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Bologna 2007

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When Greek Meets English

Diane Shugart

3eric t 8a kanw?
Greek teens use a form of Greeklish shorthand in text messages, but this language–a hybrid hieroglyphic and phonetic transliteration–is creeping into their day to day communications. Will this affect the Greek language?

Deciphering text messages from Greek teens, and now post-teens, is something like an alphabetic Sudoku puzzle. Sometimes it will take me several minutes to decipher what words like “8hmhcu” (θυμήσου, that is, remember) or strings of letter like c kla? (είσαι καλά, that is, how are you) mean. But my breaking point came with the query “t shoes teriazun” from my friend’s daughter seeking advice on what shoes to wear with a new pair of pants we’d bought together on one of our shopping sprees. Exasperated, I snapped back that if she expected any reply from me, from now she should write either in Greek or in English, not both, and certainly not in Greek with Latin characters. I got an emoticon of a smiley sticking out its tongue in response.
English words have been creeping into Greek usage so that words like “must” and “trendy”, “fake”, “concept” and “respect” pepper the speech of even television presenters and kafeneion patrons alike. “Celebrity”, “persona”, “wanna-be”, “business plan”, and even “logistics” have also passed into common usage, although it’s more often than not mis-usage. Such words also crop up in print and though often sometimes misspelled, they’re written in English rather than Greek. But this particular form of Greeklish is new.
The minutiae of transliteration has been fiercely debated by linguists for decades, and I’ve seen friendships come pushed to the brink by disputes over whether the Greek letter χ is properly rendered in English as “h”, “ch”, or “kh”. Arguments rage between proponents of orthographic transliteration and supporters of phonetic transliteration, the difference between plateia and platia. But this new form of transliteration is also partly hieroglyphic, with alphabetic and numeric characters used according to which most resembles the Greek, hence “8” for the letter θ and “h” for the letter η. And it’s an issue in which digital technologies have had a direct effect.
“So what’s wrong with it?” Mata, my friend’s teen daughter asked when we discussed how she writes. “It’s briefer. Fewer characters, so you can write a longer message.”
That’s teens’ rationale. But what about the long term impact on their generation’s use of the Greek language and, by extension, the language itself.
“I don’t think ‘hieroglyphic text messaging’ will lead to the disappearance of the Greek language as it seems more to be introducing another dimension globally and across languages to a kind of hyper-text that everyone uses,” says Adrianne Kalfopoulou, author, poet, and professor of literature and creative writing. She likens this form of Greeklish to short-hand symbols and stenography. “I think any native language/alphabet will continue to exist alongside these other kinds of codes.”
Voula Mastori, an award-winning author of books for pre-adolescents and young adults, says Greeklish will first have an impact on its users “who will never learn proper Greek spelling. Then, yes, I fear that if future generations slowly turn to Greeklish simply for their convenience, it will be disastrous for the Greek alphabet.”
It’s probably impossible to trace who or how the use of this form of Greeklish began, although it most likely emerged spontaneously and simultaneously across Greece and spread among friends. This is evident from the different “dialects”; some schools of this Greeklish routinely eliminate most nouns, sometimes reducing words to a single consonant. There are also differences in how the diphthong “ou” is rendered, by some in full and by others just by the letter “u”. Yet for the most part, the Greeklish alphabet is the same, especially when it comes to substituting numeric characters for Greek letters transliterated phonetically with more than one character, like 3 for ξ or ks.
“Visual symbols are just more appropriate to the visual mechanics of cell phones, iPads, netbooks, etc.,” Kalfopoulou says. “In more general terms, the visual has dominated, and will continue to dominate so much of contemporary culture, or any culture where ads, TVs, videos, play key roles in people’s daily lives.”
Mastori injects another element–rebellion. “I think they [use numeric characters] to set themselves apart from the previous generation. It’s their own way of communicating. This tendency for the new generation to want to differ from the older generation has always existed–and I think always will.”
Intermingling words from both languages is another way of differentiating themselves from the previous generation. “But honestly, I don’t understand why they use Latin characters. Maybe they’re bad spellers and are embarassed to show this, maybe they’re too lazy to switch language keyboards every time they use a foreign word–especially when they use foreign words frequently.”
The question of why Greek native speakers chose to write Greek words using a Latin alphabet intrigues Kalfopoulou, especially given the fact that all computer and cell phone keyboards support Greek. “I just think it’s the dominant alphabet, and perhaps just easier to access. More about how lazy people can be as opposed to “choice”. On Facebook, for example, to write in Greek characters I would have to change my settings for a few it just seems easier to write ‘Greekenglish’, that is ‘Latin’ characters to express Greek words. So it’s sort of inevitable to the extent that people are inevitably convenience-oriented, and lazy about switching back and forth between languages and symbols.”
With younger generations adopting Greeklish, for whatever reasons, the Greek language may be taking another step in the simplification process. This, editor Silvi Rigopoulou notes, stealthily expanded, starting with the phonetic transliteration of foreign names, then foreign words, to now include some Greek words. Some Greeks consider each step as gnawing at the roots of Greek culture. Elena Akrita, a Greek journalist and writer known as a stickler for proper usage, was a lot less reserved in a recent article in the Athens daily Ta Nea responding to a proposal by a Cypriot member of the European Parliament to “modernize” the Greek language by, among other things, substituting the letter omikron for omega and abolishing the ending ς in favor of σ.
Yet digital technology may have pushed the Greek language a little closer to the total simplification advocated by the Cypriot politician. Kalfopoulou offers the use of stresses or accents as an example. A first round of simplification established a single symbol for this but some younger Greeks don’t even use that any more. “But when I teach poetry, for example, the Greek students have no problem understanding the role of stress patterns. So maybe simplification is inevitable, but that’s more about the culture of speed and convenience again, smaller spaces of time and also surface spaces (like netbooks, cell phones) to cram in the information, hence twittering our lives’ ‘headlines’.”
Language is the essence of culture. It’s the way we express thoughts and ideas. It’s not just words, but meanings, context, generations of experiences and history. Learning a language is the key to unlocking a culture.
“I think hypertexts and ‘cyber-texting’ is creating a kind of ‘imperialism of the simple’–not to say the ‘simple-minded’–because it reduces any complication to the quickest, pared-down code,” says Kalfopoulou. “On the other hand, it might also discipline us to ‘get to the point’, but ‘the point’ will only be suggestive, and up for anyone’s interpretation if we lose our ability to expand on those abbreviations.” Formal education is one way she sees to prevent this from happening: “the Greek language for Greeks, is at the heart of any education. So as long as there is education there will be language. And one hopes that there will always be access to education!”
Mastori is unequivocal. “Preserving the language is vital because it’s the people’s identity. I cannot imagine Greeks in the future requiring translation to read their own literature.” 

We, writers, are lucky people

We, writers, are lucky people. Even if we are not read by anyone, it is enough for us to write. A book is said to be a window for readers to the world, but firstly it is a window for the writer himself. It is a window through which he takes fresh air when his surrounding is suffocating. It is a window through which he escapes, when he is inprisoned in a situation. It is a magic window which travels him to places where he cannot and perhaps he will never be able to go either. 

All children are miracles

My each visit to a school or a library confirms my belief that children are miracles that await to be discovered - some of them dare to come up themselves. In any case, it is us, grown-ups, who are responsible either for the discovery of these hidden treasures or the encouragement of the disclosed ones. 
   Personally, when being a schoolchild, I was lucky with my essays, as no teacher ever intervened in my writing style and they always encouraged me in different ways. Only once, in the sixth grade of primary school, when I brought to the class a poem which, as I said, "someone on my mind dictated it to me", did I notice a strange smile trying to hide under my teacher's thick moustache. Although he asked me to read it to class, that strange smile haunted me and never did I bring a poem to there again.
   Why do I recal all these? Because I happen to have in my hands two pieces of work that the 1st Gymnasium Lavrion teacher , Maria Mpereti, has sent me. The work belongs to her student, Iro Tsakidi, 2nd Grade, and it consits of a fairytale (4 paragraphs in all that manage to cancel death) and prose (just 1 paragraph incredibly too good for a child of her age). I am quoting the last sentence:
"But has anyone ever wondered if the world where we live is darker than the shadows we are afraid of? "