NEW YORK – International Greek Language Day was celebrated at Columbia University on February 9 with a fascinating lecture about ancient Greek presented by Classics Professor John Ma, a historian, specializing in the history of ancient Greece with particular interest in Greek epigraphy and the Hellenistic world. He received a BA in Classics and a DPhil in Ancient History from Oxford University. After teaching at Princeton and Oxford, he currently works as Professor of Classics at Columbia University.
Organized by the Hellenic Studies Program of the Classics Department at Columbia in collaboration with the Consulate General of Greece in New York, the lecture entitled “Ancient inscriptions as sources for the history of the Greek language” was presented by Prof. Ma in modern Greek and in English. He assured the audience that he had the Greek text edited by a native Greek speaker to make sure it was correct.
Professor Stathis Gourgouris, Director of the Hellenic Studies Program at Columbia, gave the welcoming remarks, thanking everyone for attending the celebration and noting that the Greek language has a great richness with over 2,000 years of poetry and of all the languages he knows, it is the most poetic. Prof. Gourgouris pointed out that International Greek Language Day is also the 161st anniversary of Dionysios Solomos’ death. He added that Solomos, the well-known national poet of Greece, spoke Italian as his first language, and knew Greek through poetry as many famous Greek poets throughout history did, making the language richer.
Consul General of Greece in New York Konstantinos Koutras noted that Professor Ioannis Mylonopoulos, also of the Classics Department at Columbia, had spoken to him about celebrating International Greek Language Day at the University from the year before. He added that it was fitting to have the celebration at such a historic university with such a historic Classics Department. Koutras noted that earlier in the day, the President of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos participated in a teleconference with the students at the St. Demetrios School in Astoria. The students sang for President Pavlopoulos and he quoted from the poem Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis to describe the remarkable Greek language.
Professor Stathis Gourgouris, Professor John Ma, and Consul General of Greece in New York Konstantinos Koutras. Photo by Eleni Sakellis
Prof. Ma in his fascinating and also humorous lecture noted how inscriptions are used by scholars to decipher the ancient Greek language, what it sounded like, and how it differs from modern Greek. Language is a living thing that evolves over time, and as Prof. Ma pointed out, in ancient times the alphabet used was slightly different from the one modern Greek speakers are familiar with today. The Attic alphabet had an L as its lamda, for example, and the gamma looks like the capital lamda from modern Greek. There are also spelling errors in the inscriptions and regional differences in the way words are spelled.
Prof. Ma showed examples in the powerpoint presentation that highlighted the variations with visuals from inscriptions and from ostaka, the pieces of pottery on which names would be written of people others wanted ostracized. The inscriptions in stone offer a great deal of information about the language, and as Prof. Ma noted, the premier expert on epigraphs is Prof. Angelos Chaniotis, the senior editor of the Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum. The new Archeological Museum in Thebes also has a fascinating section on epigraphs, the professor said, mentioning the ancient Boeotian dialect and the unique spellings it used.
A lively Q&A session followed the presentation.
Among those present at the lecture were faculty members and students of the Department of Classics at Columbia, as well as many members of the community including Amalia Cosmetatou- Executive Director and Cultural Director of the Onassis Foundation, Popita Pavli, Marilena Christodoulou- Director of Finance and Administration at the Rubin Museum of Art, Dr. Ioannis Hatzaras, and Dr. Stella Lymberis.