09 February 2019

A few words today to celebrate
International Greek Language Day

Not every word in the Greek dictionary can fit on a T-shirt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This year’s programme of the Irish-Hellenic Society began with an interesting evening last night in the Long Room Hub in Trinity College Dublin, co-hosted with the Department of Classics in Trinity College Dublin.

Instead of one long opening lecture, we had a variety of shorter presentations that introduced us to a variety of subjects, including the role of Constantine the Great in founding Byzantium, a seventh century Byzantine hymn, 11th century Byzantine poetry, manuscripts from Mount Athos in the Chester Beatty Library, and the Byzantine influences on the work of WB Yeats.

We were also reminded last night that today [9 February] is International Greek Language Day.

This day was officially declared International Greek Language Day two years ago [2017], when the date was chosen because it coincides with the Commemoration Day of Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos.

Dionysios Solomos is best known for the Hymn to Liberty (Ύμνος εις την Ελευθερίαν), which became Greece’s national anthem, and he is considered the national poet of Greece. He was born in Zakynthos on 8 April 1798 and died on 9 February 1857.

This initiative aims is to highlight the fundamental role played by the Greek language in world culture throughout the centuries and to encourage the Greeks of the diaspora and others to get involved in and to learn about Greek culture.

The initiative came after years of pressure by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as well as Diaspora Greek schools and organisations, and the Greek-speaking community in Italy. International Greek Language Day was designated through a joint decision of the Greek Minister of Internal Affairs, the Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and was unanimously endorsed at a plenary session of the Greek parliament.

Greek is one of the oldest surviving Indo-European languages. It has an important place in the history of the Western world and Christianity. The canon of ancient Greek literature includes works such as the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Greek is also the foundational language of Western science, especially astronomy, mathematics, logic, and philosophy, such as the Platonic dialogues and the works of Aristotle. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek.

Together with the Latin texts and traditions of the Roman world, the study of ancient Greek writings and society constitutes the discipline of Classics.

In the modern world, the Greek language is not restricted by borders. Countless Greek words enrich other languages, as well as international scientific and medical terminology, so that about 80 per cent of the scientific terms have a Greek root.

The Greek Ministry of Education noted this week how ‘it is important to learn and love the Greek language, because of its virtues, but mainly because it has expressed a great culture.’ The Ministry goes on to say that the Greek language ‘shaped and codified the first … layer of vocabulary, and the basic concepts of, Western civilisation.

‘Over the centuries, its contribution has been decisive as a means of enhancing and spreading Greek culture, and today, it is considered as one of the world’s oldest languages,’ according to the ministry.

As the official language of two EU member states, Greece and Cyprus, it is one of the 24 official languages of the European Union. A rough estimate suggests Greek is spoken by over 13 million people in Greece, Cyprus and the Greek diaspora around the world.

There is a character in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus Portokalos, the father of the bride, who seeks the Greek root of every imaginable word, and then deduces that Greeks have been responsible every beneficial invention in civilisation.

He is the sort of character who might have inspired a T-shirt I saw on sale in Rethymnon the year before last listing a series of words with Greek roots.

During those two weeks in Crete, I posted a series of blog essays on familiar Greek words and – often with a sense of humour – sharing the thoughts that come to mind when I hear or read these words, with references to classical, Biblical and theological themes.

In the political and economic crisis that continues to eat into the hearts of many Greeks, some of the words I did not use in that series include drama, tragedy and politics itself. Nor did I use the words comedy, climax, apocalypse and abyss.

But this is a list of the words I mused on in that series, with a link to each word:

1, Neologism, Νεολογισμός.

2, Welcoming the stranger, Φιλοξενία.

3, Bread, Ψωμί.

4, Wine, Οίνος and Κρασί.

5, Yogurt, Γιαούρτι.

6, Orthodoxy, Ορθοδοξία.

7, Sea, Θᾰ́λᾰσσᾰ.

8,Theology, Θεολογία.

9, Icon, Εἰκών.

10, Philosophy, Φιλοσοφία.

11, Chaos, Χάος.

12, Liturgy, Λειτουργία.

13, Greeks, Ἕλληνες or Ρωμαίοι.

14, Mañana, Αύριο.

15, Europe, Εὐρώπη.

16, Architecture.

17, The missing words.

18, Theatre, θέατρον, and Drama, δρᾶμα.

In Trinity College Dublin last night for the opening of this year’s programme of the Irish-Hellenic Society (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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