Greek and Grecian

Coby Lubliner

I have remarked in a previous essay that I was probably one of the few non-Republicans who did not snicker when George W. Bush referred to the people of Greece as Grecians. I have since discovered that at least some of that snickering was simply due to ignorance: there seem to be plenty of people, native speakers of English, who don’t know that ‘Grecian’ is a perfectly valid English word that was quite commonly used, until about a century ago, as a synonym for ‘Greek.’ Keats’ use of the word in the title of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was far from isolated in the nineteenth century, and even at present there are Greek Orthodox churches in America that choose to label the festivals they organize as Grecian rather than Greek.

My interest in the word ‘Grecian,’ however, is not as a (probably superfluous) synonym for, but as a word with a distinct meaning from ‘Greek.’ I don't mean the distinction made in older English translations of the New Testament (the King James Version and the versions based on it), where ‘Grecians’ is used for what modern translations call ‘Hellenists’ (Greek ελληνισται), meaning Greek-speaking Jews. No, the distinction I am interested in is analogous to the one – which proved quite useful during the Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990s – between ‘Serbian’ or ‘Croatian’ and ‘Serb’ or ‘Croat.’

As I have discussed in several essays, when one crosses, from west to east, a certain line (which I call the Seipel line) bisecting Europe, the concept of nation changes from one determined by citizenship to one determined by culture. While the French-speaking inhabitants of Belgium or Switzerland never think of themselves as belonging to the French nation (they call themselves Wallons and Romands, respectively), the Greek-speaking people of Cyprus feel just as fully Greek as those of Greece. For this reason it would be quite useful to revive the word ‘Grecian’ as one referring to the country of Greece, while keeping ‘Greek’ as referring to Greek ethnicity. In this way, the members of the non-Greek minorities of Greece (including Slavs, Vlachs and ethnic Albanians) could be called Grecians and not Greeks.

The reference to ‘ethnic Albanians’ points out the dilemma. In most cases, the qualification ‘ethnic’ has to be introduced in order to make the distinction clear, with the attendant implication that without it, any designation of nationality refers, in the Western mode, to the country of citizenship or origin. This often proves awkward. Many a Jewish immigrant to North America has been called ‘Polish,’ ‘Lithuanian,’ ‘Ukrainian’ or the like, though they may have had no links whatever to the national culture involved. I often find it almost painfully difficult to explain that, though I am a native of Poland, I am not and have never been a Pole.

Unfortunately the “national” languages of Eastern Europe don’t make things easier: they don’t, for the most part, provide words that would allow for the distinction to be made. Since the breakup of the multinational states of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, nearly every European state east of the Seipel line is named for its dominant ethnic nation. The only exceptions that come to mind are Austria and Moldova, which share the national culture of their larger neighbors (Germany and Romania, respectively), though Montenegro, whose people are culturally Serb, is about to join the short list.

Not coincidentally, in almost every case the adjective referring to the state is the same as the one for the ethnicity; there are only two exceptions I know of. One is Russian, which has two different words meaning ‘Russian’: русский russkii, meaning ‘ethnically Russian,’ and российский rossiiskii, referring to the country of Russia. The reason is probably that, unlike the other states of eastern Europe, which were carved out of empires as homelands for previously oppressed ethnic nations, Russia has long been one of those empires.

The other exception, curiously enough, is none other Modern Greek, which, in addition to the adjective ελληνικός ellinikós meaning ‘Greek’ in general, also has ελλαδικός elladhikós, analogous to rossiisky and to what I propose for ‘Grecian.’ But while in Russian, as in English, the adjectives can also be used as nouns, this is not the case in Greek, which has only one noun meaning ‘Greek’: Ελληνάς Ellinás (masculine), Ελληνίδα Ellinídha (feminine).


A side trip to Asia

The naming situation is, by and large, not so equivocal across Asia as it is in eastern Europe. We can set aside, to begin with, the large multiethnic states of India, Indonesia and Pakistan, where in each case the majority “nation” is defined only by religion, Muslim in the latter two and Hindu in the first. (That Hindus regard themselves as a nation is borne out by the frequent references to Hindu nationalism.)

Next, in each of what are known as the Arab states the members of the majority nationality are simply Arabs, just as in Israel they are Jews, in Iran Persians, and in Afghanistan Pashtuns (though some sixty years ago ‘Afghan’ and ‘Pashtun’ were said to be identical in meaning).

To be sure, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia follow the ambiguous European model, but then they regard themselves as European countries anyway; for example, they compete in international football (soccer) as European, not Asian “nations.” So do, as a matter of fact, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But Azerbaijan allows the distinction between ‘Azeri’ and ‘Azerbaijani,’ and Kazakhstan, like all the ‘-stans’ of Central Asia, allows for distinctions such as that between ‘Kazakh’ and ‘Kazakhstani.’ It seems to be sheer ignorance on the part of the sports media that has led them to label as ‘Kazakh’ the Kazakhstani bicyclist with the obviously Russian name of Alexandre Vinokourov. In the program of a concert I recently attended, a singer was correctly identified as “a Russian from Kazakhstan.”

Similar distinctions are those between ‘Malay’ and ‘Malaysian,’ ‘Lao’ and ‘Laotian,’ ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bangladeshi,’ ‘Mongol’ and ‘Mongolian.’

The other kind of distinction, where the name of the leading ethnic nation is altogether different from that of the country, include ‘Sinhalese’ and ‘Sri Lankan’ as well as ‘Khmer’ and ‘Cambodian.’ When the name of Burma was changed by its government to Myanmar, it was for the express reason of allowing a distinction between the name of the country and that of the Burmese ethnic nation. Even Viet Nam and China, whose majority nationalities are generally known as simply ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Chinese,’ have special designations for them (Kinh and Han, respectively). Thailand seems to be alone having actually suppressed the once feasible distinction between ‘Thai’ and ‘Siamese’; but it would have been difficult to refer to the original Siamese twins as the Thai twins, since they were ethnically Chinese and not Thai.


Back to the Greeks

It would be perfectly possible to create a noun in Greek to correspond to the adjective elladhikós (and hence to my proposed used of ‘Grecian’ as a noun). It could be, for example, Ελλαδιανός Elladhianós. But it is very unlikely that Greeks would do any such thing. In fact, if such a suggestion were made in Greece, official instances would probably respond with a tantrum.

If the Ottoman empire was once called the sick man of Europe, modern Greece may well be called the spoiled brat of Europe.

Examples of what Greece has managed to obtain by throwing tantrums include admission to the European Union despite its non-contiguous location, admission to the Euro zone despite not meeting the stipulated fiscal criteria, and a ban on calling ‘feta’ the common white cheese of the region when it is not made in Greece.

But perhaps the biggest such tantrum has been about the fact that a country to the north of Greece, formerly a part of Yugoslavia (and before that of Serbia), chose, on attaining independence, to call itself the Republic of Macedonia.

There is a Greek-derived term – synecdoche – for the naming of an entity for some larger entity that it is a part of (or, for that matter, for some smaller entity that is a part of it). And it is not uncommon for states to be officially named [State] of [Name], where [State] designates a constitutional form (such as Kingdom or Republic), and [Name] is the name of some larger territory in which the state lies. This is not new: the medieval Kingdom of Italy never came close to covering the whole of what was (and is) generally considered to be Italy. In the present day, Morocco is officially known in Arabic as المملكة المغربية Al-Mamlaka al-Maghrebiya, that is, the Maghrebi Kingdom or Kingdom of the Maghreb. The Maghreb is, of course, the name of a much larger region that includes Algeria and Tunisia as well.

The most prominent modern case is the United States of America, often called either “the United States” or “America” for short, though traditionally, of course, “America” designates the entire mass of North, Central and South America (nowadays more likely to be called, in English, the Americas).

This country’s name was probably modeled on the United Provinces of the Netherlands, a state that covered less than half of the historical territory known as the Netherlands (or, more recently in English, the Low Countries). Most of the rest was the Spanish or Austrian Netherlands (essentially present-day Belgium and Luxembourg), informally called Flanders (for one of its constituent counties), just as the United Provinces were informally called Holland. These informal designations are examples of the other kind of synecdoche (giving the whole the name of a part); other examples include England for the United Kingdom and, formerly, Castile for Spain and Russia for the Soviet Union.

Within these same Low Countries, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg occupies only about half of historic Luxembourg, the other half being a Belgian province also called Luxembourg, just as the Republic of Azerbaijan covers merely a part of historic Azerbaijan, the rest being an Iranian province also called Azerbaijan (actually two provinces, Western and Eastern Azerbaijan).

And so there should be nothing earthshaking about a state called Republic of Macedonia occupying a part of historic Macedonia, another part of it being a province of Greece also called Macedonia (the part of Macedonia belonging to Bulgaria has no official designation and is divided among several provinces). But the Greeks, ignoring the concept of synecdoche which originated among them, are in fact all shook up about it, and refuse to acknowledge the name “Republic of Macedonia” unless it is preceded by the qualification “Former Yugoslavian.”

It's true that the Slavic Macedonians have not helped matters by confusing their ethnic identity (which has existed for only about a century – before about 1910 they were regarded, and regarded themselves, as Bulgarians) with the historical Macedonian identity, which has always been multiethnic. Before the population exchanges of the 1920s, all of Macedonia, including the part now belonging to Greece, was populated by a mixture of Greeks, Turks, Vlachs (ethnic Rumanians), Slavs, Albanians, Gypsies and Jews. It is not a coincidence that a mixed fruit salad is known in Italian and Spanish as macedonia, and in French as macédoine.

Even the ancient Macedonians were a mixture of Greek and non-Greek elements, as can be gleaned from names inscribed on monuments found in Thessaloniki. The royal family, to be sure, claimed to be of Greek descent, and the official culture was Greek. But it’s a far cry from this fact to the current slogan proclaiming simply and loudly that “Macedonia is Greek.” This is tantamount to claiming that “Azerbaijan (whose name is derived from that of the ancient Persian province of Atropatene) is Iranian” or “Luxembourg (which was part of the Spanish/Austrian Netherlands, the predecessor of Belgium) is Belgian,” and I have never heard either of these two claims advanced.

The notion that, in some historical sense, “Macedonia is Greek” could be mollified with the addendum “but not necessarily Grecian,” since even in Antiquity Macedonia was not always considered an integral part of Greece. In the Acts of the Apostles 20:1–3, Luke reports that “Paul… departed for to go into Macedonia… and… he came into Greece… he purposed to return through Macedonia” (ο Παυλος… εξηλθεν πορευεσθαι εις την Μακεδονιαν… και… ηλθεν εις την Ελλαδα… εγενετο γνωμης του υποστρεφειν δια Μακεδονιας).

The Greeks’ sensitivity about a possibly non-Greek Macedonia can reach absurd expressions. I remember seeing, when I visited Thessaloniki in 1997, a sign hanging on a balcony of a modest office building. The sign advertised a translation service housed inside, and carried a long list of languages that the service handled. One of the language names on the list was partly blacked out; what was visible was ΣΕΡΒΟ SERVO, but by looking closely one could discern that the remainder was ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΚΆ MAKEDHONIKÁ. In other words, the translation service’s owner (whose name, by the way, was George Koprinsky) chose “Serbo-Macedonian” as a designation for what other people (except Bulgarians) call simply the Macedonian language, but it was one that apparently could not be acknowledged in the hostile climate prevailing in Greece.

 A little later in the course of that same trip, I stopped off in a gift shop in the lovely lakeside town of Ohrid, in the Republic of Macedonia, where I overheard a family telling the shopkeeper, in English, that they were Spanish, from Majorca. Since I was curious about whether they would be speaking to one another in Spanish or in Majorcan, I eavesdropped on them after they left the shop. What they turned out to be speaking was… Greek! (I have observed that many Greeks have the illusion that their language sounds like Spanish.) It struck me that they might be Greeks (Grecian Greeks, to be precise) who were embarrassed by their country’s official attitude toward the country they were visiting, but it seemed sad that, if that was the case, they showed their embarrassment by hiding their identity.


May 23, 2006

Revised August 7, 2006


Addendum. I have recently discovered, thanks to Costas Kiofentzoglou, an online article by a Greek theologian, Dr. Sotirios Despotis, according to whom in the early Christian era Hellenes meant idol worshipers or non-Christians, while the inhabitants of Greece were called Ελλαδίτες Helladites.

October 22, 2008

© 2006 by Jacob Lubliner

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