Latin and Greek or Latino-Greek?

Posted on March 24, 2010 by

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When it comes to modern languages, especially in Europe, people will automatically think of work-place dominant Germanic languages such as English and German, those romantic Romance languages such as French and Spanish, or even mysterious Slavic languages such as Russian and Czech. But in this article, we shall take a whistle-stop tour of one of the Indo-European isolates, Greek, the Hellenic language, the mother tongue of Plato and Aristotle and I can go on. Unlike many other European languages, Greek has, as the term isolate suggests, been isolated from the rest of the Indo-European tree for thousands of years, having effectively no close relatives, unlike, for example, Latin’s ties to other Italic languages. Despite never being the Lingua Franca in the West like Latin was, Greek did however creep into many languages through scientific and technological vocabulary.

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Will Latin script one day replace the Greek for writing Cypriot or even mainland Greek?

When people do think of the Greeks, they tend to reflect on the grandeur of their architecture, the profound wisdom they left behind. But rather than boring you with history lessons and arty-farty discussion, I’d like to be your modern cultural attaché. So how much have the Greeks changed from those days of old when they were inscribing beautifully Greek letters on metals or pottery? Well, for one, a new phenomenon has been on the rise since a few decades ago, prompted by the coming of the internet age. Partly due to the compatibility and convention of computer age and partly due to convenience, the Latin alphabet is being used in place of the Greek, a phenomenon commonly known as Greeklish. Although this is currently only the case in informal situations like emails and online messaging, one cannot help but fear for the altogether disappearance of the Greek alphabet. The sugar-coated Latin letters have spread their tentacles across the globe and have already caused the death of many writing systems like Baybayin – the Tagalog script used in the pre-Spanish colonial Philippines, and Chữ Nôm and chữ nho – a Chinese-script based writing system used in Vietnam before the French invasion.

But despite its destructive effects, the Latin script has also opened new windows of opportunity for many dialects: the so-called non-standard languages. In the case of Greek, this has allowed many Greek dialects to be written in a phonetic way. The most apparent of all is Cypriot Greek. There are good reasons why the Cypriots would prefer to use the Latin script to the Greek script, mainly is due its phonetic nature:

1) There are several very distinct phonemes which are absent in standard Greek, for example /tʃ/ as in “ch” in “China”, /dʒ/ as in “j” in “judge” and / ʃ/ as in “sh” in “ship” and others.

2) Geminates – i.e. both consonants being pronounced not just written – in words with double consonants, for example in the future article “énna” compared to the number one “ena” which would both be pronounced the same if they were written in Greek script.

3) Aspirated (said with a small puff of air – like English “p” rather than Spanish “p”; the latter is not aspirated) [tʰ], [pʰ], and [kʰ] can be shown using double consonant to denote the length.

4) In modern Greek, the spelling “οι”, “ει”, “η” “υ” and “ι” (roughly transcribable as “oi”, “ei”, “ê”, “y”) are all pronounced as /i/ and as many Cypriot words can have unknown spellings for instance with the verb “firto”, meaning to faint, it could be “φυρτώ φιρτώ, φηρτώ…” (“fyrtó”, “firtó”, “fêrtó”) using the Greek script. The Latin script can offer an elegant solution to this: using the letter “i”.

We have reached the end of our tour, even though it was regrettably short, still I would like to leave you with a bit of food for thought. How much have foreign languages influenced your own native tongue? Was it for the better or for the worst? Has it changed who you are, your identity?

Please leave your thoughts and questions about foreign influence on your language, about Greek, and any other musings below…

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Posted in: Linguistics