Cyprus Mail

The great Greek debate ‘a straw man’

Archbishop Chrysostomos

By Poly Pantelides

WHEN ARCHBISHOP Chrysostomos declared last Sunday that Modern Greek was under threat with state schools elevating the Cypriot dialect to the status of a language, the president and other top politicians were quick to echo his concerns.

In a circular read out in churches across the island, the archbishop expressed concerns over new methodologies in Greek lessons at state schools, which placed “a great weight to our local vernacular”.

The “most serious” worry, the circular said, was that no explicit distinction was being made between which is the official language: standard Greek or the vernacular.

“An effort is being observed to raise our local vernacular to an official language!” the circular continued.

“If this effort succeeds, then our common Greek language will be broken up and a ‘Cypriot language’ will be created in parallel which may come from Greek (cf the languages of Latin origin), but will not be Greek!”

President Nicos Anastasiades and other politicians responded, agreeing on the need to defend the Greek language.

“Yes, I agree with the circular,” said President Nicos Anastasiades, speaking off text in Nicosia’s Episokipeio last Sunday where he unveiled the bust of Stavros Stylianides, an EOKA fighter who died in 1957.

Anastasiades spoke of the need to “safeguard religion and the Greek language, the constituent elements of our national identity”.

At the same event, the European Party’s Demetris Syllouris said education reform must not serve as “an excuse to unGreekify what is historically a most Greek country”.

Although the circular did not give any specific details of how this “unGreekifying” was taking place, it said that the ongoing educational reform was aimed at “downgrading our Greek language” via the concept of “critical literacy” which invites students to criticise and question power structures. “Applying this perspective in a society already divided by the actions of parties, will create even deeper disputes and frictions,” he said.

At issue is the education ministry’s attempts to modernise teaching methods by teaching language as a whole including grammar and spelling based on contemporary teaching methods.

Part of this process is an effort to make children more aware of the differences between standard Greek and the Cypriot dialect. The education ministry’s programme guideline lays out as a goal the understanding of differing linguistic forms and structures, e.g. by understanding function and context. The methodology acknowledges that children will be exposed to both versions of Greek, and invites teachers to help them explore this in order to deepen their grasp of language.

It is this aspect the church objects to, and Education Minister Kyriacos Kenevezos was quick to assure the archbishop that teaching methods still aimed at the “acquisition of an excellent knowledge of the standard Modern Greek language”.

The debate between standard Greek and the Cypriot dialect has a long history. Ironically, the dialect has retained words from Ancient Greek which the church cares so much about and which have been lost to its modern descendant. It has kept intact words from Homer whose epics are taught in many schools. But it is also true that the Greek Cypriot dialect is a reminder of the island’s diverse history: not just various ancient Greek dialects but also Arabic from the raids when Cyprus was part of the Byzantine Empire, and words from the Frankish Lusignan rule, the Venetians, the Ottomans and the British.

And it is this which concerns the archbishop. Elevating the dialect might create a “Cypriot national conscience, which will be clearly distinguished from our Greek national conscience,” he said.

For linguists, differences between languages and dialects can be arbitrary. When the Sunday Mail wrote about the Cypriot dialect two years ago during an event on the European Day of Languages, linguist Marilena Karyolemou said that whether a language was a language and not a dialect was a “sociological and political issue”.

She also cited a study that looked at the transcripts of the House of Representatives, which found instances of the Cypriot dialect, even though those were meant to be “corrected” to fit standard Modern Greek.

Indeed, even the primate will occasionally slip into the vernacular.

For former education minister Andreas Demetriou, the archbishop’s circular was merely attempting to create a crisis where there was none.

Neither Kenevezos nor Anastasiades talked about the theory behind “critical literacy”. Instead, they rushed to an unnecessary defence of the Greek language, he said.

“The argumentation used in the archbishop’s circular has nothing to do with the reality and rationale behind the new programme,” Demetriou said in an article published on online news portal

“The circular’s argumentation is based on the fancies of the archbishop’s consultants that expose both himself and the church,” he added.

Demetriou, who when appointed an education minister with the previous administration broke protocol by not visiting the archbishop to get his blessing, told the Sunday Mail the circular had set up a straw man.

“The subject should not even be raised,” he said, adding that the educational reform aims at addressing systemic weaknesses stemming from the need to update the system, he said.

“No one is threatening anyone’s ‘Greekness’,” he added.

“When everything around us is collapsing, are we really discussing this?”

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