Modern Greek Koineisation.

A few years ago I exclaimed Nick Nicholas Is Back!; now he’s updating his blog Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος (“Set Union of Greek and Linguistics”) with reports on conferences he’s attending, and ATTENDED: Workshop on Modern Greek Koineisation is required reading for anyone interested in Modern Greek (anyone who didn’t make it to the workshop, that is). A few samples to whet your appetite:

As background: Contemporary Modern Greek as we know it emerged in Athens as the capital of the Modern Greek state; it owes only a couple of words to the native dialect of Athens, which was extinct by the 20th century, and a lot to the dialects that converged in the capital, settled from elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world. That makes it a koine, but a koine with a poorly understood history: we don’t have a lot of written records of how the dialects converged in Athens in the 1840s and 1850s.

We also don’t have a lot of records of Peloponnesian, the dialect group widely held to be the basis of that koine: dialectologists have not bothered to record it historically, precisely because they assumed it was identical to the Modern koine. (And as Nikolaos Pantelidis has been saying for decades, they were wrong.) […]

Pantelidis’ current interest is the survival of the Ancient Greek pronunciation of /y/ as [ʏ, ʉ] in Modern Greek dialect (as opposed to Standard /i/, with a few dialects doing [ju])—notably in the dialect group of Old Athenian, which also includes nearby Aegina and Megara. There are lots of quite clear statements in the 19th century that people in Athens were pronouncing it as <ü>, but they weren’t being made by Greek speakers (who could not hear the sound, because they were Greek speakers); those statements were being made by Germans and French, and they were either ignored by subsequent scholarship, or disbelieved.

Pantelidis concedes that in most places, the old pronunciation has vanished with nobody remembering it was ever otherwise. But he has been digging up more recent recordings of Aegina and Megara, and he’s got the instrumental phonetics to prove that people are still producing [ʏ, ʉ] in 2016—a millennium after a poem in 1030 mocked a priest as coming from a village “where people’s intellect is not better than oxen”, because they were using the new-fangled [i] pronunciation. And he’s been the first to notice it. […]

Just as Karantzola is working on the 16th-17th century, Peter Mackridge is working on the Phanariot texts of the 18th century. The 18th century is the last frontier for Greek historical linguistics, and has had very little attention paid to it to date; even the texts we have were mostly published in the last two or three decades—and there are plenty of texts still unpublished. That lack of attention has mostly been ideologically motivated: the Phanariots, as loyal Ottomans, were regarded as traitors in the new Greek state, and 19th century language activists dissociated their initiatives from them.

The Phanariot texts are grammatically consistent in their version of the vernacular. (At least, the vernacular of their authorial voice and their Constantinopolitan characters. To the Phanariots, all their islander servants sounded the same, which is why the low-class characters in their literature mix up the dialects of the Ionian islands with those of Crete and the Aegean.) And whatever koine had formed in Constantinople must have contributed to what happened later on in Athens, even if it didn’t contribute much. (The imperfect –usa inflection is the only element of the Modern Standard we can be sure is Constantinopolitan, although Triantafyllidis did notice that the Northern Greek accusative indirect objects used to be fashionable in Athens; now, they are what Athenians mock Salonicans for.)[…]

Mackridge finds literary Phanariot charming, as an evolutionary dead end of koineisation—what might have been Standard Modern Greek, if history took a different path. People have long said the same about literary Cretan—and, because of Language Question politics, more people have felt they had license to.[…]

The last talk I got to attend was Dionysis Goutsos’, on what the corpora of Greek he’s been involved with for the last three decades tell him about the spread of vernacular features in Greek. The curve we expect to see, from Labov’s work on sociolinguistics, is an S-curve: a feature starts infrequent, then accelerates in take-up, then levels off as it becomes universal.

In a context of language-planning, where features are promoted or suppressed in official discourse according to the politics of the day, we expect to see some wiggles in the data that don’t go in one direction, as a monotonic change. But Goutsos’ data, tracking various learnèd shibboleths through the 20th century… was weird. There was a consistent trend of lots of vernacular features in the 1900s-1910s, retreating through to the 1960s, and then coming back up—particularly in the 1970s, once the official rejection of Puristic took place (and even more so in the 1980s, when the Socialists mainstreamed vernacular choices in grammar—something we have seen a backlash to in decades since. The 1980s is when the –eōs singular of Classical –is nouns died out: poleos > polis “of the city”.) Goutsos finds a U-curve.

There’s much more at the link, and I find it all absolutely fascinating.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I read somewhere that before independence, Athens was actually largely Albanian-speaking (a statement which, if true, is probably unlikely to appeal to most present-day Greeks.)

  2. Much as Tbilisi was once Armenian-speaking and Vilnius Polish-speaking.

  3. David Marjanović says

    I’ve read “Athens was an Albanian village”, too, but by all evidence that’s not quite right: it was an island of speakers of the mentioned Old Athenian surrounded by Albanian-speakers that covered most of the rest of Attica (and Euboea).

  4. Fascinating. One of my pandemic projects has been to try to learn some Modern Greek, and to do more reading about modern Greek history. In reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books on the Mani and Roumeli, I was surprised and interested in how much he spoke about linguistics and vanishing pockets of essentially tribal culture.

  5. Aren’t those wonderful books? Needless to say, I approve of your project!

  6. Kamil Ibragimov says

    Me, I’ve stalled at Unit 25 of the FLI course, now hosted here. Still no audio for Units 34 and 35 after all these years! (Not that I’m ungrateful!)

    + DLI course

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    My eye and thus my mind’s ear are having trouble parsing the “ei” is “koineisation” as two distinct vowels rather than the FACE dipthong. Not sure if one of those weird New Yorker umlauts would help break it into pieces? Using the puristic spelling -sation rather than the demotic -zation doesn’t help either.

  8. Followup post: ATTENDED: Workshop on The Greek language after Antiquity (dictionary links and reports).

  9. the puristic spelling -sation rather than the demotic -zation doesn’t help either.

    Per contra: z is good Greek, s is a barbarian innovation.

  10. George Acropolites says

    “That lack of attention has mostly been ideologically motivated: the Phanariots, as loyal Ottomans, were regarded as traitors in the new Greek state, and 19th century language activists dissociated their initiatives from them.”

    This seems like an odd remark to make. Despite different political allegiances, the Phanariot intellectuals are known for their strong support of Greek culture (founding and financing institutions of higher education, supporting other scholars etc.) and for their own literary outpout. Many of them backed the Greek cause. Quite a few instigated revolts against the Sultan, and as a result were punished by exile or execution. Not all were loyal Ottomans.
    Even though their literary works weren’t widely read in later years, their place in Greek letters is well-established, partly because they formed the core of the so-called Athenian School (1830-1880), and the bibliography regarding Phanariot literature is quite extensive.

    The real reason that 20th century scholars chose to ignore them is probably not ideological, but aesthetic: for a very long time, their works are regarded as dated both in language and in content, stuffy, tacky, lacking artistic merit, irrelevant, and frankly quite boring. They were the Greek equivalent of Victorian poets.

  11. Good point; thanks for revisiting this interesting thread!

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