Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Evaluation factors of social prestige of a standard language. The case of the Modern Greek Language

Evangelos Kourdis (Technological Educational Institute of Epirus, Hellas)



Using a structured questionnaire, this paper examines the factors by means of which the standard language in Greece, namely the Modern Greek language, can be evaluated. Taking into consideration the sociological elements of informers (sex, age, educational level), an effort has been made to record the linguistic characteristics that modern Greeks believe their official language should have, the sociological and stylistic characteristics of the speakers of the language and the role played by the mass media in disseminating it. When drawing conclusions, we have strived to compare these characteristics with other European standard languages in an effort to examine to what extent the linguistic policy of the European Union influences the qualitative characteristics that shape the prestige of an official language in its bosom.


1. Proper and improper language in sociolinguistics

This paper aims to examine - by means of sociolinguistic criteria - what modern Greeks consider in social terms to be proper Greek and what its characteristics are, if any. The question regarding which language system is best suited to represent a nation or a State has not only been of interest to linguists and state social policy, but also to the selfsame citizens of a State or nation. For example, in England proper English is considered to be the Queen’s English and that of the BBC (Giles, 1970:212), while in France Parisians are accused of making poor use of the French language (Petrounias, 1993:129) considering that the most appropriate use is French spoken in Paris (Kuiper, 2005:28-52).

As for the Greek language, Babimniotis (2006:87∕A59) lists it among the "abused" languages which native speakers present in intense functional illiteracy. It is about native speakers who cannot understand a demanding text easily, they cannot write and their communication is severely undervalued on the level of vocabulary and on the syntactic level showing at the same time an unjustifiable high number of loans from English language. Fishman (1971:38) has defined as "proper" the official system of linguistic norms that a community of speakers codifies and accepts. In purely linguistic terms, proper use of language is defined as that use which has been imposed by a portion of society (Mounin, 1974:235). However, based on this definition, what is correct and incorrect in a language are social constructs. Sociolinguistically speaking, the proper use of language is a conventional system, a purely social product (Fishman, 1971:39) that determines what choices a speaker has to make in order to fit into the aesthetic or social and educational language ideal of social groups possessing prestige and power (Carmadi, 1981:65). However, do speakers of an official language have certain criteria in mind that a language system must meet in order to be able or worthy of being the official language of a nation or State?


2. The Modern Greek Language

As regards the Modern Greek Language, as indicated by the experts, it evolved from the Peloponnesian varieties and constituted the language of the Greek government when the first independent Greek State (whose borders were those of the Peloponnese) was founded. The cohesive Greek population of the newly established State, the use in the Peloponnese of language varieties which in those days did not differ greatly from average Greek, the trade that developed, the demotic songs and the first major works written in a dialectical form based on the Peloponnesian idioms, all contributed to the gradual adoption of the Peloponnesian dialect as the language of Greek public life, even when Athens became the State’s capital after the remaining Greek territories were liberated from Turkish dominion.

The official Greek language has ever since undergone changes with the language reforms of 1976 and the abolition of Katharevousa, also known as Puristic Greek, with the influx of foreign loans (mainly from western Europe) and the flushing out of elements originating from languages of low social prestige, especially loans of Balkan languages (Petrounias, 1993:131), with the creation and establishment of neologisms, and so on. Modern Greeks are however now faced with another question, namely that of the quality of the Modern Greek Language and the ideal form that the Greek language should take in order to satisfy as large a section of modern Greek society as possible both linguistically and acoustically.


3. Informants and the questionnaire

In order to explore the criteria that should govern the proper use and form of the Greek language, we referred to sociolinguistic methods and techniques. We made use of participatory observation and handed out a questionnaire to a pilot sample of informants (24 Greek people), we made a survey in Thessaloniki, the second largest city of Greece, whom we targeted based on the following sociological characteristics:

  1. sex: our target group comprised both sexes (12 men and 12 women);

  2. age: they were divided into two age groups. The first age group are informants from 20 to 40 years old, representing the younger generation that has formed an opinion on the proper use of the Greek language through recent experiences (education, contact with people from other parts of Greece during their studies and in the army, job seeking, starting a professional career). The second age group of 41 to 60 years of age represents the more mature interpretation of what constitutes proper Greek, through mature experiences obtained at work, when raising and educating their children and through their personal social progress;

  3. educational level: since the educational level in Greece is one of the highest in the European Union, the number of Greeks with only a primary education are becoming fewer and fewer. We therefore focused our interest on secondary school and university or college graduates, who form the largest part of Greek society, educationally speaking, and whose stances have the largest impact on the country’s social life.

In respect to the questions asked, the first two dealt with what is proper Greek, namely what informants believe are its morphological, structural or geographical characteristics. Moreover, they are asked whether proper Greek is associated with specific occupational groups (question 3), usually of high social status, or with certain age groups (question 4). The question on occupational groups explores the discovery made by researchers that whoever speaks the official language well has a greater chance of climbing the professional and social ladder. The informants were also asked to tell us whether the educational level (question 5) or social class (question 6) in which modern Greek belongs affects language quality. Social class and educational level have from time to time been associated with the proper use of the official language. Petrounias (1993:119) mentions that the official language is the idiom of middle-class educated people. For example, in England the working class is accused of not speaking proper English (Fairclough, 1989:57) as opposed to the upper social classes which use the official language (Trudgill, 1974:40).

One question on which there are opposing views is whether the modern Greek dialects and idioms are proper Greek (question 7). Fragoudaki (1999:56) considers the possibility of Greece’s dialectical varieties being thought incorrect as inconceivable. The view that the neutrality of an official language enables the listener or reader to immerse himself in the content of the message without any distractions, in other words without paying attention to linguistic form, is useful, but certainly not to the members of all social classes, and in addition this distinction would exclude from the official language different levels of speech and linguistic styles (question 11). Question 8, asking respondents what personality traits they believe those who speak proper Greek have, is also of particular interest.

Similar surveys in England in the past (Lambert, 1967:91-109, Giles, 1970:280-281, Cheyne, 1970:77-79) found that speakers of the official language are believed to be intelligent, confident, polite, sociable, and so on. This is why it is interesting to see which famous Greeks speak proper Greek (question 10), not only because proper language use gives them prestige an their use of the language is analysed every day, but also because these people are role models for the rest of Greek society. The discoveries made in the previous question would however be incomplete if we were not to examine whether these famous people who speak proper Greek are understood by the average Greek person (question 10). Moving on in our survey from the oral expression of proper Greek to its written form, we asked the respondents’ opinion on which communication media use and respect proper Greek (question 12). There has been much talk on this matter in Greece in recent years, with the focus on the poor use of language in the news bulletins of private television channels. This dialectic growing in Greece on the quality of the Modern Greek Language led us to include in our questionnaire the question whether the respondents are aware of any Greek state institutions (administrative, educational or cultural) that protect the Greek language, often determining its characteristics (question 13). The last question in the questionnaire (question 14) aims to explore whether a deterioration is brought about in the qualitative features of the official language with the infiltration of foreign loans. In this case, the linguistic background of a nation and the linguistic prestige of the country, from which a language borrows words, play a significant role.


4. Survey results

The main interest of our survey lies in the tables correlating the sociological features of our informants with the questions posed to them and particularly in the results that are statistically significant, which mainly concern the sex of the informants. In greater detail, approaching the social image of proper Greek from the perspective of the informants’ sex, we observed that the male informants referred to a Greek language system characterised equally by correct grammar(1) and syntax (33.3%) and correct pronunciation (33.3%), while the women focused mainly on the former (58.3%) and less on the latter (25.0%).

As regards the region in which the language is spoken, one in three men (33.3%) and one in three women (33.3%) believe that the use of proper Greek is not geographically determined, while an equally significant percentage of women made reference to urban centres (33.3%). As for the professions in which it is socially believed that proper Greek is spoken, 41.7% of the men and 75.0% of the women indicated teachers and more specifically language teachers that have majored in the classics. Significant percentages were also obtained for responses relating to prestigious professions such as attorneys, doctors and journalists (16.7% of men and 25.0% of women).

As regards the age group that speaks proper Greek, half of the informants stated that age does not affect proper language use, a view mostly supported by women (66.7%, compared with the 33.3% obtained from men). Moreover, the two sexes (60.0% of men and 40.0% of women) believe that if the use of proper Greek were to be related to a certain age group, then this would be the 40-60 year group.

When it comes to the educational level of the users of proper Greek, opinions differed. Some 33.3% stated that proper use of Greek is not affected by the speaker’s educational level, a view in which the women outnumbered the men, while 45.8% of the informants stated that speakers of proper Greek will have a higher level of education, a view in which the men outnumbered the women. The percentages became more unequally distributed when the informants were then asked about the social class to which speakers of proper Greek belong, where 62.5%, mainly women, indicated the upper middle class, whereas 29.2%, mainly men, stated that the issue was unrelated to social class.

Moving from the sociological profile of the user of proper Greek to other aspects of our survey, such as whether Greek dialects and idioms are considered to be proper Greek, we see that 62.5% answered in the affirmative, and for the first time both sexes were equally well represented statistically speaking (58.3% of the men and 66.7% of the women). Moreover, we ascertained that the user of proper Greek has positive personality traits according to both sexes. However, when we subsequently asked the informants to name well-known personalities of Greek social life that speak proper Greek, we discovered a marked preference for journalists (75.0%) among the women, while the male informants’ views were spread equally across university professors (33.3%), politicians (33.3%) and journalists (33.3%). The Greek spoken by these people is comprehensible to 4 out of 5 informants (66.7% of the men and 83.3% of the women) and is categorised under the everyday (54.7%) and formal (37.5%) styles, with the views of both sexes coinciding. Furthermore, 62.5% of the informants consider newspapers to be the medium that pays the greatest attention to the proper use of language, a view maintained by 83.3% of the women and 41.7% of the men.

This discovery was surprising in that, according to research conducted by the press, most of their readers are men. Another startling finding was the fact that 91.7% of the women did not know any Greek state institutions that protect and promote the Greek language, whereas 50% of the men answered affirmatively and gave examples.

Lastly, regarding whether foreign loans affect the quality of proper Greek, we found the male informants to be more negatively inclined towards them because they make the Greek language poorer (33.3%), have an adverse effect on its quality (25.0%) and so on, while the women are more accepting of foreign loans because they facilitate and serve the Greek language (25.0%) and because language is alive and evolves (33.3%).

When looking at the social image of proper Greek from the perspective of age groups, we noted that a higher percentage (63.6%) of the older age group, that of 41 to 60 years of age, believes that someone who has acquired a higher level of education will speak proper Greek, compared with the younger age group (36.4%). Furthermore, the younger age group places greater emphasis (66.7%) on the speech of journalists being proper Greek than the older group (33.3%), which is the only one that made reference to politicians as correct speakers of the Modern Greek Language. In addition, the younger age group placed proper Greek under the everyday stylistic category more easily (69.2%) than the older group (30.8%), which tended to classify it as formal. As regards the mass media, the television generation - the younger age group - seems to appreciate newspapers more (60.0%) than the older group (40.0%), for whom we believed newspapers would be an important source of news.

Finally, when approaching the social image of proper Greek from the perspective of educational level, we noted that university or college graduates insist more on correct grammar and syntax compared with secondary school graduates. As for the profession of speakers of proper Greek, secondary school graduates were more inclined to indicate teachers (64.3%) than were the informants who have graduated from university or college (35.7%), whereas of those informants who admired journalists for their use of proper Greek, 66.7% were university or college graduates.


5. In lieu of a conclusion

The above findings demonstrate that the user of proper Greek has a rather prestigious profile. We can assume that he or she is probably around 41 to 60 years old, belongs to the upper middle class, with personality traits associated with seriousness and intelligent, well-developed and consistent thought processes; he or she has usually received an academic education and does not have to come from any particular geographical area in Greece. We were interested to note that the respondents avoided the use of geographical terms when replying about the region where proper Greek is spoken, but they stress the importance of knowledge and use of grammar for the complete image of a proficient speaker of Greek. Karatzola (2000:1) informs us of the fact that grammar was and still is the core of a language lesson at school and that we make use of grammar every time there is a diagnosis of the fall of language’s standards.

We were also startled by the fact that most of the respondents were not aware of any institutions of the Greek State that are involved in the study, protection and dissemination of the Modern Greek Language, such as the Academy of Athens, the Centre for the Greek Language, the Triantafyllidis Foundation and the School of Modern Greek Language of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The fact that the respondents in their majority consider dialects and idioms to be proper Greek should not surprise us since they themselves live in a dialect region that is part of the linguistic continuum of northern modern Greek idioms, although Thessaloniki is linguistically characterised as a diverse city in which the local idioms have given way to the standard language (Tzitzilis, 2001:172-173).

These findings confirm the view that social stratification and formal education contribute to the high social prestige enjoyed by the official language, the language of institutions (educational, judicial, political) and of culture, of the upper strata in particular. Use of the official language makes the speaker convincing and lends them an air of superiority. However, according to our informants, where Greece is concerned this prestige does not stem from a social elite, does not have specific sociological characteristics, but is the result of individual language choices which are subject to criticism by an ever evolving society that is much more tolerant than we expected.

© Evangelos Kourdis (Technological Educational Institute of Epirus, Hellas)

Annexes: Questionnaire

  1.  What, in your view, is "proper Greek"? What is it characterized by? 
  2.  Where (in what region) do you believe that "proper Greek" is spoken? 
  3.  With which professions do you associate the use of "proper Greek"? 
  4.  Which age group do you believe speaks "proper Greek"? 
         teenagers    []   adults up to 35 yrs  []   adults from 35 to 60 yrs    []   
         the elderly  []   unrelated to age     []   
  5.  What do you believe is the educational level of someone who speaks "proper Greek"? 
         primary school     []   secondary school               []   
         tertiary education []   unrelated to educational level []   
  6.  In which social class do you believe someone who speaks "proper Greek" belongs? 
         rural/working  []   lower middle              []   
         upper middle   []   unrelated to social class []   
  7.  Are dialects and local idioms "proper Greek"? 
          Yes   []   No   []   
  8.  What do you believe are the personality traits of someone who speaks "proper Greek" (e.g. serious, polite, gentle, etc.)? 
  9.  List people who are well-known in Greece and who, in your opinion, speak "proper Greek". 
  10.  Do you think that those people who in your opinion speak "proper Greek" are understood by the average Greek person? 
          Yes    []   No    []   
  11.  In which stylistic category do you believe "proper Greek" belongs? 
          formal style     []   everyday style     []   
          vernacular style []   unrelated to style []   
  12.  Which mass communication medium do you believe respects and makes "proper" use of the Greek language? 
          radio     []   television  []   newspapers         []   
          magazines []   internet    []   other (state which) 
  13.  In your opinion, are there any Greek state institutions (organisations or services) that protect the Greek language by determining its characteristics?       Yes    []   No    []         If yes, state which. 	    
  14.  The foreign loan words in the Greek language affect the quality of "proper Greek" 
         positively    []   negatively    []   


(1) According to Karatzola (2000:1) the idea that exists behind the notion of Grammar is that it dictates what one “should” and “should not” say and write and how users of a certain language should use this language. It is not accidental that Maurice Grevisse’s most famous grammar manual in France is entitled «Bon usage».


Babiniotis, Georgios (2006): The alternative suggestion for the rescue of languages. In To Vima∕Nees Epoxes, 22∕1∕2006, Athens, 87∕A59 (in Greek)

Cheyne, William (1970): Stereotyped reactions to speakers with Scottish and English regional accents. In: British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 9, 77-79

Fairclough, Norman (1989): Language and power. Essex. Longman Group Limited

Fisman, Joshua (1971): Sociolinguistique. Paris. Nathan

Giles, Howard (1970): Evaluative reactions to accents. In Educational review 22, 211-227

Giles, Howard (1971): Patterns of Evaluation to R.P., South Welsh and Somerset Accented Speech. In British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 10, 280-281

Garmadi, Juliette, (1981): La sociolinguistique. Paris. PUF

Fragoudaki, Anna (1999): Language and Ideology. Athens. Odysseas (in Greek)

Karatzola, Eleni (2000): Grammar, language course and program studies in Greece. In Language Computer 2, (in Greek)

Kostoula-Makraki, Nelli (2001): Language and Society. Athens. Metechmio, (in Greek)

Kuiper, Lawrence (2005): Perception is reality: Parisian and Provençal perceptions of regional varieties of French. In Journal of Sociolinguistics   9  (1), 28-52.

Mounin, Georges (1974): Dictionnaire de la linguistique. Paris. PUF

Lambert, Wallace (1967): A social psychology of bilingualism. In Journal of Social Issues 23, 91-109

Petrounias, Evangelos (1993), Modern Greek Grammar and Comparative Analysis. Thessaloniki. University Studio Press (in Greek)

Trudgill, Peter (1974): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction. Middlesex. Penguin Books

Tzitzilis, Christos (2001): Modern Greek Dialects and Modern Greek Dialectology. In Encyclopaedic guide for the Language. Anastassios Christidis (ed). Thessaloniki. Center of Greek Language, 168-174 (in Greek)

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Evangelos Kourdis (Technological Educational Institute of Epirus, Hellas): Evaluation factors of social prestige of a standard language. The case of the Modern Greek Language. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 19.6.2006     INST