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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

Babel, or the local distortion of the Greek language

Dimitrios Vyzantios
Traduction de Mary Kitroeff

Texte intégral

1Title: Βαβυλωνία ἤ ἡ κατά τόπους διαφθορά τῆς ἑλληνικῆς γλώσσας. Κωµωδία (Babel, or the local distortion of the Greek language: A comedy)

2Originally published: Ναύπλιο (Nafplio), Τυπογραφεῖsο Κωνσταντίνου Τόµπρα ἐκ Κυδωνιῶν καὶ Κωνσταντίνου Ἰωαννίδη ἐκ Σµύρνης, 1836

3Language: Greek

4The excerpt used is from D. C. Vyzantios, Βαβυλωνία, introduction by Spyros Evangelatos (Athens: Εστία, 1993), pp.1–3.

About the author

5Dimitrios Vyzantios (pseudonym of Dimitrios K. Hatziaslanis) [1790, Constantinople (Istanbul) – 1853, Patras (Peloponnese)]: playwright, icon-painter and state official. He was taught icon painting at an early age by a monk. His career as a bureaucrat started in 1812 when he was appointed as a translator for the Bey of Tunis. This indicates that he could speak and write at least Ottoman Turkish and French. In 1821 he joined the Greek uprising and was appointed to several administrative positions. At the end of 1821 he was appointed as deputy secretary of the Senate of the Peloponnese. Later on, during Ibrahim’s invasion of the Morea (Peloponnese), he served in several places as governor. In 1826 he served as first secretary of the penal court and later on secretary general of the Ministry of War. After King Otto’s arrival, he became frustrated with the Regency’s policies and withdrew to Patras, where he worked as an icon-painter, notably in the famous church of St. Andreas. The literati of his time, Phanariots educated in Constantinople or ‘Diaspora Greeks’ educated in the West, offered the services of their pen or sword to several political patrons. However, most of them ended up as purists who would occupy themselves by writing treatises in order to point at what, in their view, was wrong. Vyzantios, on the contrary, chose to educate his contemporaries while at the same time amusing them. He achieved fame with Babel and the rest of his theatrical production.

6Main works: Βαβυλωνία [Babel] (1836); Σινασίς [Sinasis] (1838); Γυναικοκρατία [Female domination] (1841); Κόλαξ [Flatterer] (1858).


7Between 1824 and 1825, the Greek War of Independence went through a crisis due to civil wars between the temporary revolutionary government and prominent military leaders. Moreover, Sultan Mahmud II, after the Janissaries’ failure to suppress the uprising, called on the assistance of Muhammad Ali, the semi-independent governor of Egypt. Muhammad Ali sent his son Ibrahim with a fleet to the Morea. In a short period of time, Ibrahim managed to eliminate almost all resistance and came very close to a final suppression of the uprising. However, the Great Powers considered that such a development would not serve their interests. Already at the beginning of the uprising, the news of the massacres in Chios and the heroic achievements of the Greek warriors had generated a significant wave of philhellenism throughout Europe. Eugène Delacroix, for instance, depicted the Chios massacres in one of his famous paintings. Lord Byron, the most well-known figure among the philhellenes, not only composed hymns for the Greek uprising; he also lost his life in the town of Messolongi in 1824 (see Dionysios Solomos, Hymn to liberty). In this way, the mobilization of European intellectuals instigated an increasing movement of romantic volunteers who rushed to fight on the side of the revolted Greeks. The support that the Greek uprising enjoyed among European nations eventually had an impact on the policies of their governments. After the first shock the Greek uprising had on the conservative ‘European concert,’ certain politicians had gradually become more favorable towards the Greek cause. Finally, the Great Powers came to an agreement, known as the London Pact (1826), which eventually led to the battle at Navarino, where the Egyptian-Ottoman fleet was destroyed. This battle marked the definitive shift of European official policy towards the Greek uprising.

8The plot of ‘Babel’ takes place within these historical circumstances, during the first days after the battle of Navarino. Greek-Orthodox guests from different areas of the Ottoman Empire (Anatolia, the Morea, Chios, Crete, Albania and Cyprus), together with a gendarme officer from the Ionian Islands who shows up after a fight has broken out between a Cretan and an Albanian, rush to Nafplio—the temporary capital of the revolutionary government—to celebrate the victory. The psychological features of this ‘historical’ moment are depicted in these characters: anxiety, opportunism, inspiration, and belief in a better future. In the introduction translated here, the author explains that the Greeks find it difficult to communicate with each other. The reason for this is the distortion that the Greek language has suffered since ancient times and especially after the ‘enslavement’ by the Ottomans. As a result, it has become a mixture of different dialects, which has made it impossible for Greeks of one stock—genos—to communicate with Greeks from another. The aim of the play is to counter this distortion by presenting its funny side but not ridiculing it, and to promote the education of the nation, by encouraging the officials to establish schools. However, Vyzantios rejects the perpetuation of the purist tradition and urges the employment of the vernacular. At the same time, by bringing on stage all these characters, who originated from such diverse areas but still formed part of the same collectivity, he maps the boundaries of the nation. Unlike, though, the irredentist discourse, which will be introduced a few years later by the official state ideology, Vyzantios does not make any claim regarding the liberation of these populations. His main concern is the creation of stronger linguistic and cultural ties among them, and not to challenge political authority. In this sense, we could trace the origins of his discourse in earlier works of Phanariot Enlightenment authors, for instance, Katartzis.

9The play became one of the best-known comedies of Modern Greek theater. Famous directors like Fotos Politis and Karolos Koun have presented it, and there has even been a film based on it.


Babel, or the local distortion of the Greek language: A comedy

To the Readers

11The corruption of the Greek language began in other, more ancient times, but under Roman rule the corruption was much greater, while the tyranny of the Ottomans was the cause of its utter corruption.

12In the land of European Turkey, as well as in the islands of the Mediterranean, the Greek language is known only to a few educated [people], while it is spoken mixed with Turkish, Albanian, Illyrian, and, in the Ionian islands, with Italian.

  • 1 The names of Roman provinces in Asia Minor, which are still in use in the Greek language.

13In Asia it is not heard, save in the churches, except in certain provinces and the coastlines of Ionia, Phrygia, and Bithynia1, but even there [it is spoken] with the greatest corruption.

14This ignorance and distortion of the spoken language into the monstrosity which is spoken in certain parts were brought on by the illiteracy which took over the Greek nation due to the lack of schools and the means to disseminate education.

  • 2 Present-day Ayvalık, on the northwestern coast of Turkey.
  • 3 Town in Crete.

15From the time when schools were established in Chios, Smyrna, Kydonies2, Chania3, Jannina, Constantinople and other parts (may the memory of those who established them live forever!), the Greek language began to be introduced into the spoken language and gradually to beautify it.

16Moreover, from the time of the holy struggle for independence to the present day, with the care of the nation’s few educated [men], the spoken language was improved in the way it was written and in the way it was spoken by many.

17But, despite all this, very few are those who speak it perfectly, while the majority speaks it with the same corruption with which they spoke it before its improvement.

  • 4 Originating from Byzantium, namely Constantinople. The term was also used in this sense until the (...)

18It is funny, but also sad, to see a social gathering of different Greeks, that is to say Chiots, Cretans, Albanians, Byzantines,4 Orientals, Ionian islanders and others, whereupon the one mixes in Turkish words, the other Italian ones, the other Albanian ones, the other corrupted ones, and in the same gathering, while they are all Greek, they cannot understand each other without the use of a translation or an explanation of each word as it is uttered, with the gathering thus turning into a Babel.

19Not wishing to make a tragedy out of this regrettable state into which the Greek language has degenerated, I decided to make a comedy, in order for those who speak the Greek language badly to learn by amusement and to urge the establishment of schools in different places in order to teach their youth, rather than by censure and bitter reproach, which, of course, would displease them.

20I do not aim at ridiculing the characters appearing on stage, but, as I said, at teaching and at urging the dissemination of knowledge.

21And in order that I not be perceived as wishing for ancient Greek to be spoken in a pedantic way, so that it could not be understood at all, I introduce onto the stage a pedantic Man of Letters, to prove that the pedantic manner of speech amidst the spoken language provokes disgust, and even more so when one talks to groups of people who are not educated, since, being wrongly perceived by them, it produces laughter.

22I did not introduce many types of Greeks onto the stage, limiting myself only to those who mix in the Turkish language, typified by the Oriental; those who mix in the Italian language and the European dialects, typified by the Ionian islander; those who mix in the Albanian language, typified by the Albanian; and those who use corrupted words together with everyone else, so that when one hears a Byzantine or a Smyrniot, or someone else uttering the odd Turkish word, then one can know him to be the Oriental. For, in many places in Constantinople, the speech of the Byzantines is not very different to that of the Orientals, and so on and so forth with the rest of them, as well as the illiterate doctor and the women, who belong to the category of those who speak a corrupted language.

23Those reading this comedy should try, as far as possible, to pronounce it in the way that the people appearing on stage do, in order to preserve its elegance and funniness.

24I would like to ask my readers to forgive the shortcomings of this [comedy], and I promise that I will please them more fully with my comedy of Sinasis, which will be published next.


1 The names of Roman provinces in Asia Minor, which are still in use in the Greek language.

2 Present-day Ayvalık, on the northwestern coast of Turkey.

3 Town in Crete.

4 Originating from Byzantium, namely Constantinople. The term was also used in this sense until the demise of the Ottoman Empire.


Mary Kitroeff (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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