Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Falling at the first hurdle

By Hermes Solomon

‘TURKISH should become a recognised EU language’, and ‘All refugees should return to their homes to avoid forking out billions in compensation’ were two ‘risible quips’ bandied about in Davos; both non sequiturs and intended to further complicate or stall progress in the ongoing Cyprob talks.

Since one sixth of the south’s population communicate in English, and the remainder in Greek, it seems pointless adding Turkish to the school curriculum. It sounds patronising to even suggest it, now, while talks hang in the balance.

Turkish is already an official language of Cyprus, but who in the south uses it? To be honest, nobody. And who used it prior to 1974 other than Turkish Cypriots, who then also spoke ‘enough’ Greek?

Our two leaders are often heard to speak in English – and although fluency is not apparent, their English is acceptable and not to be laughed at like that of former president, Demetris Christofias – la vitrine and Messi just two of his many memorable faux pas.

One has to admire any politician or diplomat capable of communicating coherently in a language other than their own. American politicians only ever communicate in American English. But most EU top brass speak several languages fluently, e.g. brass from the Benelux, where Dutch, German and/or French, English obligatorily, plus local dialects (Walloon, Flemish, etc.) have made polyglots of ‘lowlanders’.

Cyprus made Greek her first and only language at the time of Byzantium (320AD), thereafter acceding to ‘some interference’ from the Franks, Venetians and Ottomans. But from 1878, English grew into, and remains, the third most used, and above all, most useful of the island’s three languages.

The Greek and Turkish Cypriot dialects evolved over centuries, introducing many adulterated Turkish, Arabic and Latin words into their respective vocabularies. But after independence in 1960, schools were obliged to insist on ‘pure’ Greek and Turkish usage only. We wrote right at school, but persisted in speaking in ‘charming; dialects at home. Even to this day, many in the south still choose to speak Cypriot Greek; their mothers’ tongue impossible to betray.

Many Greek Cypriots cannot write, spell or compose grammatically correct essays in any language, although Greek is simple by construction, long words made up of a combination of several short. Turkish has its roots in 7th to 11th century Mongolia, bearing few similarities with Greek or neighbouring westward languages.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots otherwise have much in common – many foods, similar customs, habits, music, the arts and social behaviour. But linguistic similarities are few, this being a major cause of ‘the great divide’ between the two communities. Overcoming that divide, by assimilating each other’s cultures via a common language, is paramount to the success of reunifying Cyprus. And this can only be accomplished by both sides agreeing to communicate in the same mutually acceptable common language.

Language is a whore; it sells at a price; it classifies individuals – it defines etiquette and slaps down upstarts. It creates clubs, cliques and the chosen, those who have studied the same philosophers, economists and art historians, and who read Le Monde, The Times and Der Spiegel on the same day.

Language is a frontier through which few are permitted passage; the most loquacious on the inside and the least nowhere in view.

Russia’s 19th century aristocrats spoke French to keep the servants on the outside. Our self-elected monolingual ‘elite’ choose to hide nothing from ‘the servants’ yet, by contrast, have more than mastered the art of double-speak, ‘Cyprob solution’ meaning ‘we want it all back and the Turks out’.

Given that all well-educated TC’s and GC’s speak English as a matter of course, or certainly will do by 2030, shouldn’t English be the common language in use between future federal states?

Or are you going to tell me that MEP, Christos Stylianides, EU Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Commissioner communicates in Greek when in Brussels?

Then which language will he communicate in during his visit to southeast Turkey to meet with representatives of the many religious and ethnic communities? He will and does speak English well.

The future is another country – we must do things differently there or fall flat on our faces at the first hurdle.

Agreeing on a common/neutral language by which both sides will communicate is a priority overlooked. Without one, in which both sides are equally proficient, a reunified federal republic of Cyprus will remain permanently partitioned in all but name. Had President Anastasiades said that in Davos rather than saying that Turkish must become a recognised EU language, I’d view him as a man of vision rather than one purposelessly pandering to protocol.

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