The Greek language is everywhere
By Dr. Katherine Kelaidis, Resident Scholar and Director of Academic Collaborations at the National Hellenic Museum
Ξερεις να μιλας ελληνικα? Or is it all Greek to you? Because the Greek language is everywhere.
February 9th is observed as International Greek Language Day and events are held all over the world to celebrate the unique and influential past and present of the Greek language. This makes February an excellent time to reflect on the history and current state of Greek letters.
Greek is one of the world’s oldest continuous linguistic traditions. While many theories exist as to the origins of Greek, it is commonly understood that it began to emerge as a distinct language with the migration of proto-Greek speakers into the Greek peninsula around 3000 B.C.E. The first recognized Greek script, Linear B, is attested to as early as 1450 B.C.E. By comparison, English has its origins in the 5th century C.E. and the first English text does not appear until more than 100 years later. Significantly, a shared language was also the first feature which united people under a common Hellenic identity.
Throughout antiquity, the Greek language and the literature it produced was an important part of the ancient world and has bestowed a lasting legacy on world culture. For most of Western antiquity, to be educated meant to know Greek. After the division of the Roman Empire, and the political collapse of its Western half, Greek largely disappeared in Western Europe. The language, and its rich tradition, was re-introduced by Byzantine scholars who fled to the region, particularly Italy, following the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. This infusion of Greek after a long absence helped fuel the Renaissance.
The Modern Greek language, like much of Modern Greek identity, was formed in the tumult of the Ottoman period. Modern Greek has never gained the global currency of its ancient form and therefore Modern Greek literature has not received the same level of recognition. This is a reality that has its roots in a complex web of political and economic factors that govern language use and the international book trade.
That is a shame, because there is phenomenal literature written in Modern Greek. And some of the most significant Modern Greek language writers, such as Theano Papazoglou Margaris, have Chicago connections. Born into the ancient Greek community of Constantinople in the first years of the 20th century, Mrs. Margaris was a refugee of the Great Catastrophe. She immigrated to the United States in 1934 and arrived in Chicago in 1944. A writer of enormous talent, she wrote exclusively in Greek, despite the decades she spent in the United States. Her 1962 collection of short stories Chronicles of Halsted Street: Greek American Stories (Χρονικό του Χώλστεντ Στρητ: Ελληνοαµερικάνικα Διηγήµατα) details life in Chicago’s old Greektown and won her Greece’s National Book Prize. It was the first time a writer living outside of Greece had won the award. Interestingly, Mrs. Margaris’s typewriter is on display at the National Hellenic Museum.
There is also Gazmend Kapllan, an Albanian-born writer now working at DePaul University. Dr. Kapllan arrived in Greece as a refugee in the early 1990s and spent nearly twenty-four years there. He left in 2015, citing systemic harassment from neo-fascists groups following his 2008 application for Greek citizenship. Despite his ambiguous experience in Greece, he has produced some of the most important Greek literature of recent years, including his first three novels: A Short Border Handbook (2006), My Name is Europe (Livanis, 2010), and The Last Page ( 2013). Fortunately, much of Dr. Kapllan’s work has been translated into English and many other languages.
Modern Greek writers may not get the same global attention as their ancient predecessors, but their work is well worth reading. Whether in Greek or in translation, it is likely that you can discover Modern Greek literature that will touch and engage you.
At the National Hellenic Museum, our mission is to share Greek history, culture and art. Please visit us at nationalhellenicmuseum.org to learn more about our work and support our effort to promote inquiry and share the Hellenic legacy for generations to come.