This post written for www.phylaxblog.com
MY LANGUAGE by Titos Patrikios
It wasn't easy to preserve my language
amid languages that tried to devour it.
I strove not to lose even a word of it,
for in this language the dead spoke to me.
Recently while trading comments with Hermes regarding my post on Orthodoxy, I was floored by a statement he made to the effect that if the Orthodox Church adopts English as its primary language in America, then Hellenism there is dead. We have often disagreed in the past on a variety of issues. This time he struck a nerve. As usual our dialogue made me really sit down and think. Greek Americans, perhaps more than any other diasporan Greeks are often accused, rightly or wrongly, of not being Greek enough; of forgetting their mother tongue and of assimilating to the extent of losing all contact with their Greek roots. Is it possible that we are about to lose a pillar of Hellenism in America: the Greek Language?
The survival of those who consider themselves Greek throughout the last two thousand years of history has always entailed preservation of two things: the Greek Language and the Orthodox Faith. The reestablishment of the Greek nation state owes much to the educated and wealthy Greeks both within the Ottoman Empire and in the Greek Diaspora throughout Europe at the time. These people were well aware of Greece's classical heritage and its contributions to civilization. It was the illiterate peasants and seafarers however, who did the actual fighting and dying against a vicious enemy. The peasants who grazed their sheep in the shadow of the Acropolis had little idea of what their fore bearers did or said. What sustained them and brought them together as one nation? What was it that imbued in them a spirit capable of defying a mighty empire against all odds in a manner reminiscent of their ancient ancestors. Messolonghi was to take its place alongside Thermopolyae in the saga of Greek history. These peasants spoke a language that although altered over thousands of years still retained much of its original character and meaning. They were also devout Christians who lived their faith every day of their lives and found solace in the body of the Church that Jesus had established.
The story of the Greek American experience is complex. The early Greek immigrants were primarily young men who had no intention of staying permanently in the US. Eventually many married and brought brides to America and established families. Greek was spoken in the home. It was the connection with their ancestral homeland, along with the local Greek Orthodox church. First generation Greek Americans were often sent to afternoon Greek schools to learn the Greek language as well as Greek history and culture. Most of these schools were focused on the primary school grades and seldom offered secondary school level classes. The knowledge that they imparted was in a sense rudimentary. Immigrant parents also insisted their children learn English because they understood that it was essential for success in the New World. Greek immigrants placed a great deal of emphasis on education and the overall advancement of Greek Americans as an ethnic group is only rivaled by the Japanese and American Jews. Unfortunately, they did not create an Greek-based educational system that could compete with the public education that they received gratis. Greek Americans, although rightfully proud of their Greek heritage wanted to be considered Americans and did not feel threatened in a country that put no restrictions on their ability to celebrate their ethnic heritage.
The way I grew up was in stark contrast to my mother's upbringing in Constantinople during the 20s and 30s. Although she spoke fluent Turkish, she attended Greek schools and lived in a world that in many ways was very much segregated from the rest of Turkish society. My own experience was very different growing up in New York City. My parents spoke exclusively Greek at home, sent us to afternoon Greek school and we were very active in the local Greek Orthodox church. The difference was we did not separate ourselves from our neighbors or the rest of American society. In fact, Greek Americans have been active contributors to American society as authors, academics, actors and have excelled in very facet of life here. Greek Americans were not hostages in their own home and as such we embraced America as few other diasporan communities have done. By way of contrast, a second generation Greek in Germany for example will never be considered German and he will never consider himself German, just a temporary visitor. The early Greek immigrants were also subjected to a good deal of racism and discrimination by nativist elements. They wanted to prove they were good Americans, so they worked hard to excel at being American patriots.
First Generation Greeks have done a good job of clinging to the Church and passing on the Orthodox faith and a sense of ethnic pride. They have failed miserably at perpetuating the Greek language. As far as I can tell they have had precious little assistance from their brothers and sisters in the Patrida. In 1999, a commission headed by John Rassias, a noted educator, examined the state of Greek Language education in the US. The commission not only detailed the reasons for decline but also made recommendations for structural reforms. Go to this site for a synopsis of their findings. The report was buried along with the efforts of Archbishop Spyridon to revive the Greek language. In all honesty, some Greek Americans have been less than enthusiastic about fixing the problem.
Unfortunately, I cannot claim that today the Greek Omogeneia in the US remains culturally and intellectually steadfast in relation to its Greek origins. The first generation has NOT been effective in passing on the language we received from our parents. The second generation might understand some aspects of the Greek language, and third and now fourth generation Greeks might have some cultural Greek ties, mainly through the Church. Only a few have managed to learn the language and history of Greece. Despite that fact, it is often surprisingly apparent to me that many young people thirst for a knowledge of their Greek roots and language. Greek Paideia under the auspices of trained and knowledgeable teachers must be made a priority. This requires a concerted effort by the entire community. Does our community have the requisite unity or leadership to carry it out? In Germany and Australia, Greek is being taught in many public schools, and the Greek Education Ministry shares the expenses of providing Greek educators to teach the Greek language. Why is the Greek American community exempt from such efforts? Is it self inflicted or merely a lack of leadership on the part of community leaders? More importantly, Greek Americans need to contribute their own sizable financial resources to build an educational system that will address the educational needs of our young people in the context of Greek paedeia. We have the money, the people and the technological know how to solve the problem.
For a long time Greek ethnicity was part and parcel of the Greek Orthodox experience in the US. Now as the Church expands and seeks to bring its word to all Americans, this presents an opportunity for exponential growth and a danger of losing the Hellenic underpinnings of our Orthodox faith. In fact Greek paideia is inextricably woven throughout the Orthodox faith and its importance was recognized by the Church Fathers, as Father Demetrios Constantelos affirms: "The Church Fathers set an example and teach us how to approach and what to do concerning Hellenic paideia and its relationship to religious and theological paideia. A kerygmatic proclamation of the Gospel through the fathers, the doctrines and teachings of ecumenical and local synods, requires that we enter the mind of the Fathers and comprehend the decisions of the Councils.
Thus, the need for our theologians, including priests and teachers, to have a thorough knowledge of historical culture and the intellectual climate in which the Gospel was proclaimed. "Culture is the form of religion and religion is the heart of culture; that is, the two are inseparable," as Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian and philosopher, has put it. And Christopher Dawson, a Roman Catholic philosopher of history, adds: "The cultural function of religion is both conservative and dynamic; it consecrates the tradition of a culture and it also provides the common aim which unites the different social elements in a culture." Concerning the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity, the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky writes: "…The cultural process…which has been variously described as a Hellenization of Christianity can be construed rather as a Christianization of Hellenism. Hellenism was…polarized and divided, and a Christian Hellenism was created." The success of early Christianity is attributed not only to the presence of the Holy Spirit and to divine inspiration and religious zeal, but also to Christianity's ability to integrate many Hellenic philosophical and religious ideas, ethical principles, and spiritual elements."
As the Greek Orthodox Church adapts in order to spread His word and unite with other ethnic Orthodox Churches, it is particularly important that it seek to preserve and enhance its Greek origins and language. It is also time for Greek American organizations to band together to put their best efforts into the very noble task of "Hellenizing" the progeny of the original immigrants and as many non-Greeks as possible.