So a certain purist concept of nationalism has had unfortunate effects on the landscape, language, and toponymy of Greece. The worst, though, is its effect on people. The ultimate implication of ethnic nationalism is that only members of the national ethnic group can be allowed to be part of the nation; all others must be eliminated or assimilated. This attitude was part of the Greek War of Independence from the beginning; some quotes from the 1911 Britannica, with colorful but accurate descriptions:

The town itself was destroyed and those of its Mussulman inhabitants who could not escape into the citadel were massacred…. Kolokotrones, a notable brigand once in the service of the lonian government… captured Karytaena and slaughtered its infidel population… [T]he revolt spread rapidly; within three weeks there was not a Mussulman left in the open country….. In the Morea, meanwhile, a few Mussulman fortresses still held out: Coron, Modon, Navarino, Patras, Nauplia, Monemvasia, Tripolitsá. One by one they fell, and everywhere were repeated the same scenes of butchery. The horrors culminated in the capture of Tripolitsá, the capital of the vilayet. In September this was taken by storm; Kolokotrones rode in triumph to the citadel over streets carpeted with the dead; and the crowning triumph of the Cross was celebrated by a cold-blooded massacre of 2000 prisoners of all ages and both sexes.

This sort of thing is not, of course, confined to Greek history; it is a sad feature of similar struggles everywhere. But when the war was over and the Greek state established, the attitude hardened rather than dissipating; the vicious Balkan Wars of 1912–13 featured ethnic cleansing as a modus operandi on all sides (see the first-person accounts here; I highly recommend the Carnegie Endowment’s Report, from which the quotes are taken, to anyone interested in the wars), and the equally vicious Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22 resulted in an “exchange of populations” (as this devastating mass ethnic cleansing was politely called) that uprooted “Greeks” who spoke no Greek from their ancestral homes in Turkey and equally assimilated “Turks” from Greece and sent them to alien countries they had never seen and where they had no homes and no occupation.

The Greek government announced that Greece was now ethnically homogeneous, and from then on ethnic minorities (principally Turks, Macedonian Slavs, Albanians, Vlachs, and Romá [Gypsies; note that Romá is the plural of Rom]) were either ignored or repressed, depending on the political situation. The official attitude is that everyone in Greece is Greek; attempts to discuss, say, the Slavic minority will be met with a denial that there is such a thing—people in the villages you mention may speak with a distinct accent, but certainly not in a different language. A classic example of this attitude was brought about by the research of Anastasia Karakasidou into the history of a village in Greek Macedonia, north of Thessalonica; she had originally thought that the village was divided between the “local” Greeks and the “refugees” (from the 1921–22 war), but as she talked to people she learned that many of them had relatives who came from a Slavic background. Unfortunately, just as she was preparing to publish her results (in the excellent book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990) the Balkan wars of the 1990s broke out, and the Greeks became extremely paranoid about ethnic questions; along with blockading the poor and landlocked new Republic of Macedonia (and forcing everyone to call it “FYROM”), they began a campaign of harassment against the author and her book, calling her a “cannibal” and frightening Cambridge University Press into shamefully caving in and canceling publication (fortunately the book was picked up by the gutsier University of Chicago Press).

Again, none of this is unique to Greece; similar nonsense is perpetrated everywhere that ethnic differences are used and exacerbated by evil politicians (Sri Lanka and Rwanda come immediately to mind, but of course examples are legion), and Turkey has done far worse to Armenians and Kurds in the last century than Greece has done to its minorities. I have concentrated on Greece because of its unique status as the “fountainhead of Western civilization” and because the pernicious theories of ethnic and historical purity used to justify the things I have discussed were imported from the supposedly civilized nations of Western Europe. It is the heirs of the Enlightenment who licensed the Greeks to falsify everything around them in the name of a chimerical Hellas that never was, and it is at their feet (and by extension our own, if we wish to claim the inheritance of “progress” and “rationality”) that we must lay much of the responsibility for the evils that resulted. When we fulminate against the Rwandans, it is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

Addendum. For further information on the background of the ethnic confusion of Macedonia and the political dispute engendered by it, I urge anyone interested to read Loring M. Danforth’s The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World (Princeton, 1995). Like the Karakasidou book mentioned above, it’s unusually well written for an academic work, and Danforth has one of the most sensible takes on the problem of ethnicity and nationalism that I’ve seen. From his first chapter:

According to the logic of nationalism, because nations are equated with states and because states have unambiguous, clearly defined territorial borders, nations must have such borders as well. Complex cultural realities, however, know no such borders. While a particular village must be located on one side or the other of the border separating two sovereign states, the people who live in this village are likely to speak more than one language and participate in more than one culture. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the inhabitants of this village speak the two national languages and participate in the two national cultures of the nation-states whose border the village lies near. The people of this village do not inhabit two homogeneous, bounded national cultures; they inhabit a cultural continuum, a cultural intersystem, in which cultural differences and similarities coexist in complex and constantly changing ways.

Having established his theoretical basis, he goes on to discuss the complex history of Macedonia and the conflicting claims to Macedonian identity. In a particularly moving chapter, he tells us about an Australian he calls Ted Yannas who comes from a village in northern Greece where people spoke Macedonian as well as Greek but identified themselves as Greeks; in Australia, he discovered others from the same village who identified themselves as Macedonians, and he wound up joining them, alienating himself from friends and even his own family. Makes me glad to be an American mutt who doesn’t worry about such things.


The Russian Duma has outlawed the Roman alphabet. Of course, the law will be roundly ignored, but it reminds me of Indiana House Bill #246, introduced (but happily not passed) in 1897, which tried to legislate a simpler value for pi. [Via polyglut.]


Another obstacle in reading Makriyannis, if you’re trying to follow along on a map, is place names. He’ll mention, say, Sálona; you look on your map and find no such place. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you discover that it’s now called Amphissa. Fortunately, the Great Hellenic Encyclopedia not only gives all former place names in its articles, it cross-references them, and there is a copy in the New York Public Library. In the course of reading about the period, I had occasion to look up many such names, and my reference map of Greece is now liberally sprinkled with them, the old names in penciled parenthesis: Lamia (Zituni), Panetolion (Mustafuli), Evinos (Fidaris), Elatia (Drakhmani). What most of these pairs have in common is that the old name, the traditional name, is Turkish or otherwise foreign in origin; the “new” name is the classical name, imposed after many centuries of desuetude by the new government, indifferent to the virtues of allowing people to call their town, river, lake by the names they’d always used but supremely attentive to the desire of Western Europeans to imagine their beloved Hellas restored. The very name Hellas (Ellas in katharevusa, Ellada in dimotiki) was strange, foreign, to Greeks of the day; they called themselves Roman (Romios) and their language Romaic (romeika), and their dreamed-of capital was Constantinople, “the City” (i Poli, which in the phrase is tin Poli ‘to/in the City’ was the source of the Turkish name Istanbul). They wanted Emperor Constantine to reappear and reestablish the Roman Empire (what we call “Byzantine”) again; to reorient them to Athens and Pericles and this strange name “Hellas” took many decades. But it was accomplished, and in the end people could sit in a cafe in Amfissa rather than sitting in a cafe in Salona, and foreign visitors could travel the country using Thucydides or Pausanias as their guide and see the very same place names outside the windows of their bus. Like the Acropolis, the entire country had been wiped clean of distractions from the important reality, that of 2,500 years past.


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.


As a counterpoint to my ongoing series of entries on purifying Greece comes an op-ed piece by Amir Taheri in today’s NY Times in which he discusses Saddam’s brutal efforts to “Arabize” Iraq. Everyone knows about his assaults on the Kurds, but I confess I had not known about this:

In 1970, he opened the Ottoman archives, in which Iraqis were classified as either Ottoman or Persian subjects. He prepared a policy of mass expulsion against the Persians, even though many prominent Iraqis — including Rashid Ali al-Gailani, the father of Iraqi nationalism, and Muhammad al-Jawahiri, the greatest Arabic poet of the 20th century — had been classified as Persian during Ottoman rule.
The mass expulsion of the Persians was implemented from 1972 on. By 1980 nearly a million people had been driven out. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those expelled had been born and raised in Iraq, regarded themselves as Iraqis and spoke Arabic as their mother tongue.

(I regret to report that in the course of the piece Taheri perpetrates this bit of idiocy: “Iraq is also the home of 11 living languages, some of which, like Elamite, are twice as old as Arabic.” All natural languages are equally old; it’s just a question of where you choose to stick the labels.)


Does anybody else find the sight of the Acropolis more dismaying than inspiring? I’m not talking about the dilapidated state of the buildings and statues, or even the fact that many of them have had to be replaced with replicas and the originals stashed in a museum because of pollution. No, I mean the bare, blanched emptiness of the Acropolis itself, a few crumbling ruins set amid stone paths and tumbled columns. How many people who visit the site to pay their respects to the Parthenon know that this site was once an entire walled city, filled with homes and shops and government buildings? Or that the Parthenon itself, that sad shell, was once one of the great churches of Christendom? I’ll let Alexander Masters describe it (from a review in the TLS of Mary Beard’s The Parthenon):

Some time in the sixth century, the virgin Athena lost her home to the Virgin Mary, and the Parthenon became a Christian church. The main entrance was moved from the east to the west, a few windows were cut through the frieze sculptures to allow in more light, and inside, where once had stood a gaudy, stolid forty-foot gold- and ivory-coated statue of the goddess of war and wisdom… the Christians created one of the greatest cathedrals in Greece. The doors were said to have once been the gates of Troy; the apse glittered with a gilded mosaic; among the adornments was a “miraculous” lamp, and a “magnificent” canopy supported on four columns of jasper. Basil “the Bulgar Slayer”… came down south especially to see this famous catalogue of Christian loveliness, and added to it: a golden dove with a golden crown that “circled continuously around the cross”.

Further testimony comes from perhaps Athens’ greatest medieval inhabitant, its archbishop Michael Choniates (whose younger brother Nicetas wrote one of the best Byzantine histories); I quote from Molly Mackenzie’s excellent little book Turkish Athens: The Forgotten Centuries, 1456-1832: “The Cathedral in particular—the former Parthenon—gave him constant delight: he loved it for its superb setting, the beauty and balance of its proportions, and its glorious treasures piled up through the centuries.” After the Ottoman conquest of Greece, the cathedral was turned into a mosque, with a minaret at one corner; Evliya Çelebi, visiting in the seventeenth century, wrote: “In the middle of the fortress there is one mosque, marvellous and luminous, famous among the philosophers and travellers of the world…. There is no such magnificent mosque in the whole atlas of the globe. In civilized countries no sanctuary exists to equal it. May its construction remain eternal unto the completion of time.” And what happened to this glorious pile of amassed treasures? Of course, it was badly damaged when the Venetians shelled it in an entirely useless attack in 1687 (Mackenzie: “As the building went up in flames, a great cry of joy and triumph burst from the Venetian soldiers. The women and children inside were burnt to death and the fire raged for two days, reducing the Parthenon to a ruin”), and again when Lord Elgin and others looted it in the early nineteenth century, but the final devastation was perpetrated by, of all people, archeologists. Masters again:

Though the church of Our Lady of Athens lasted half a millennia [sic], almost as long as the Parthenon had been a pagan temple, there is not a brick of it left standing today. In 1890, the Greek Archaeological Service declared that it had delivered the building “back to the civilized world, cleansed of all barbaric additions, a noble monument to the Greek genius”. Scoured of history, stripped to a stony simplicity that its fifth-century-BC builders never intended, even the hilltop on which it stood had been scrubbed down to the rock. “As one historian of Byzantium has recently put it,” writes Mary Beard, “a visit to the Acropolis today is rather like being taken on a tour around Westminster Abbey, blindfold to everything but the work of Edward the Confessor.”

These archeologists, of course, were Germans (as was the ruling family that had been imposed on the resentful Greeks); they had no attachment to the slowly built up mosaic of buildings and cultures, but oh, how they loved Ancient Greece! For similar reasons, they insisted (over the objections of the Greeks, who thought Nauplion or Corinth would be far more suitable than this depopulated village) on making Athens the capital of the country, leading to the overcrowding and pollution that has put the finishing touches on the devastation.

So try and picture Rome or Istanbul with their glorious melange of ages cleared away and nothing left but a few ancient structures; or picture, if you can, the Acropolis as it might be today if different policies had prevailed, vibrant and crowded, with mossy lanes and jumbled buildings of all periods, mosques inside churches inside temples, messy life in place of the deadly purity of a city reduced to a site. Now look at what remains, and think about what we owe to history.


Baraita has a long and fascinating entry on blasphemy, the name(s) of God, and the implications of the Jewish tradition of writing “G_d” (I had known about the avoidance of blasphemy but hadn’t thought about the practicality of not having to worry about disposing of the paper). Furthermore, the comments section has an interesting discussion of Québécois cussing (which involves not sex or scatology but chalices and tabernacles).


Now, this and this (unlike this) show how to keep languages alive. And the Cornish are hanging tough. (Via Pat, Mister Endangered Languages.)


They’re refurbishing the tunnel that leads from the IND station at 42nd St. to the 7 line a bit east; there’s nice tilework now, and on it a quote from, of all things, Finnegans Wake:

Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

I love New York.


I decided that since I was criticizing other people’s translations, I should put my own work up for scrutiny. So herewith my version of Cavafy’s “Very Rarely” [Polí spaníos], followed by whatever others I can turn up. Comments (as always) welcome.

He’s an old man. Bent over and worn out,
disabled by the years and by his dissipations,
with a soft step he crosses the back alley.
And yet when he enters his house in order to hide
his old age and the shape he’s in, he meditates
on the measure he himself still has of youth.
The young men are repeating his lines now.
Within their lively eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, sensual minds,
their firm and well-proportioned flesh
are stirred by his own showing forth of what is beautiful.
—tr. languagehat [Stephen Dodson]

He is an old man. Exhausted and bent,
broken by years, and by excesses,
walking slowly, he goes up the road.
Yet, when he enters his house in order to hide
the state he is in, and his old age,
he contemplates
the portion he still claims of youth.
Adolescents now recite his verses.
Through their bright eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, hedonistic brain
their well drawn firm flesh
by his revelations of beauty are affected.
—tr. Anna Seraphimidou

Very Seldom
An old man—used up, bent,
crippled by time and indulgence—
slowly walks along the narrow street.
But when he goes inside his house to hide
the shambles of his old age, his mind turns
to the share in youth that still belongs to him.
His verse is now quoted by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies,
stir to his perception of the beautiful.
—tr. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard