Jason Pedicone

Jason Pedicone is the president of the Paideia Institute.


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