A word problem……..

… or better put, a problem with a word. Actually, with a concept addressed by several words. Think of a way, if you can (if you can, write me), to refer to normal spoken language that does not imply, in English, some less than the formal written standard. IOW, if you use the right word, the listener/reader should understand that you mean a language possessed by all the people of a language community in a standardized way. The words typically used are: spoken, colloquial, every day, normal, common, usual, quotidian, popular, people’s……. any more? Imagine a situation where you want to describe a language situation in which a formal written language has been displaced by a variety of the language that is spoken by……….. here’s the problem:
In Greece, formal written Greek was assumed to be only as good as its proximity to the classical language of ancient Athens, Classical Greek. Over the centuries, the learned people attempted to write in a way close to that classical ideal. They were usually far off the mark, not knowing the classical language well enough to write entirely in it and not knowing which of the accretions over the century were non-classical. So after many centuries, they arrived at a hodge-podge, a Frankenstein’s monster OK, that’s too strong a mish-mash of forms from all centuries, that required a lot of education to be able to read and write. Because……… no one talked that way! Everyone used that variety of the language I’m trying to find a non-prejudicial word for. In Greek it’s called demotiki, people’s language. In English, that sounds vaguely communistic, so that’s out. The other form is called ‘purist’, katharevousa in Greek. But no one talked in katharevousa unless reading a commencement address or the such and heaven help him who delivered an address in demotiki.
Oddly, all the really good literature had been written in demotiki since early in the 19th century! Lacking official support, this language itself was a bit of a mish-mash, there being no central authority to prescribe spellings, etc. While some of us liberals may see that as an ideal state for a language, the truth is, if you are going to teach a language in school and use it in an official capacity, some prescription is very helpful. Finally, using of all things Greek folk songs, scholars, most prominently Triandafyllidis, put together a manual standardizing the demotiki. A military junta reverted to the katharevousa (typical of conservatives) until they were ousted, at which time the demotiki took over. I am sure there are still die-hard katharevousa supporters decrying the horrible goat-herder’s language that is now the official language of the country.
If anyone knows of a book, no doubt in Greek, on this topic, please let me know. I’d love to read it.
Now, to the point of my entry: what word could we use in English to label demotiki without prejudicing the reader? The popular language? The excludes scholarly and technical uses. The spoken language? That runs into the American assumption that written language is superior to the spoken. Colloquial? That’s the accurate term, but almost everyone outside of linguists I’ve heard use it see it as demeaning, as in, “That’s just the colloquial usage”. Dialect runs into even worse problems with assumptions of inferiority. Normal again reduces the language to a pedestrian, prosaic level unsuited for Great Literature (spoken with an Oxbridge accent). Quotidian? Most people don’t know what that means and its everyday equivalent, “everyday”, brings the same problem of reduction in prestige. Common really drags the language down to pool hall level. Usual? For who ~ whom?
See what I mean?

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