Sunday, 10 November 2013

Greek, Interrupted

Over at the Economist’s Prospero blog, economist Athanasia Chalari describes the appalling effects of the Greek financial crisis on people's everyday lives. Homes are being repossessed and life savings decimated. Nearly 65% of the 18-24 age group is unemployed and the suicide rate has risen by 40% in the last year. Chalari gives historic reasons for the crisis: the state has always been chaotic, and Greeks have had:
'...a tendency to ask politicians for personal favours that prioritise their personal interests. Previously there was no concern for the collective interest. The time has come for them to realise that this cannot work any more.'
All this makes sense. But then Chalari sees another contributing factor: it has to do with how Greeks talk. ‘Greeks,’ she tells us, ‘are very loud and they interrupt each other very often.’ Do they ever! This is one of the the earliest things you notice as an outsider living in Greece. Political discussions on the TV news are nigh on impossible to follow. The anchor will be moderating an exchange between maybe six politicians and journalists, each in a different studio and all shouting at the same time. Such challenging questions as the anchor may have prepared go by the wayside as he is reduced to hollering ‘Parakaló! Parakaló!! PARAKALO!!!’ ‘Please!’ to try to get them to belt up and listen to one another. At the end of the discussion, we are rarely much further forward.   
So there's this lack of communication despite strenuous effort to achieve it, and the reason, I always thought, is cultural. Here comes a truck-load of generalisations to annoy you. It’s important in Greece to make one’s mark in company, and talking long and loud is one way to do that. Men especially are proud of their opinions and theories, often unwilling to modify them in the light of incoming evidence, or indeed to admit that there is any countervailing evidence. A Greek friend - Greek, mark you - once told me ‘Greeks have very little sense of audience.’ Her observation seemed to me to explain a lot: why teachers could bore students into catatonia without apparently noticing, why middle-aged gasbags in cafes and on TV could bloviate for hours without gauging listeners’ reaction (or lack of) and why TV adverts would interrupt films mid-syllable and without warning.
Well, as I said, there's a heap of generalisation there, but it might be said that there’s no smoke without fire. Chalari’s explanation for political chaos is different, though. She blames the grammar of the Greek language:
'When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.’
This is a bizarre explanation for interruption. Greek is highly inflected and with almost every word tagged by its ending, word order is pretty fluid, so there’s no requirement that an utterance begin with a verb. Indeed in Greek, frequent the verbless sentence. (Mackridge, 1985.) Neither is there any reason that I can see to imagine that one could predict the content of an entire proposition from its first word. Face-to-face conversation is highly context-dependent, however, and you might well know what your interlocutor is going to come out with, given your understanding of the context. Of course, this is not peculiar to Greek: it’s a human universal. All human beings can interrupt one another during an exchange, regardless of what the grammar of their language requires them to focus on. What matters is how that interruption is received, and this will depend on culture and social context. It might be seen as engagement and enthusiasm, disdain and superiority, insubordination, impatience with your argument or simple pig-ignorance. Chalari says:
‘The way politicians talk in parliament and the way politicians present themselves in the media obviously makes it harder to reach an agreement.’
No question. But since any human being who wants to interrupt another has at least the possibility of doing so, it’s hard to see what the grammar of the language has to do with it. It remains to be seen whether or not a new concern for the collective interest will be reflected in a different attitude to turn-taking in political spoken discourse. Imagine politicians and journalists on Mega channel news patiently awaiting their turn to contribute and graciously ceding the floor to their opponents. That's something I'd pay to see.     

Mackridge, P. (1987) The Modern Greek Language Oxford: Oxford University Press 

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