By Ellopos Blog
Can we really speak about Byzantine Greek as an artificial language? Let’s read a sentence from the Alexiad: “ὅ γε λόγος ὁ τῆς ἱστορίας ἔρυμα καρτερώτατον γίνεται τῷ τοῦ χρόνου ῥεύματι καὶ ἵστησι τρόπον τινὰ τὴν ἀκάθεκτον τούτου ῥοὴν καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῷ γινόμενα πάντα͵ ὁπόσα ὑπερείληφε͵ ξυνέχει καὶ περισφίγγει καὶ οὐκ ἐᾷ διολισθαίνειν εἰς λήθης βυθούς.”
Then a sentence by Prodromos, a writer who used the popular language of the time: “καὶ θέλω δεῖξαι προφανῶς τὴν ταύτης μοχθηρίαν, ἀλλὰ φοβοῦμαι, δέσποτα, τοὺς ἰταμωδεστέρους, μήπως ἐμὲ ἀκούσωσι, καὶ ὑπάγουν εἰς τὸ ὁσπίτιν καὶ νὰ μὲ πιττακώσωσιν ἐκ τῶν ἀπροσδοκήτων”.
Is there a great distance between these two forms? Even if we wanted for the Byzantines not to have used the Attic dialect, it would have been incorrect to accuse them of speaking an artificial language, for two reasons; first, because Attic is not an artificial language, and second, because Attic (Byzantine or classical) and popular/modern Greek, are different forms of the same language.
In case that Byzantine popular was a different language, then, again, we should not speak about Byzantine Attic as an artificial, but as a foreign language. When I speak English, being myself a Greek, I don’t use an artificial language, but a foreign language. If I was a modern Englishman using Shakespeare’s English, I would use a different form of English, not an artificial language. Since both are forms of the same language, Byzantine Attic is neither artificial nor foreign, but just a different form, which Byzantine authors preferred, admiring the classical authors and enjoying the very sense of tradition and continuity.
Was their sense of continuity servile? This is another important question we should ask, not only to understand them, but also to understand ourselves. Byzantines’ main priority was faith. I remind this, because priorities determine the ways of productivity: we should not judge the Byzantines (or the ancient Greeks) from their scientific or technological endeavors. Both Byzantium and Ancient Greece developed science and technology to a surprisingly small degree given their abilities for such a development, arrested as they were by ultimate metaphysical realities, victory over death and the passing to the other life. Their degree of progress and development should be estimated in the context of how they wanted to live, not of how we want.
Is Byzantine Theology insignificant? Not only modern Orthodox thinkers, but also Catholic and Protestant recognise its significance, some of them (again, not only the Orthodox) considering it to be the most important theology Christianity ever arrived at. The same can also be said about their iconography. Can such a creativity be attributed to a servile and an artificial mind? If yes, shouldn’t we envy them for their servility rather than condemn them? But creation is not a characteristic of spiritual servitude.