ATHENS — One fall day in 1903, soldiers killed two students and injured scores of others in one of the most violent phases of a hot potato that has now returned to plague Greek politics--the "language question."
The students were protesting the "blasphemy" of staging ancient playwright Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy in a modern Greek translation. A year earlier, students took to the streets to protest violently against the first translation of the Bible into modern Greek.
The "language question"--as it has been known since the 4th Century BC, when the written and spoken forms of Greek first began to diverge--remains controversial to this day.
The political right, supported by the powerful, conservative Greek Orthodox Church, has successfully drummed up nationalism by supporting catharevousa , an artificial language corresponding to ancient Greek used by politicians, lawyers and civil servants.
The left wing and intellectuals promote demotic, the "people's language" favored by almost all contemporary Greek writers and poets.
Use of catharevousa in long, tedious speeches by leaders of the 1967-1974 junta of colonels reinforced the "reactionary label" given to the artificial language form.
Former Prime Minister George Rallis boosted his liberal image by passing legislation a decade ago making demotic the official language of the Greek state.
But in mid-November, for the first time, a Socialist minister adopted a former Conservative policy of encouraging the classics, which are in the language's ancient form.
"While the rest of the world is studying ancient Greek, we Greeks cannot possibly abandon it," said Antonis Tritsis, minister of education and religion.
"Demotic is necessary for everyday use," he said. "But that does not mean we should forget ancient Greek."
Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou's government has swung dramatically to the political right in domestic politics since winning a second term in June, 1985.
"But nobody expected his administration to try and make political capital out of the language question," said an opposition spokesman.
"Tritsis' call for the return of ancient Greek in schools is a significant political move," said George Babiniotis, professor of linguistics at Athens University. "Election results showed that Greeks do not only seek better economic conditions but an upgrading of their educational system as well."
Greek Classics Defended
Babiniotis said using ancient Greek in schools will improve students' grammar and vocabulary and "will also protect Greek from the the vast influences it is receiving from foreign languages, especially from English."
Even left-wingers, disappointed by a drift toward "grammatical anarchy" in schools since 1976, have supported Tritsis' call for a return to the classics.
"You have to know ancient Greek well before you can claim to even remotely understand the language of the people today," said Anna Cyvelou, 28, a Communist classics teacher.
Since 1976, students have read the classics only in translation.
"It was a reaction against so many decades of Conservative rule and the right's ideal of Spartan-type discipline," said Panos Polidacis, 34, another classics teacher. "But things went too far. Even students hoping to read literature at university were getting only two hours of classics a week."