Nov 082017

On this date in 1901, the Gospel Riots, which had been taking place on the streets of Athens in November 1901, reached a climax when eight demonstrators were killed. The riots were primarily a protest against the publication in the newspaper Akropolis of a translation into modern spoken Greek, demotic Greek, of the gospel of St Matthew, although there were deeper issues at stake. The Riots marked a turning point in the history of the so-called “Greek language question”, and the beginning of a long period of bitter antagonism between the Orthodox Church and the demoticist movement over what form of Greek should be used both in the church and in official documents. In the aftermath of the violence the Greek Orthodox Church reacted by banning any translation of the Bible into any form of modern demotic Greek, and by forbidding the employment of demoticist teachers, not just in Greece but anywhere in the Ottoman Empire.

The issues involved are complex, but I’ll try to break them down succinctly for you. In the process I will continue my discourse on why people and their governments frequently spar over what should be the official language of a nation. Control of what counts as an official language is power. In Greece’s case you have numerous factors to consider because of the socio-political ramifications of the evolution of the language. Being simplistic, as always, you can break Greek into two significant language groups: classical Greek on the one hand, and modern Greek on the other. The two are mutually unintelligible, just as Latin and Italian or Anglo-Saxon and modern English are mutually unintelligible. The Greek situation is further complicated by the fact that classical Greek was used by schools, government, and the church well into the 20th century. Many people in positions of power felt that classical Greek was somehow “purer” than later dialects, free from the taint of “foreign” influences.

Defining classical Greek is not a simple matter either. There is the Greek of Plato and Homer, which was the standard for schools throughout Europe for hundreds of years. But then there is the Greek of the Bible, called koine Greek, the lingua franca of the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine empires down to the early Middle Ages. Koine itself had numerous dialects, but at least classical Greek and koine Greek were mutually intelligible. The differences are mostly a matter of vocabulary, and koine Greek’s grammar is much simpler than classical Greek’s. Modern demotic Greek shares an alphabet with classical Greek and not much else.

By 1901 the long debate known as the “Greek language question” had been underway for 135 years. Initial hopes that classical Greek could be revived as the language of the newly liberated Greek nation had proven illusory. As a compromise, a grammatically simplified version of classical Greek known as katharevousa glossa (‘language tending towards purity’) had been adopted as the written language of the new Greek state in 1830, (declared after a prolonged war of independence from the Ottoman empire). This meant that the spoken and written languages were now different. This was quite intentional. It was hoped that written katharevousa would provide a model for imitation, and that spoken Greek would naturally ‘purify’ itself by becoming more like this written form, and therefore more like classical Greek, within a matter of decades. To provide additional motivation, the current spoken or demotic Greek was widely condemned as “base” and “vulgar”, the damaged product of centuries of linguistic corruption by subjection to Ottoman despotism.

The plan did not work. After 50 years, spoken demotic still showed no sign at all of becoming ‘purified’ into something more like classical Greek. On the other hand, katharevousa was proving unsatisfactory in use as a general-purpose written language. Scholars could not agree on its grammatical rules; and as a purely written language with no native speakers, it could not evolve a natural grammar of its own. Its classical Greek vocabulary could not be used to write about the objects and events of ordinary life without sounding ridiculously stilted and unnatural.

The problem was compounded by the educational system. Until 1881 only classical Greek — not even katharevousa — was taught in Greek primary schools, continuing the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church, which had exercised an effective monopoly over education for centuries. The Church had always taught the ancient koine Greek of the gospels and the Divine Liturgy. The children thus had to learn to read and write in a language they did not speak, or even hear outside church. This had been acceptable in previous centuries, when the schools had concentrated on training future priests; but it could not provide universal popular literacy.

By 1880 many Greeks were beginning to feel that katharevousa had outlived its usefulness, and that it might be distracting the nation from its real destiny. It was quite natural for the fragile young state of 1830 to have clung to the classical Greek written tradition as a symbol of its national identity, but 50 years on, many were looking for the true soul of Greece in the actual language spoken by the people, and in the oral traditions and folk-songs of the country, rather than in the ancient glories of the far distant past.

In the 1880s there was a burst of creative activity in this direction. Kostis Palamas led the New Athenian School in a renaissance of demotic poetry. The writer and journalist Emmanuel Roïdis pinpointed the deficiencies of katharevousa, and coined the word diglossia to describe the unhealthy split between the spoken and written languages; and finally, in 1888, Ioannis Psycharis published My Journey, which transformed the language debate. Psycharis proposed the immediate abandonment of katharevousa and the adoption of demotic for all written purposes. But he did not reject the relationship with classical Greek; on the contrary, as an evolutionary linguist, he argued that spoken demotic really was classical Greek, merely 2,000 years further along in its evolutionary history. As for written katharevousa, he regarded it as an artificial construct, scarcely a language at all. As a Neogrammarian, he believed that the essence of language was passed on by speech rather than writing.

Many agreed with him up to this point. But Psycharis went further. If demotic were to be used as the written language of a modern state, it would need a larger technical vocabulary. Educated everyday speech in the 1880s simply borrowed such terms from written katharevousa. For example, for “evolution” the word ἐξέλιξις was commonly used, altered to ἐξέλιξη to conform to the morphology of spoken demotic. Psycharis however regarded katharevousa as an artificial contamination of the naturally evolved Greek language, and rejected all such borrowings. Instead he coined the word ξετυλιξιά, which he claimed was the word spoken Greek would have evolved for the concept of evolution if it had been free of the corrupting influence of katharevousa. He created many such words on the same principle; his declared aim was to set up a revitalized, scientifically derived demotic as a new written standard based entirely on the spoken language, isolated from katharevousa and independent of it. This part of Psycharis’ doctrine split the Greek intellectual world. Some found the new coinages ugly and unnatural: Psycharis’ versions sounded like mispronunciations of learned words by uneducated people, who would be unlikely to be familiar with many of these words in the first place. Others were inspired by Psycharis’ vision and became enthusiastic supporters of his version of demotic. Psycharis is widely credited with turning demoticism from an idea into a movement, which steadily gained strength during the 1890s.

So, by 1896 classical Greek was established firmly in the Church, in secondary schools, and also in primary schools (with some katharevousa there since 1881). Katharevousa was still used for every kind of administration and for non-fiction literature, but in prose fiction it was just beginning to give way to demotic. In poetry, demotic had taken the lead. In 1897, however, politics became more important than linguistic theories.

Early in 1897 the Greek government embarked on military action against the Ottoman Empire, starting in Crete but developing into an attempt to conquer the strip of Ottoman territory to the North by force. The Greek armed forces (which had not seen action for 70 years) performed poorly against the Ottoman troops (who were more numerous, better armed, and advised by a German military mission). The short Greco-Turkish War (1897) ended in defeat and national humiliation. The episode became known as Black ’97, and all sides set about assigning the blame. The military defeat also raised fears that neighboring Bulgarians would seize the opportunity of Greece’s evident military weakness to invade. Participants in the language debate could not help being drawn into what quickly became a political snake-pit.

The Eastern Orthodox Church had never had theological objections, in principle, to translation of the Ancient koine Greek gospels into a more modern form of Greek closer to the spoken language. The first translation appeared in the 11th century and until the beginning of the 19th century as many as 25 had been published. Some of these translations were officially solicited by the Patriarchate at Constantinople, while others were the work of prominent theologians and monks. Solicited or not, these translations were done by members of the Orthodox church and so were not a direct threat to its authority. Starting in 1790, however, Protestant missionary societies opened missions all over Greece, the Levant and the Near East, bringing with them new translations of the Bible into the local vernacular languages.

The Eastern Orthodox Church regarded these Protestant-sponsored translations as attempts at proselytism, and therefore as a direct threat to its religious authority. Accordingly, in 1836 and 1839 two encyclicals were issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (and approved by the newly-independent Autocephalous Church of Greece) commanding that all translations undertaken by “enemies of our faith” should be confiscated and destroyed. At the same time all previous translations, even if undertaken by “our co-religionists”, were condemned.

Fast forward to 1901. Two translations of the gospels into modern Greek in that year. One was by the queen Olga Constantinovna who had served as queen consort of the Hellenes since her marriage in 1867 to King George I. She was only 16 when she first arrived in Greece after the wedding, and had won the respect of her adopted country by learning Greek within a year and engaging in a wide-ranging program of charitable and educational work, which did much to maintain the prestige and popularity of the Greek monarchy. However, as the decades passed and the ‘Bulgarian threat’ loomed larger in the North, her close family ties to the Romanov dynasty of Russia began to make her an object of suspicion to those who saw, or claimed to see, Pan-Slavic conspiracies behind every setback. After the trauma of Black ’97 these rumors of conspiracy became much more widespread, and therefore more useful to political opponents of the monarchy. Queen Olga undertook her translation of the Gospels from the best of motives. In the aftermath of Black ’97, she had spent much time in the military hospitals, at the bedsides of the wounded soldiers of the defeated army. However, when she tried to raise their spirits by reading the Gospels to them, she discovered that few could understand the classical Greek words; they called it “deep Greek for the learned”

The second translation was by Alexandros Pallis, a member of Psycharis’ inner circle, and an enthusiastic user and promoter of his new ‘scientifically derived demotic’. Pallis had also published his own work, starting in 1892 with the first part of his translation of the Iliad.  Pallis was making a particular linguistic point with his choice of material to translate. He wanted to show that demotic was capable of embodying the spirit of the founding texts of pagan and Christian Greek literature which included the Homeric epics and the four Gospels. As a devout Christian, he also felt a moral and religious imperative. Pallis spent most of his life working in the British Empire, becoming a British citizen in 1897, and came to share its general belief that all nations and peoples should have access to the Gospels in their own spoken languages.

On Sunday 9 September 1901 (Old Style), the front page of the daily broadsheet Akropolis carried the first installment of Pallis’ translation of the Gospel of Matthew, under a full-width headline reading “ΤΟ ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΝ ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΓΛΩΣΣΑΝ ΤΟΥ ΛΑΟΥ”, or “THE GOSPEL IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE PEOPLE”. Akropolis was essentially the creation of one man, Vlasis Gavriilidis, who founded it in 1883 and played a major part in running it until his death in 1920. By 1901 it had established a solid reputation as the most progressive of Greece’s newspapers and one “of the few which cultivates a taste for general, non-political articles”.

The translation itself occupied the right-most column, under a sub-heading quoting (in Greek) St Paul’s words: “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how shall it be known what is spoken?” (1 Corinthians 14.9) The long editorial, starting in the left-most column, was written by Gavriilidis himself and is headed “Akropolis is continuing the work of the Queen”. However, it placed Pallis’ version in a very different social setting from that of the Queen. He wrote:

Who amongst the peasants and the workers, who even among the merchants and the clerks and all those who have not completed secondary education can understand the language of the Gospels? No one.

Rarely, perhaps for the first time, has the vernacular language taken on such a godlike gentleness and sweetness and harmoniousness as in the language of Mr Pallis. It is as though one is listening to the tinkling of the bells of a distant flock, such as those that first greeted the Birth of Christ.

As you can imagine, the battle lines were drawn and the Gospel Riots of November 1901 were the result. Language problems remained for a further 75 years as Greece’s political spectrum continued in its complications, including the coup of the Colonels in 1967, who went on to support katharevousa as superior to demotic Greek, which they argued did not really have a grammar and was vulgar in every respect. Katharevousa became so closely identified with the Colonels that when their unpopular regime collapsed in July 1974, support for katharevousa and enforced diglossia crumbled with it, never to recover. The new democratic government of Konstantinos Karamanlis then set about language reform for one last time. The Greek language question was finally laid to rest on 30 April 1976, when Article 2 of Law 309—still written in katharevousa—stipulated that modern Greek should be the sole language of education at all levels, starting with the school year 1977–78. This law defined modern Greek as:

 … the Demotic that has been developed into a Panhellenic instrument of expression by the Greek People and the acknowledged writers of the Nation, properly constructed, without regional and extreme forms.

I wouldn’t exactly class this as a rigorous definition, but you get the point. You also perhaps now, assuming you have waded through all of this, understand a little more how language usage can arouse deep passions.

To be a little quirkier than usual I’ll give you a recipe for tsoureki, Greek Easter bread, first in demotic Greek, and then in English. The original Greek recipe is from this website The translation is mine (rather loose for clarity). My training is in classical Greek, but I can manage with demotic if pushed. I am sure that for most readers the Greek is simply an aesthetic appendage, but I hope there are some who can read it. I’ll give notes before the English version.


Υλικά Συνταγής

700 γραμμ. αλεύρι για τσουρέκι
1-1/2 κύβος νωπή μαγιά 40 γρ.
200 γραμμ. χλιαρό νερό
120 γραμμ. βούτυρο γάλακτος
180 γραμμ. ζάχαρη κρυσταλλική
3 αυγά
1 κ.γλ. μαχλέπι
1/2 κ.γλ. κακουλέ
1/2 κ.γλ. γλυκάνισο
1 πρέζα μαστίχα


Για να πιάσουμε τη μαγιά, διαλύουμε – θρυμματίζουμε τον κύβο μαγιάς σε μπολ, προσθέτουμε το χλιαρό νερό και 1 κ.σ. ζάχαρη από τη συνταγή και αλεύρι τόσο ώστε να έχουμε μια αραιή ζύμη (περίπου 150 γραμμ.).

Τ’ ανακατεύουμε πολύ καλά. Σκεπάζουμε το μπολ και την αφήνουμε σε ζεστό μέρος κοντά σε καλοριφέρ ή στις εστίες για περίπου 20΄ και δεν κουνάμε ούτε μετακινούμε το μπολ.

Μετά από περίπου 20΄ θα δούμε ότι έχει ανέβει και στην επιφάνεια έχουν σχηματιστεί φυσαλίδες. Σε κατσαρολάκι σε πολύ χαμηλή φωτιά ή σε μπεν μαρί λιώνουμε το βούτυρο, προσθέτουμε τη ζάχαρη και ανακατεύουμε καλά μέχρι να διαλυθεί η ζάχαρη.

Τότε ρίχνουμε τ’ αυγά και με σύρμα και γρήγορες κινήσεις ανακατεύουμε καλά. Προσοχή στη θερμοκρασία των υλικών, η εστία να είναι στο 1. Σε γουδί χτυπάμε το μαχλέπι, τη μαστίχα και τα σποράκια (το εσωτερικό) κακουλέ με 1 κ.σ. ζάχαρη (από τη συνολική ζάχαρη της συνταγής).

Κοσκινίζουμε το αλεύρι σε λεκάνη. Προσθέτουμε τη μαγιά (που έχει γίνει πλέον) και το μείγμα αυγό-βούτυρο-ζάχαρη. Προσθέτουμε κακουλέ, μαχλέπι, μαστίχα και αρχίζουμε να ζυμώνουμε μέχρι πλέον η ζύμη να μην κολλάει στα χέρια. Ίσως χρειαστεί να πασπαλίσουμε λίγο αλεύρι επιπλέον.

Σκεπάζουμε το μπολ με τη ζύμη και την αφήνουμε να διπλασιαστεί σε όγκο, περίπου 1 ώρα εάν είναι σε ζεστό σημείο. Όταν φουσκώσει η ζύμη τη χωρίζουμε σε τρία μέρη. Πλάθουμε τρία φιτίλια και τα πλέκουμε σε κοτσίδα. Εδώ αν θέλουμε μπήγουμε κόκκινα αυγά στην ένωση.

Το τοποθετούμε σε λαμαρίνα στρωμένη με λαδόκολλα και το σκεπάζουμε πάλι για να φουσκώσει και να διπλασιαστεί σε όγκο. Πριν το φουρνίσουμε το αλείφουμε με χτυπημένο αυγό και νερό.

Έχουμε προθερμάνει καλά το φούρνο στους 160-170°C και το ψήνουμε για 45΄ μέχρι να φουσκώσει καλά και να ροδίσει. Αν θέλουμε να γυαλίσει, όταν το βγάλουμε απ’ το φούρνο τ’ αλείφουμε με λίγο βούτυρο.

Το τυλίγουμε με μεμβράνη αφού κρυώσει για να μην ξεραθεί.

I have added some comments in square brackets to my translation for clarity. Some of the ingredients for tsoureki need explanation and may not be easy to come by. The recipe calls for “flour for brioche” for example, for which I use plain, unbleached flour. Mahleb is a Greek spice made from cherry pits from a special species of cherry, Prunus mahaleb. It’s an essential flavoring, and there’s really no substitute. Mastic is a tree resin used in Greek and Middle Eastern cooking. You can sometimes find it in pharmacies or health food stores as Arabic gum (NOT gum Arabic) or Yemen gum. The recipe does not mention dyed eggs in the list of ingredients but includes them as an option in the instructions.  For Easter it is traditional to add a red-dyed egg to the bread. Also note that some cooks make a straight braid, others a circle.


700 grams flour for brioche
40 gm fresh yeast
200 ml lukewarm water
120 gm unsalted butter
180 gm granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp mahlepi (mahleb)
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp anise
1 pinch of mastic


Dissolve the yeast in a bowl with the warm water and 1 tablespoon of sugar from the recipe. Add a little flour to make a thin dough (about 150 grams). Mix the ingredients well, cover the bowl and leave it in a warm place near a radiator or a hotplate for about 20 minutes. Do not move the dough or the bowl. After about 20 minutes you will see that it has expanded and bubbles have formed on the surface.

In a saucepan on a low heat or in a double boiler, melt the butter, add the [remaining] sugar [minus another tablespoon] and stir well until the sugar dissolves. Add the eggs and whisk vigorously. Pay close attention to the temperature of the ingredients. [A double boiler is best so as not to scramble the eggs. You want an emulsion.]

Use a mortar and pestle to grind together the mahleb, mastic, cardamom, and anise with 1 tbsp. sugar (from the total sugar of the recipe).

Sift the [remaining] flour into a basin. Add the yeast/flour mixture, and the egg-butter-sugar mixture. Add the flavorings, [mix well to form a dough], and start kneading until the dough does not stick to your hands. You may need to sprinkle on some additional flour.

Place the dough in a bowl, cover it, and allow it to double in volume (about 1 hour in a warm spot). When the dough has risen [punch it down and] divide it into three parts. Braid the three parts. If you want, you can add red-dyed eggs at this point.

Place the braid on a sheet of paper and cover it again to inflate and double in volume. Before baking, brush it with beaten egg and water.

Preheat the oven to 160-170°C and bake for 45 minutes, until it rises well and browns. If you want to glaze it, when you take it out of the oven, brush it with some [melted] butter.

Wrap the loaf with cooking wrap after it has cooled to prevent it from drying out.

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