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In debate of generations, Greeks treasure language


PSYCHIKO, Greece -- Choosing words that have fired the mind for centuries, the teacher started writing on the blackboard and the students concentrated as the opening lines of Homer's "Odyssey" appeared.

"Tell me, O Muse, of that gifted man who roamed the wide world," the words came in ancient Greek. The students could recognize some words and guessed a few others. They found Homer difficult because many of his poetic words had vanished. They thought Plato's philosophical texts were clearer.

In their halting way, these high school students from an Athens suburb seemed to exemplify the link between the language used 3,000 years earlier and the Greek they speak today.

Yet to their teacher, the pupils knew precious little. It is only now, at age 16, she said, that they begin to tackle the original text of ancient Greece's poets and philosophers.

"We think they should start at 12, as we did in my time," said Marina Bakani, the teacher. "At 16, it's too late, too rushed, too frustrating for everyone."

The debate about how much ancient Greek today's Greeks should know is rumbling again through the schools and universities and stirring old passions, as it does when it comes around every few decades.

To be sure, this is not another dispute about the purpose or the rewards of studying the classics. Greeks maintain a robust pride in speaking Europe's oldest written language, and every schoolchild hears of the mighty legacy of Homer, Aristotle and Sophocles.

All high school students plow through classic tragedies and orations, scan the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" and pore over historical texts of Xenophon and Thucydides. But they read these works converted into modern Greek.

A decade of neglect of education and a change of government have brought new scrutiny to teaching, and the linguistic quarrel here appears to touch on a vital part of the nation's identity as more Greeks are asking: What, if anything, can an archaic form of the language, used in the centuries before Christ, do for Greeks today?

"It will enrich the modern language," said Jorgos Babiniotis, who is among the fierce defenders of the ancient tongue and who lobbies to bring back teaching of ancient Greek to 12-year-olds.

He and like-minded colleagues argue that the vocabulary and the art of expression of today's students are deteriorating at an alarming rate.

He blames the slackening educational standards, the foreign words creeping in and, most serious, the official abolition, 15 years ago, of "formal" Greek in favor of the "demotic," or vernacular, for use in documents, schools and newspapers.

Mr. Babiniotis, a professor of linguistics at Athens University, contends that this sapping of the language is all the more reason to resort to the immense riches of ancient Greek and use its root words and concepts to expand the student's mind by appealing not to his memory but his reasoning.

"If a pupil knows the ancient Greek word 'ago' -- 'to bring'-- he can figure out that today 'eis' plus 'ago' means import and 'ex' plus 'ago' is export," he explained.

But nowadays, he went on, "a pupil does not know 'ago' so he cannot infer. The argument is simple: if you do not know the roots or the mechanisms of the language, you understand less and you have to remember more."

The linguist, speaking in an office with 19th century portraits that

breathed continuity, reached for examples easy to grasp for a foreigner. Take the current word for life, "zoe," he said, a poor word that has nowhere near the scope of "bios," its ancient equivalent.

"Once a child knows bios, he can understand all the Greek compounds, biology, biography, biosphere, biopsy," he said. "If he knows that 'tele' is far, he can figure out telescope or telepathy and all the other combinations. The foreigner has to study the word. A Greek should be able to infer it."

But what about the great mind-bogglers, those ubiquitous irregular forms that drive students around the world and even Greeks to despair?

"We should not insist on a lot of scholastic things, the grammar and the syntax that make people dislike the language," Mr. Babiniotis said, hopping over giant pitfalls. "What matters is showing how the language continues its life through its phases, classic, early Christian, Byzantine and scholarly Greek."

This is not difficult, he said, bearing in mind that the difference between modern and classic Greek is comparable to that between modern English and the language of Chaucer.

Fanis Kakrides, a professor of ancient Greek at the University of Crete in Rethymnon, is one of the scholars who dismisses such arguments as "a lost cause."

"I say we teach the comedies, the tragedies, the poetry of the ancient world. but in the modern language," Mr. Kakrides said. "I am not denigrating the pure archaic of Attica. It's a very clever language, a fine tool for communicating facts and ideas, but not practical for all Greeks.

"We have other tools to develop the mind: computer science, mathematics."

The ancients, he went on, had a very different thought process and connected their thoughts in long, complicated sentences.

"Teaching all Greeks those grammatical forms is a waste of time," he said.

"Etymology is interesting but not relevant for everyone."

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