Interview with Professor David Holton, former head of the Modern Greek Section at the University of Cambridge, Part I

After 32 years teaching Modern Greek at the University of Cambridge, Professor Holton retired in 2013. He specialised in the romance genre, early printing, Crete and Cyprus under Venetian rule, and the history and present structure of Greek, and is currently working on the very first grammar of medieval vernacular Greek. Elisa Bailey rekindled the times he had taught her Modern Greek and asked him about his life with languages, keeping in mind Modern Greek's position as a lesser-taught language in spite of its rich genealogy.


David HoltonFirst of all, let's touch upon the recent suspension of the University of Cambridge's Modern Greek degree course, which coincided with your retirement.

There are now only two universities in the UK that offer Modern Greek as a UCAS option: Oxford and King's College London. In MML [Cambridge's Modern and Medieval Languages faculty] it was known in 2009 that 8 or 9 posts would have to be cut by 2013, so that also became the final year allowing Tripos entries for Modern Greek. We were looking for funding from Greek organizations to see if the department could be saved, but that was also the year of the [financial] crash, so we didn't get very far as £2.2 million is needed to endow a lectureship. Dutch is the next to go as it was the other single-person run language, although the 'Introduction to Dutch' paper available to students from other departments will run for another four years. The fact is, that it costs around £16,000 to educate one student for one year, and even now that tuition fees have risen to £9,000, it doesn't cover the costs as Humanities subjects receive no further funding. MML is constantly in debt as unlike most faculties, it needs to run lots of small classes for language teaching (it's no use having one class with 150 students!) and offers a wide range of options to each year group.

So Modern Languages have been hit hard in Cambridge as well…

Yes, although there have been some success stories; Ukrainian, for example, was introduced in 2008 and received a five-year endowment, and now there's all sorts of conferences and events through that. Other chairs, such as the Schroeder Chair in the German Department, are more easily maintained, too. It was introduced on a one-off endowment, but as soon as more funding was required, a request was put into the Schroeder bank and the money was provided. Likewise, Linguistics was the only department not to lose anyone (on the contrary, they need additional posts) and in 2011 merged with the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics to become the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics.

But it's true, the number of languages is decreasing, as up until the late '80s there was also a Scandinavian Studies department in Cambridge, offering Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, but one by one the academic staff left.

I only hope this won't signal an end to Modern Greek in Cambridge; is the 'Introduction to Greek' paper available to all students at least continuing to thrive?

This year they have seventeen students from across MML and the Faculty of Classics taking the paper, which is a very respectable number. It's been going since 2008 and is safe for another year or two. We have now introduced films to its syllabus, such as A Touch of Spice, and keep changing the set texts. It's definitely not an easy option, as it has a broad scope for a one-year paper. At any rate, we have always had a fairly regular flow of students of Modern Greek and graduate students too, for the PhD or the MPhil in European Literature with a focus on Greek. This can still be done, in combination with another language for comparative studies, although sadly not solely in Greek anymore.

The Greek department has always had a very vibrant atmosphere, with lots of events and also researchers in many colleges, so we can definitely say there has been no dwindling of activity as in Scandinavian!

Definitely not, I've seen the busy current programme of lectures and events! But how was it that you personally first came across Greek and decided that was where you would base your academic career?

At 11 I really wanted to be a chemist. I made choices at the age of twelve, that children nowadays don't make so early, to go in the direction of sciences. Then, even scientists did Latin, and I always had a hankering after languages. At O-Level I couldn't decide if I wanted to do dead languages or living languages… I chose dead, and did Latin and Ancient Greek at A-Level. What you learn at thirteen is more difficult to lose than later in life, as the learning environment is there. I was fortunate enough to learn Ancient Greek so had the whole framework ready for Modern Greek, but when I tried to learn Turkish in my 30s or 40s, it was an uphill struggle just to remember the words.

In my teens I had a fascination with how languages worked and were related to one another. I had a comparative interest in mechanisms and borrowed books from my local library on various languages, got to a certain stage when the book had to go back, and moved onto the next. I got through ones like Basque and Welsh and looked at things like how agglutinative languages worked, just on the basis of what I could find; I had no real method.

Then, half-way through my degree I changed from Ancient to Modern languages, after doing a 'Comparative Philology' paper, which drew me towards Modern Greek as with my study of the ancient language, I could look at the full story.

So is that what led you to co-ordinate and work on your current project, the grammar of the medieval Greek vernacular?

Exactly; I'm spending nearly half of my time on that at the moment, and we're going up to around the year 1700. There's just such a big gap [in the study of Greek historical linguistics]; the sources are there, but they have not been researched for linguistic purposes. Everybody went in and gleaned what they wanted, for art history, ecclesiastical history, legal rights… but they have never been used systematically in a linguistic context. Wills and so on were all written in the vernacular, so that you can really hear the testator dictating to the notary!

Just as Latin went on being used in the West, a large part of medieval - Byzantine - Greek literature is in an archaizing language which ignores changes in the spoken language. So these legal and other texts are important sources for the vernacular, though there are also dramatic texts that contain natural speech, but these were not written until the 16th century. Unlike the Catholic church, which now uses the vernacular, Orthodox church services are still largely in the Koine of the Roman period, which is what the New Testament was written in, but the hymns are from the Byzantine period. These are not useful as sources of the medieval vernacular though, as many of them were archaizing: 14th century compositions written in fourth century Greek!

Apart from this, you've also written, with colleagues, the most comprehensive grammar of the Modern Greek language. As with any modern language, this must also be in constant change, but what have you noticed most over the past years?

The Comprehensive Edition of the Modern Greek Grammar has gone through to a second run in a revised edition. The changes mainly concerned altering examples, for example changing 'Drachmas' to 'Euros', and adding more derivational morphology. Obviously there is a continual flow of borrowings from other languages. Whereas the nouns can be indeclinable, when loanwords are verbs, they need adapting, for example there is γαρνίρω (garniro: to garnish) which needs to fit into a Greek verb model. Another recent creation is γκουγκλάρω (gouglaro), 'I google'! My favourite new word is γκολτζής, made up of English and Turkish roots, which means 'ace goal scorer'! Greek is very good at assimilating loanwords; it hasn't been debased any more than Anglo-Saxon was by Latin and French! Likewise, Ancient Greek was already borrowing words from Persian and other languages, but is also full of words that we can't work out where they came from; such as the suffix -ινθος (-inthos) which must have come from an unknown substrate language.

As for schools in the rest of Europe, do you feel Greek could be more widely taught, perhaps as an extra module to Classics and Ancient Greek syllabi (in the few remaining schools that actually teach these)? And have the numbers actually studying it in higher education dwindled in the years since the economic crash?

Some teachers are actually already doing this as they appreciate the importance of showing how a modern language is more useful now. The study of Modern Greek hasn't gone down specifically because of the economic crisis, but because - and the same goes for German - it is regarded as a difficult language to learn. Spanish and Chinese are the only languages that have rocketed recently.

This is Part 1 of 2 of this interview.

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