Τετάρτη, 19 Ιουλίου 2017

Language and politics: my takeaways from Celtic Knot 2017

 Early July... I arrive in the UK after yet another heat wave in Greece, wearing a tank top and sunglasses. I had to run to catch the train from Manchester airport to Edinburgh and managed to hop on in the nick of time. Looking around me and out the window, I observe people wearing winter jackets, scarves and sweaters. Strange, I thought, as the cold hadn't really set in: a two-hour flight delay and the agony to make it on that train were more than enough to keep me feeling warm. Soon enough though, I put away my sunglasses, and put on a jacket to adjust to the cloudy and cold weather. This is crazy, I thought. It's JULY!!!.

The next evening I was at the University of Edinburgh's Library bar, joining the other delegates for a casual meet-up before the Celtic Knot Wikipedia Language conference got under way the next day. I introduce myself as Mina from Kefalonia, Greece; the group, who were already engaged in lively discussion about their native languages, responded with "Hi Mina. What's the story?"

I was soon to learn about the perils of people who identified as Welsh and Scottish in performing the self-evident: using their language and culture without being criticised or persecuted. I felt as if a window had been opened to a world I had never known, or even contemplated, until that moment. I could never have imagined that children were humiliatingly punished  for speaking Welsh among each other... in the seventies! In the UK! Of all ages... and of all places! So they were probably expecting a nasty tale of how Kefalonians were mistreated by the central government for using their local dialect. Not the case... in Kefalonia, as in all regions of Greece, we have a single language: modern Greek. The dialect and accent vary greatly from place to place, but that's about it. In Kefalonia it so happens that we have many Italian words in our local dialect, due to centuries of Venetian rule when most of Greece was under Turkish occupation. But a Greek from Kefalonia will perfectly understand a Greek from Crete (and so on)... though it is highly likely that if you have two Kefalonians (or Cretans etc.) casually chattering away with one another, a Greek-speaking individual from a different region will most likely have difficulty keeping up with the conversation, and will eventually need a bit of translation!

Soon enough I start talking about my own projects as a Computer Science teacher in Kefalonia. My newly met Welsh friends showed interest in our Wild Flora project, so I passed over my smartphone for them to peruse the app we had developed in class. A few minutes later, I was reprimanded: "the app is in English! Why isn't it in Greek?" They only calmed down after I explained that we made the app in English first for it to be used by Israeli schools interested in exploring Mediterranean  biodiversity, and that the Greek app would follow soon. "OK you're excused... but only because you're using English as a means to an end!" That was more than enough to make me feel perfectly at home among this passionate bunch.

During the conference I was to soak in more and more passion for a whole lot of languages I knew very little or nothing about: Gaelic in Scotland... Basque and Catalan in Spain... a handful of different flavours of Sami in Norway... and their Wikipedias. Turns out that there are Wikipedia versions for many more languages than we normally encounter in our travels. The only such case I was familiar with was Pontic Greek, spoken by Greeks who used to live in the Black Sea area, and with its own Wikipedia, albeit not yet having reached the 500-article mark. It was astounding to learn that Catalan was the second Wikipedia to be created, right after English Wikipedia. That Welsh Wikipedia has almost 100,000 articles. That Scotland has not one, but two Wikimedians in Residence: one at the National Library of Scotland and another at the University of Edinburgh. The drive behind the individuals volunteering and working to keep the essence of their identity alive and kicking, is amazing.

But my trip to Edinburgh wasn't all about language: it was my second visit to this magical place and I managed to get in a good deal of sightseeing, mostly by wandering through the Old Town and climbing all the way up to Calton Hill (such amazing contrast: dramatic yet serene). Whenever I travel abroad I'm always curious to catch on to Greek being spoken on the streets, and there was quite a lot of it: not so much as in Manchester, but Greeks are there. Greeks are everywhere actually, after the EU-imposed crisis started to tear apart my country in 2010, and well-educated Greek professionals started abandoning their homeland by the thousands, in seek of a better future.

The National Monument of Scotland: built to resemble my country's iconic Parthenon. Left unfinished for nearly two centuries. Nicknamed "Scotland's Disgrace". I find it beautiful:)

Walking around a town at 55 degrees latitude in July, donned in winter clothing, was surreal. Even though my stay in Edinburgh lasted merely 48 hours, I caught myself thinking "this is paranoid. I don't know what to call this, but it is definitely NOT July". That's how a Greek feels in UK weather, especially in the summer: anything but normal. I came to actually appreciate our heatwaves: they are insanely uncomfortable, but hey, they feel normal. And feeling normal is important. So, imagine a Greek who has left his country not by will, but by need. Because the unemployment rate is so high that even if he does manage to put his painstakingly-earned Ph.D. to use, he will be receiving a salary that Western Europeans would laugh at. I was explaining this to a Welsh delegate during the Celtic Knot lunch break... "so then you have a brain drain going on", he concluded. I stopped to think for a minute, and replied "No. You can't call it that. You would say it's a brain drain if there weren't enough professionals to fill the vacant job positions. There are no job positions for professionals in Greece. Greek education is public and free from Kindergarten to University. A Medical School graduate will nowadays most likely seek employment in Germany or the UK. So the German or British state will have acquired a doctor without spending a single pound on educating her; her education was paid for by the Greek state. Which is supposedly the culprit in the supposed Greek bailout. In which money wasn't donated to us; it was lent to us at criminal interest rates. It's lose-lose for us, win-win for the EU".

Which brings me to "language and politics". One thing I was surprised to discover at Celtic Knot was how fond of the European Union most of the British delegates were (pardon me my dear Welsh, Scottish and Irish friends for any derogatory connotations in "British": using the term merely for convenience:-). The EU supports indigenous language and culture via its various funding programmes, so it can hardly be viewed by them as hostile. The United Kingdom, on the other hand - and its violent assimilation of everything Welsh, Irish and Scottish into a single British culture - can.

So there you have it: two flip sides of the same coin. The EU as a vehicle to promoting language and cultural diversity. The same EU financially crushing a member-state and reaping 500,000 of its state-educated native professionals in seven years. The UK as a vehicle to employment and dignity for thousands of Greek professionals. The same UK crushing the indigenous language and culture of three of its countries, and forcing thousands of natives to use English to conduct their daily business.


What better way to close a post about a Wikipedia conference... than a Wikipedia edit. Wikipedia in the synecdoche sense, anyway... so here is my first ever contribution to English Wikiquote:

'There's no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds.' 

By the Catalan novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

And to elaborate on the political aspects: they WANT our minds in a constant dormant state. They, as in "the system" and its greedy, all-assimilating accessories. Perhaps awareness of the workings of assimilation in the cultural/language domain, can lead to better understanding of how the same methods work in other capacities. Employment-driven migration, for instance. Wouldn't it be great if the Wikimedia projects were explored as a tool to tackle both? Just food for thought...

Many thanks to Ewan McAndrew for inviting me to present at the Celtic Knot Wikipedia language conference, after the enthusiastic comment I left on a University of Edinburgh "thinking out loud" page soon after my first visit to Edinburgh in March 2017. Susan, Jason, Duncan, Robin, Dafydd et al... it was great to meet you. John, it was great to see you again. And as suggested by Duncan... here's to the next Wikipedia Language Conference being held in Kefalonia. We may not have the mystery, drama and medieval charm of Edinburgh... but I promise you, our July weather is much more enjoyable :)

Mina Theofilatou
Computer Science Teacher
Wikimedian (User:Saintfevrier)
Kefalonia, Greece

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