CONTEMPORARY SOCRATIC DIALOGUE
BACKGROUND: Socrates and Mr Foreigner are lying back on their couches eating 'keftedakia' (meatballs) and, accompanied by the soft, plaintive sound of a rembetika song, are discussing languages. Socrates is attempting to persuade his friend to learn Greek.
Mr FOREIGNER: I can't understand, Socrates, why you're insisting so much that I should learn Greek. Do you think I've time to learn Greek on top of all my other business?
SOCRATES: That's a good one! You've got time to watch four hours' TV a day and can't even spend two or three hours a week learning Greek.
Mr FOREIGNER: Even if I did, what would I do with Greek? What's the use of learning a language which is spoken by only ten million people?
SOCRATES: Fine! In that case learn Chinese which is spoken by a billion.
Mr FOREIGNER: You're kidding, I presume.
SOCRATES: In that case you'll admit that the number of people who speak a language is not a valid criterion.
Mr FOREIGNER: You're right, of course it isn't. But, how shall I put it, the very idea of learning Greek makes me panic.
SOCRATES: Why? You're a brave enough lad otherwise!
Mr FOREIGNER: Stop teasing me Socrates. You know what I mean. Your language is a very difficult one. Greek isn't a language, it's a tongue-twister. You've got conjugations, declensions, aspect, you've got no infinitive, you put endings everywhere, you make long compound words and you've got cases.
SOCRATES: If it's any consolation, we don't have a dative.
Mr FOREIGNER: Why didn't you tell me earlier? I'd have enrolled at the first language school I could find.
SOCRATES: To be serious, haven't you had any trouble learning any of the other languages you know? Are you telling me you had no trouble learning phrasal verbs in English and the accord du participe in French, for example?
Mr FOREIGNER: No, I admit they caused me a lot of trouble, and I still make mistakes.
SOCRATES: So you see we are not talking about the degree of difficulty but the type of difficulty. And from that point of view all languages are difficult.
Mr FOREIGNER: Agreed. But Greek isn't even, how shall I put it, a umm ... useful language. Where can you go in the world today and speak Greek?
SOCRATES: If that's your criterion, you're not talking about usefulness in a broad sense, but narrow, practical utility. I for my part consider useful something which is uplifting, something which makes me a better person. Seen from this angle, the purpose of learning a language is not merely to meet some ephemeral communications requirements, it's an intellectual exercise. This is especially true of a language like Greek, whose literature goes back to the Homeric epics. Even what we sometimes call modern Greek is essentially the result of a process which began over 2000 years ago. Greek is one of the few examples of a language with an unbroken tradition going back thousands of years and with a literature which is still admired today. Even today a Greek reading the Homeric epics, the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, the poems of Sappho, Aesop's fables or the New Testament may not understand everything he reads, but will recognise words and whole phrases which are still in current use today after so many centuries!
Mr FOREIGNER: That's wonderful Socrates. However, all languages are vehicles of culture. That's not the monopoly of Greek.
SOCRATES: I didn't say it was. What you are saying actually supports my argument that there are no useful and useless languages, since all are vehicles of culture. This means that no language can be arbitrarily judged to be inferior and less worth learning than any other.
Mr FOREIGNER: OK, you've convinced me that all languages are equally valuable and that no language is inferior to any other. However, you won't be able to persuade me to learn Greek rather than any other 'minority' language.
SOCRATES: To begin with, you use Greek every day when you speak your own language.
Mr FOREIGNER: Do you mean I speak Greek without knowing it? I thought that Greek was used only to coin scientific terminology!
SOCRATES: In that case words such as ecclesiastical, theatre, music, typography, problem, phenomenon, photography and many other words are scientific terminology! Go and tell that to the man on the Clapham Omnibus because he uses them every day, poor man, without knowing!
Mr FOREIGNER: You're joking again. In any case there aren't many such words.
SOCRATES: More than you'd imagine. And anyway, innumerable words are created every day in all languages with the prefixes ante-, para-, an-, thalasso-, zoo, bio- etc.
Mr FOREIGNER: That's true. But I learn these words as part of my own language. Why should I do so through Greek?
SOCRATES: Because 'the beginning of knowledge is the investigation of words', as some ancient philosopher said.
Mr FOREIGNER: Which means?
SOCRATES: Which means unless you are familiar with the origin of each word you'll never really know your own language. By virtue of this knowledge you will reach a better understanding of the world about you. Wasn't it young Wittgenstein who said 'The limits of my language are the limits of my reality'?
Mr FOREIGNER: In any case, for me language is mainly a means of communication and not an object of study.
SOCRATES: Since you're talking about vehicles of communication: think how many times you've visited Greece, enjoyed the sea and the sun and tried to communicate with ordinary people. How often do you succeed?
Mr FOREIGNER: You call that communication? We 'communicated' like chimpanzees.
SOCRATES: Exactly. How can you understand the Greek people, their peculiarities, their strong and weak points, unless you can speak with ordinary people living here, unless you read their literature, unless you listen to their songs, unless you share their joys and sorrows? You often say that we Greeks are peculiar, we're like this, we're like that.
Mr FOREIGNER: It's true that I've always wanted to get to know you at first hand and not to rely on what other people tell me.
Mr FOREIGNER: When can I enrol?
(As usual Socrates carries the day).