2020: A Greek script Odyssey

14 minutes to read
Francesca Iaboni

The present stage of globalization moves at high speed, influencing how people communicate all over the world. This article will explain why a lookalike English language is used in the context of the Greek society and how it came into being. It will also deal with how this lookalike English differs from other ways of transliteration. Besides illustrating the historical and critical perspectives on its use, it will be explained how each of these perspectives deals with issues of political debate and historical heritage differently. 

The tremendous spread of information and communication media has had a large impact on conversation patterns found in our everyday lives. Email and SMS are only a few of the textual communication channels that have emerged to complement, or in some cases to replace, more typical means such as telephone calls (Chalamandris, Tsiakoulis, Giannopoulos, & Carayannis, 2004). The expansion of the use of the internet has brought many advantages, such as greater ease of communication among people, expansion of commercial activity through e-commerce, and a much higher degree of availability and dissemination of information across the world.

But these expanded communication processes are rendered somewhat more complicated when the languages used are written in ways standard computers and softwares cannot handle. Statistics on internet usage by language show that 29.5% of internet browsing happens in English and 70.5% is non-English. As non-English web usage increases, there is an increasing number of non-English queries that need to be handled by search engines (Lazarinis, Vilares, & Tait, 2007). However, because the ASCII alphabet supports only the Latin alphabet character set, internet users speaking languages that use non-Latin alphabets like Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or most Slavic languages are therefore forced to transliterate their phrases using Latin characters only.

The case of "Greeklish"

The form of writing that emerges when typing Greek in Latin characters is commonly called “Greeklish(Karakos, 2003), although it might be more accurate to describe it as a lookalike English (Blommaert, 2012). It is important to make a distinction between Greeklish and other forms of alphabet transliteration such as Chinglish. Chinglish is an English slang that is infuenced by Chinese, whereas a lookalike English in the Greek context is a matter of script. This means that signs are being combined, which are linguistically entirely meaningless; essentially, Greek language material is converted into lookalike English, and because Greek is typed in an alphabet associated with English, the whole thing suggests "Englishness" (Blommaert, 2012).

Even after the further development of many technological products, people are still using lookalike English as it is faster for its users and does not require them to make corrections if an orthographical mistake occurs.

With time, a transliteration method was created to cater to the lack of an established alphabet for Greek characters in new media. This lookalike language is used when writing on computers and other digital media, converting each Greek letter to the most similar letter of the Latin alphabet. Even after the further development of many technological products, people are still using lookalike English as it is faster for its users and does not require them to make corrections if an orthographical mistake occurs.

Greeklish Converter

Lookalike English is extensively used in emails and in chat groups in Greek society, and it is becoming a script register among young people. The issue of language has long been a minefield of confrontations and conflicts within Greek social and political life. The duration and intensity of these conflicts are due not to issues of language as such, but to ideological, social and political questions which were at stake in critical periods of Greek history (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017).

Greece as the cradle of the Western Culture 

Greece is commonly considered "the cradle of Western Culture". In ancient times, the country was the first in creating the concept of a society that is supported by different institutions and produces culture in different forms, such as works of philosophy, literature, mythology, historiography and dramaturgy (Adhikari, 2019). For those reasons, the Greek one is defined as the first form of civilization as we still intend it, inspiring the ones that followed. As the Greek language was associated with these cultural developments, it has itself acquired great prestige.

In the pre-classical era, poetry was created as an instrument for storytelling, starting as an oral tradition and turning to a written form afterwards. Myths and legends were the subjects of those products made of words (Mark, 2013). The ancient literature of the pre-classical era, for instance, comprises two of the milestones of classic literature which consequently shaped the concept of the novel as we still intend it today: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two epics are seen as representative of the culture and tradition of Greece. The first work tells of the war of Troy, and the second story describes Odysseus' ten-year journey back to his home after the war. Besides their historical importance, the characteristics of these poems were shaped through the cultivation of the Greek language. The metric used to compose the two epic poems represents a marvellous game of words, based on the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry, which subsequently inspired Western poetry traditions.

The Greek language was also the vehicle for the diffusion of the Christian creed, not only because of the expansion of the Byzantine empire over time, but also because of its literary tradition. In fact, most of the biblical books of the New Testament were written in Greek, highlighting the prestige of the language.

More importantly for our discussion, already in the first century BC, a "linguistic schism" was observed between written and spoken Greek. The written language, used by the intellectuals of the time, ignored the spoken language, regarding it as the result of a process of corruption, inferior to its ancestor, and sought to imitate classic Attic Greek (Koutsogiannis et Mitsikopoulou, 2017).

In the 19th century, "Katharevousa" was established as the national language of Greece, a constructed language variety aimed at linking ancient to modern Greek in a modern society. This decision also sheds light on the country's national orientation towards Europe, considering the high regard for ancient Greek heritage shared among Europeans. The outcome of this decision was a situation of diglossia, a term that refers to the existence of two languages used for two different purposes in the same country. In Greece, these are Katharevousa (καθαρεύουσα), the language of administration and education, which was designed to be closer to ancient Greek, and Demotiki (δημοτική) or demotic Greek, which represented the spoken language. In 1976, the diaglossia situation ended with the abolishment of Katharevousa. A few years later, in 1982, the orthographic reform revised the polytonic writing system of the ancient language, which meant reducing its multiple accent markers to only one, resulting in a monotonic system. As some felt that this choice was threatening to be only the start in a process of abandoning the Greek alphabet altogether, it was met with resistance and it is disliked by those who perceive it as a betrayal of the nation's tradition.

Language is inherently historical. The action of speaking a language entails using words that are understood in a specific way in the socio-historical context in which they are spoken; the act of using language defines us as specific historical and socio-cultural subjects (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017). The loss of (a form of) language can therefore be perceived as a loss of historicity and the concept of being a nation. 

Lookalike English as an online phenomenon

With the advent of advanced communication technologies, users can now read and send messages with a click of a button. However, the online world is not new or "fake", it has been very real for a while and it exists with its own features and dynamics apart from but intertwined with the offline world. New communities and practices are developing, resulting in new forms of languaging, such as the transliteration of Greek we're examining.

Displaying Greek as lookalike English on online platforms is currently a rule of thumb, but there is no official policy for the use of so-called "Greeklish".

The online world is a public space, it is a socially constructed phenomenon (Kroon, 2019). According to Blommaert (2012), messages displayed in public space are never neutral; they always display connections to social structure, power and hierarchies. Displaying Greek as lookalike English on online platforms is currently a rule of thumb, but there is no official policy for the use of so-called "Greeklish". As already mentioned, computers could not process Greek letters due to limitations in the early stages of their technological development (Lazarinis, Vilares, & Tait, 2007), and therefore making use of online platforms used to have barriers for people in groups that use languages like Greek. The direct response to the problems caused by a lack of a formal and standardized approach to communicate in the Greek language online was the development of writing Greek as a lookalike English.

Because this lookalike language is mainly based on situated rules of thumb, there is enormous variety in spellings and as much inconsistency in its use. There are two main approaches to translating Greek to this lookalike English, the first being a phonetic approach and the second a visual or orthographic approach. The first approach relates to phonetics, the sounds involved in a language and how they are produced. When it comes to the production of speech, this depends on the interaction of different vocal organs, for example the lips, tongue and teeth, which ultimately produces particular sounds. The second approach is related to orthography, which is the study of the practice of "correct" spelling according to the established usage. In a broader sense, orthography can refer to the study of letters and how they are used to express sounds and form words (Nordquist, 2019). To fully understand the difference between the phonetic and the orthographic approach, one could use the greek grapheme <η> (eta) as an example. The phonemic value of this letter is /i/ and results in the phonetic transliteration <i>, but also the orthographic (visual) representation <h> (also because upper case eta is <H>, same as upper case <h>). Another example is the grapheme <β> (beta, pronounced /v/), which results in the phonetic transliteration <v> and the orthographic representation <b> (Androutsopoulos, 2009). In the image below, we see the transliteration of the word Athens (Αθήνα) in two ways, resulting in Athina and A8hva

Greeklish: Phonetic and Orthographic

The decision to write in lookalike English in either a phonetic or an orthographic way depends on who is writing. There are no rules that prescribe how to use lookalike English in the written context. The complexity becomes evident when Greek words like διεύθυνση (address) are transliterated. Transliterations made by different people resulted in twenty-three different latin versions, each word differed in the transliteration of the Greek graphemes  <ευ>, <θ>, <υ>, <ν> and <η>. Three versions were used by more than seven users: diefthinsi, diey8ynsh and dieuthinsi. The remaining translations showed greatly varied spellings such as dieu0unsh, dieu8uvsn, dievthinsi and dief8hnsh.

Greek lookalike English could at first be seen in mobile phone and internet use, since it was easier and quicker to write in Roman characters: fewer letters were used and hence there was relatively more writing space (also due to technological limitations which make some Greek count as 2 characters in SMS texts). As there were no universal grammar rules, writing also became a faster process. 

The trend started from younger generations, but today lookalike English is also used by older people. There has been a huge debate about whether or not the Greek language is in danger due to the increasing use of lookalike language in everyday communication. On the one hand, there is a group supporting the historical nature and value of Greek spelling as it embodies the roots and meaning of each word. On the other hand, there are others who claim that a language must serve the needs of the people who use it. The internet requires quick action and an easy way of writing, and language always keeps on evolving. These factors have to be taken into account, while also taking care not to be stuck in the past (Omilo.com, 2019).

Public debate

Throughout history, the Greek language has been a subject of intense debate, particularly in Greece, as we've seen. Together, with the current global orientation of Greece in the context of globalization, debate around lookalike English is still present and still relevant (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2003). In fact, lookalike English is not only a vernacular, a digital phenomenon or a historical linguistic development for Greeks, but also a phenomenon of socio-political debate in Greece.

Blommaert (2012) explains that social changes are complex and normally coexist. Different historicities and different speeds of change will occur in synchronic moments. Long histories on the one hand are blended with short histories on the other, in our communicative behavior. Blommeart (2012) defines this as layered simultaneity, describing it as the phenomenon whereby resources used in a communicative context have a different background and thus different indexical loads. In the political debate at hand, one could argue that there are three different elements, Greek, lookalike English in Greece and the rise of digitalization, which all have to be synchronized, causing constant debates on what indexical meanings to apply or to follow. The debate divides the entire country in three camps with different perspectives on the emergence and existence of lookalike language: a retrospective, a prospective and a resistive perspective (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017). 

The retrospective point of view looks back at history and argues that the Greek language must be preserved and protected, and therefore lookalike English should not be accepted in Greece. Technologies and globalization threaten to be the reason for the loss of the Greek language, meaning that some of the glory and richness of its history would be lost (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017). Because of the prestige that Greek heritage has had over time and also the literary tradition that is dear to the nation, lookalike English constitutes a threat to the country's pride, which is attached to its cultural roots and therefore does not bear that its language be altered and consequently forgotten. Danet and Herring (2007) argue that this perspective is not only there to preserve and nurture Greek society, but also to stop the influence of globalization or, even more, Americanization. 

The prospective standpoint looks at the future instead of looking back. This view is not as negative towards globalization and technologies as the first one. Proponents see lookalike English in Greece as a phase in-between periods that is useful because not all technologies are fully adapted to the use of Greek. In the prospective view, the current phase of globalization is seen as a transitional phase, in which globalization becomes glocalization (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017; Danet and Herring 2007). This means that new global phenomena are adopted in the local context, without losing part of their local identity (Gobo, 2016)

The resistive perspective (critically) considers Greece as part of the European Union, and stresses the necessity of using English in this context. Greeks who defend this perspective see English as a dominant force on the internet that suppresses small languages (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017). This leads to the notion that it is better for Greece to keep away from globalization and technology. 

The view adopted by the Academy of Athens considers lookalike English as a threat to the Greek language. In January 2001, the Academy of Athens expressed its concern about the increasing rise of Greeklish and the possible substitution of Greek characters by the Latin alphabet altogether, as a result of the increased use of lookalike English.

In the end, we can conclude that there is a need to further investigate globalization and the influence of English on the future of so-called weaker languages, as online communication seems to be playing a significant role in changing language practices (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2017). 



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