The late artist and set designer Yannis Tsarouchis used to say that “you must first become Greek before you can become cosmopolitan.” Of course, one might wonder what this has to do with the Greek language, and even more so, with the Greek-American Community, where the Greek language is on the verge of extinction, considering that the overwhelming majority of Greeks in America no longer speak practically any Greek.
I am not sure if Tsarouchis considered the ability to speak the Greek language a prerequisite for being ‘Greek’, or if his definition extended to anyone who accepted and participated in the Greek way of life – Greek culture, history, etc. Nor am I certain if Tsarouchis was entitled – due to his cosmopolitan education – to ‘decide’ on what the genuine characteristics of a Greek should be.
Regardless, Greek America does not have the luxury to boast about the linguistic prerequisite, which I personally do not believe is necessary for someone integrated in the Greek way of life to identify as Greek. After all, is it really possible for someone to not be considered Greek simply because he or she doesn’t speak the language? My position on this matter may raise doubts or objections, which must, of course, be respected and discussed.
Nevertheless, being a lover of the Greek language myself, I applaud Archbishop Elpidophoros’ recent honorable efforts to combat the continued loss of the Greek language. In fact, I believe we must collaborate with him in this effort. Moreover, we must stand alongside those few and dedicated educators who are also putting forth their own struggle. One might call them the “last of the Mohicans.”
The general consensus is that the only institution that promotes and teaches the Greek language in the United States is the Greek Orthodox Church. However, the mixed marriages taking place in the Community, which constitute a majority, along with rapid assimilation have formed a new generation, the majority of whose members possess two or even three ethnic backgrounds and identities. Therefore, this means that the only thing left is for the Church to assume the initiative for the salvaging of the Greek language, if there is to be some hope of success.
Of course, the statistical data available to us shows that compared to 40 or 50 years ago, the Church has suffered a dramatic decline in attendance, the celebration of sacraments, and the operation of day and afternoon schools. However, this is not due to the Church itself, but rather, the demographic and social changes that have been taking place in the Western hemisphere, and especially in American society. What could be the solution?
If the Church undertakes decisive measures to address this situation over the long term, it may perhaps manage to save what is left of the Greek language. In other words, the current hierarchy of our Church in America allows us to hold out some serious hope that it will work toward this goal, and we should contribute to it as well with all the means at our disposal. Naturally, the results will certainly be determined primarily by the position that the clergy will adopt. Even the slightest use of the Greek language at various gatherings, from where it is usually absent, would set a good example for speakers and non-speakers of Greek alike. While it is not a precondition for their faith or for their relationship with their Greek identity, the Greek language definitely serves as an invaluable asset and a mode through which to enjoy our culture and lifestyle.
With the emergence of a new generation – Generation Z – who are quintessential digital natives, we must seek out new means and manners of teaching Greek. Of course, there are many challenges that go along with this, as well as many opportunities. We must integrate and keep this dynamic generation within the ranks of Greek America. This means that we would do well to remember an axiom made by philosopher/theologian Christos Yannaras, according to which “the Greek identity is universal, but when it becomes only ‘national,’ it ceases to exist.”
Hence, I would like to believe that for us to succeed, we must fight to win over third and fourth-generation Americans of mixed heritage. If, for example, someone is both of Greek and Irish descent, or has three ethnic backgrounds – i.e., Greek, Latino, and Asian – which is the culture with which he or she will most identify? This is the big question – especially when taking into account the phenomenon of symbolic ethnicity, referred to by sociologist Herbert J. Gans, which shows that individuals from mixed backgrounds tend to choose one ethnicity with which to identify. And so, when third and fourth-generation members of the Community who are not exclusively of Greek origin wear their proverbial foustanella at Greek festivals and parades, and their kilt on St. Patrick’s Day, could we not inspire them to become and feel both cosmopolitan and American through the Greek language and education?
Let us lend a helping hand to organizations participating in this major undertaking to save ‘Greek identity’, which is being spearheaded by the Church, because it is the primary force contributing to the safeguarding of not only the Orthodox Christian faith, but also the Greek language and culture.
Dr. Panos Stavrianidis is an entrepreneur, doctor of Sociology, and researcher.