PURITY VS. HISTORY 2.

So what does all this have to do with language? Quite a lot, actually. A good way to see this is to look at the Memoirs of General Makriyannis; I’ll quote Petro Alexiou’s description of the general from his “A Talk on Martin Johnston”:

Makriyannis was a man of humble origins who became a revolutionary fighter and leader in the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Turks in the second decade of the 19th century. He was a veteran of innumerable battles and a political idealist who, after Greece became an independent state with a Bavarian monarchy, was active in a movement for constitutional government. But Makriyannis was more than just a soldier and political fighter; he was a living embodiment of Greece’s oral folk culture. He was also a fine exponent of the improvised song. But what earned Makriyannis an honoured place in Greek literature is that, an illiterate man, he taught himself to write late in life, and, fired by the desire for the truth of his people’s fight for liberty to be known, wrote an account of his life that has the literary stature of an epic. Makriyannis’ Memoirs weren’t published till 40 years after his death and only began to be read more widely in recent years.

Alexiou quotes his friend Johnston as saying “If modern European fiction ‘came out of Gogol’s overcoat’, modern Greek prose came out of the ample folds of General Makriyannis’s kapa.” But in between the writing of the memoirs (they end in 1850) and their general acclaim (they were published in an Athens newspaper in 1904 and in book form, with extensive commentary, in 1907, but were not well known until proclaimed a classic in a famous 1943 lecture by George Seferis) there was a period in which Greek prose wandered in the desert of katharevousa (‘purified’), an artificial Greek devised to bring the “degenerate” spoken language as close as possible to classical Attic, seen as the ideal form of the language. Part of what this involved was purging the language: of unrecognizable descendants of ancient forms (e.g. psari ‘fish’ from opsarion, in place of Attic ikhthys), but especially of the many foreign terms it had borrowed over the centuries, particularly Turkish ones. This is the exact analog of the purging of the Acropolis of the accumulated postclassical structures, and it results in Makriyannis being hard to read even for Greeks (although his language is extremely natural, since he wrote as he spoke) because so many words common in his time have been replaced by echt Greek forms (e.g. tzasitis ‘spy’ [from Turkish casus], replaced by kataskopos). The effort to produce a language that would sufficiently mimic the ancient tongue revered by Western Europe (the final judge of all things cultural, and of course the provider and guarantor of Greek freedom) paralleled the effort to produce a state that would mimic the “civilized” countries of Western Europe, themselves (in their fond self-image) modeled on the glory that was (ancient) Greece. The result was a stilted language that was native to no one and that could be produced only by stifling the inner voice that is the only source of true literature (and that makes Makriyannis so powerful a writer). The difference is, of course, that the language could be restored to human life by the inevitable erosion of the Atticizing furbelows (such as the dative case, not used in speech for centuries), but the Acropolis is dead for good.

Comments

  1. So a non-stulty writer restultified by the stultifiers? Spontaneity made stiff, by official edict. Very Orwellian, like so much in Europe.

  2. I’ve just discovered that I had a serious misconception about the meaning of the word stultify. I think I was influenced by stilted and stuffy.

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