Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

The Zosimaia Academy in Ioannina

The Great Greek Vowel Controversy

As far as scientific disciplines go, linguistics is probably not the most contentious that springs to mind. And yet, in 2012, Greek linguistics became the centre of a seemingly ludicrous controversy over a school textbook. This article describes what has come to be known as the Great Greek Vowel Controversy, or the Φωνηεντιάδα.

What happened?

In a nutshell, the Greek Ministry of Education commissioned a new grammar book for primary schools. This was meant to replace a ‘traditional’ grammar book that had been in use for several decades.

The new grammar book

The new grammar book made an overt distinction between the oral modality (speaking and listening) and the written modality (reading and writing). It went on to define vowels as parts of the phonological system, and noted that there are five of them (/i/, /e/, /a/, /o/ and /u/). This is fairly uncontroversial, except that older textbooks defined vowels as letters in the alphabet, and noted that there are seven of those.

Phonology, i.e. vowel soundsSpelling, i.e. vowels in the alphabet
/a/Α, α, alpha
/e/Ε, ε, epsilon
/i/Η, η, eta
/i/ Ι, ι, jiota
/i/ Υ, υ, ypsilon
/o/Ο, ο, omikron
/o/Ω, ω, omega
/u/Ου, ου

The reason for this mismatch is that the pronunciation of Greek has shifted over time, but the alphabet has remained the same for millenia. This means that some vowel sounds can now be spelled in more than one ways, and one vowel sound doesn’t even have a corresponding letter. In fact, one of the objectives of the new syllabus was to raise the students’ explicit awareness of this mismatch.

So why is that a bad thing?

Most Greek institutions, and the school in particular, are extraordinarily conservative. This is especially the case with language, when innovation challenges the perception that Modern Greek is no different from Ancient Greek. In this case, the insinuation that Modern Greek has a different number of vowels from what has always been described by the ancient grammarians was just too much.

Unsurprisingly then, the introduction of the new textbook triggered an angry response by a group of teachers. Their article is a long and sometimes rambling text, so I have only copied some more representative extracts, alongside my translation.

Με μεγάλη μας έκπληξη διαπιστώσαμε πως πρόσφατα (Νοέμβριος 2011) διανεμήθηκε προς διδασκαλία, στα δημοτικά σχολεία της χώρας μας ένα καινούργιο βιβλίο γραμματικής, για την Ε΄ και ΣΤ΄ τάξη, αντικαθιστώντας την μέχρι τώρα ισχύουσα γραμματική του Μανώλη [sic] Τριανταφυλλίδη, η οποία εδιδάσκετο πλέον των 30 χρόνων.

Σύμφωνα με την καινούργια γραμματική που… συντάχθηκε από τους: κ. Ειρήνη Φιλιππάκη – Warburton, κ. Μιχάλη Γεωργιαφέντη, κ. Γεώργιο Κοτζόγλου και την κ. Μαργαρίτα Λουκά […] ανακαλύπτουμε πως:τα φωνήεντα της Ελληνικής Γλώσσας είναι 5 (πέντε)!!!Τα: α, ε, ι, ο, και το ου. Καθώς και ότι τα φωνήεντα η, υ, ω έχουν καταργηθεί!!! […]

Με την προγενέστερη Γραμματική του Μαν. Τριανταφυλλίδη, γαλουχήθηκαν γενιές Ελλήνων, που μάθανε να ομιλούνε την Ελληνική Γλώσσα. […] Εφ’ όσον οι συνθήκες δεν έχουν αλλάξει, ποιόν λόγο εξυπηρετεί η αλλαγή της κλασσικής γραμματικής σε «φωνητική» γραμματική;

Η γλώσσα μας, η αρχαιότερη όλων των λαών, τις τελευταίες δεκαετίες έχει υποστεί αλλεπάλληλους βιασμούς από τους εκάστοτε υπευθύνους, οι οποίοι […], αποφάσιζαν […] την καταστροφή της […]

We were greatly surprised to find out that a new grammar book was recently (in November 2011) distributed in our country’s primary schools, for use in the 5th and 6th Forms, replacing the until-now current grammar by Manolis Triantafillidis, which had been taught for over 30 years.

According to the new grammar, which was written by Irene Filippaki-Warburton, Michalis Georgiafentis, Georgios Kotzoglou and Margarina Louka […] we learn that the vowels in Greek are 5 (five)!!! α, ε, ι, ο, and ου. And that the vowels η, υ, ω have been abolished!!! […]

The previous Grammar (sic, for the odd capitalisation) by Man[olis] Triantafillidis has raised generations of Greeks, who learnt how to speak the Greek Language. Since conditions have not changed, what is the purpose served by replacing of the classical grammar by a “phonetic” grammar?

Our language, the most ancient language of all people has been repeatedly raped by the various competent authorities, who decided to […] destroy it.

The rambling text goes on to deplore the decision to “obliterate the nation”; it questions “why we must sacrifice our language to the Westerners”; it cautions readers that the simplification of spelling causes dyslexia (!); and -towards the end – it issues a stern warning to anyone who tries to eliminate the vowels that “have existed in our [Greek] DNA since we first appeared on the planet”.

The claim is made that teaching phonology constitutes part of a sinister plan conceived by “Greece-hating linguists”, who are intent on dumbing down spelling and on paving the way for the eventual replacement of the Greek alphabet by the Latin script.

And then things got ugly…

This text went viral on both social and mainstream media. In the process, the teachers claims were mixed with more nationalist propaganda about alleged directives from Berlin to cut costs by simplifying spelling, and with warnings that such changes might make Greek comparable to other, ‘inferior’ languages.

If you are explaining, you’re losing.

It is not my intention to respond to such concerns here. These have already been addressed by the book authors, teacher associations, a prominent authority on the Greek language, and an ad hoc group of 140 linguists (update: as of 2019, these links have gone inactive). Besides, similar concerns have been addressed, repeatedly, with reference to French, Arabic and other languages. Plus, I am conscious of the futility of any attempt to explain the primacy of speech or language evolution to those few individuals who demonstrably fail to distinguish between the phonemic and the orthographic systems. It seems to me that if the teachers in question were unable to grasping fundamentals of linguistics during their four-year teacher education courses, my own modest posts should not aspire to much.

And worse…

Rather, what motivated this post is my intense surprise at the following statement by Mr Polydoras, the erudite former Speaker of the House of Representatives. The statement is reproduced in its entirety below, followed by a translation of my own:

Μετά λύπης μου, όπως διαβάζω στις εφημερίδες «Δημοκρατία», «Ελεύθερο Τύπο», «Αδέσμευτο Τύπο», «Εστία», «Βραδυνή», «Έθνος» και «Νέα» πρόκειται περί οργανωμένου σχεδίου. Η διάλυση της γραμματικής και της γλώσσας γίνεται με… «επιστημονική» υποστήριξη βαρέος πυροβολικού 140 πανεπιστημιακών! Δεν είναι λάθος ή αμέλεια. Είναι «προμελέτη». Μας λέγουν με πρωτοφανή οίηση: «Πώς τολμάτε, εσείς οι μη λέκτορες, οι μη ειδικοί, οι μη γλωσσολόγοι, οι αγράμματοι, μ’ ένα λόγο να αντιστέκεσθε;». Επομένως, ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ! Γρηγορείτε Συνέλληνες!

I was saddened to read in [a bizarre assortment of broadsheets and tabloids] that this is an organized plan. The dismantlement of our grammar and our language is being implemented with the heavy artillery…“scientific” support of 140 academics! This [the discussion of vowels] is no mistake or oversight. It’s “premeditation”. They are asking us, with scorn that is unheard of: “How dare you resist, you non-lecturers, non-experts, non-linguists, in nuce illiterate people?” Therefore, it is WAR! Fellow Greeks, on the alert!

One cannot help but admire the conviction of Mr Polydoras’ beliefs, who seems to have decided that, since he is not formally qualified to engage in the scientific description of language, then scientific grounding cannot be all that important. One is also compelled to commend his moderation: unlike his Grace the Bishop of Piraeus, who recently described CERN scientists as “puppets possessed by the ancient demon”, the Speaker accuses linguists of nothing more nefarious than premeditated language planning.

But even if there were a plot to reduce the number of vowels in the alphabet by two, I am wondering whether the declaration of war against a book, its authors, their colleagues and science in general, might be something of an over-reaction. And that’s going by the standards of a nation who have taken up arms over loose women and stray dogs.

Why is any of this important?

It is precisely because this statement by Mr Speaker is so amazingly passionate that it commands careful attention. Starting as scholarly quibbling, this ludicrous controversy seems to have attained the status of what Blommaert might call a ‘linguistic ideological debate’, a debate that fuses social concerns, religious beliefs and political considerations.

A language ideological debate

At the core of this debate, I believe, is a concern about who is entitled to provide answers to the questions that matter: those who have demonstrable expertise, or those who can rally popular support? The danger which prompted this call to arms, it seems, is that if theoretical or empirical support can be brought to bear on an issue such as linguistics, or education, then there’s nothing to stop the principle from being extended to, say, economics.

Seen from this perspective, Mr Polydoras’ insistence on framing the debate in oppositional terms, his disingenuous construction of threats where none exist, and his rallying calls against scientific elitism when none was implied, reveal more than just an inability to understand nuanced positions. ‘Academics are not to be trusted’, the politician seems to say, the unstated implication presumably being that we should trust him and the political system of which he is a prominent member.

Standing our ground for science

The position of the academic community on the linguistic aspects of the debate has been stated with unequivocal clarity. It is that linguistics is a descriptive discipline. Put differently, it is that linguists can only influence the way we think about language, but not language itself (much like astronomers can only influence what we know about the heavens, but cannot change the trajectories of stars). 

To echo David Crystal, it is difficult to know what our options might be when a dispassionate and objectively framed position is countered with unsubstantiated accusations and conspiracy theories. Crystal suggested that “younger, better-built and more explosive linguists would probably go and punch [the accuser] in the nose“, whereas “older, flabbier and mild-mannered ones have to be content with simply restating their position“. So here goes, once more: There is no evidence of a conspiracy against the Greek language. None whatsoever. Those who talk about plots against the language are either hiding their evidence or lying. And one is compelled to ask why they are lying.

Are there any real dangers?

Nevertheless, the language is under attack: Among the true threats one can count linguistic conservatism, i.e. the misguided attempts to artificially arrest the development of the language. One can also count epistemological luddism, the scaremongering ideology which seeks to prevent advances in the scientific study of anything, simply because they are new, and because they challenge the existing state of affairs. It is my view that, any possible good intentions notwithstanding, the ‘indignant’ teachers and their political patrons are guilty of both, and that the influence they continue to exercise on public affairs entails dangers that transcend linguistics.

About this article: This post was originally written in 2012, when the Great Greek Vowel Controversy was still raging on. It was revised a couple of times since, the most recent revision being in 2020. The featured image shows The Zosimaia Academy, where many teachers are educated (Photo Credit: PhotoIoannina CC BY-NC)






4 responses to “The Great Greek Vowel Controversy”

  1. Αγγελος avatar

    An excellent summary of an absurd affair. I loved the quotation from Crystal!

    1. Achilleas avatar

      Much appreciated!

  2. magdalenadestefani avatar

    Absolutely brilliant.

    1. Achilleas avatar

      I do have my moments :)

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