When Greece Was About to Swap the Greek Alphabet for Latin

Konstantinos Karamanlis Proposed to Latinize the Greek Alphabet
Konstantinos Karamanlis proposed Latinizing the Greek alphabet: Wikipedia CC0

In the mid 1970s when Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis proposed changing the Greek alphabet to Latin and making the Greek language phonetic, the minister of culture and a Parliament member threatened to resign.

The unusual idea of the conservative PM came as a shock to those who learned of his proposal. It was quite unexpected coming from him.

Konstantinos Karamanlis returned triumphantly to Greece on July 24, 1974 following the fall of the seven-year military dictatorship. Upon becoming Greece’s PM, his vision was to introduce crucial reforms to make Greece a true, modern European country. The same day, he was sworn in as Prime Minister of Greece and the most suitable person to unite Greece after a tumultuous seven-year period.

The former Greek Prime Minister was on self-exile in Paris after the April 21, 1967 military coup of Georgios Papadopoulos. While in France, he formed a friendship with French Minister of Finance Valerie Giscard D’Estaing.

When Karamanlis landed in Athens, Giscard D’Estaing was the President of France after the May 1974 French presidential election. In fact, the plane the Greek politician flew on was courtesy of the French President.

The friendship with Giscard D’Estaing helped Karamanlis materialize one of his bigger plans: to have Greece become a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), which was incorporated into the European Union (EU) in 1993.

On January 1st, 1981, Karamanlis’ vision materialized, and Greece became the tenth member of the EEC. It was a crucial step for Greece’s economic stability in the following years.

Konstantinos Karamanlis’ proposal to Latinize Greek letters

Once established in government, the Greek Prime Minister proceeded with the reforms he had envisioned. He abolished monarchy with a referendum, thus establishing the third Hellenic Republic. He televised the trial of the junta culprits and legalized the Greek Communist Party (KKE) to heal the leftist wounds of the Greek Civil War, and he also ushered Greece into the EEC.

In regards to foreign policy, for the first time since World War II, Greece followed a multi-polar approach between the US, the Soviet Union, and the Third World.

Towards the end of the 1970s, the Greek politician flirted with the idea of furthering Greece’s progress and European identity by introducing the Latin alphabet to the Greek language and making the writing phonetic. 

On July 25, 1999, in an article by renowned journalist and newspaper editor of To Vima, Stavros Psycharis reported that the Greek Prime Minister had proposed the establishment of the Latin alphabet and phonetic writing. He described the proposal as a “crisis.”

Psycharis recounted a meeting in which Karamanlis met with Culture Minister Konstantinos Tsatsos and prominent educator and MP Evangelos Papanoutsos to discuss education issues:

“The first time the crisis broke out was in a meeting between Karamanlis and Konstantinos Tsatsos, before becoming President of the Republic, when he was minister of culture, and the late Evangelos Papanoutsos. The prime minister had invited them to his office to discuss Education issues. At one point Karamanlis told them that they should consider the possibility of combining the Greek alphabet with the Latin one, even considering the issue of phonetic writing.”

“Karamanlis’ interlocutors jumped up like springs. ‘I couldn’t believe my ears!’ Konstantinos Tsatsos would say several years later. In any case, the two interlocutors of the then prime minister declared that they would resign, and Karamanlis withdrew the proposal.”

A conservative with progressive ideas

The reason that Karamanlis shocked the two politicians was that he was not known for his involvement in language issues, and such an initiative surprised his party colleagues.

The unexpected proposal to radically change the writing of a language with a tradition of thousands of years of uninterrupted continuity, in which great works were written, would result in damaging Greece’s identity and legacy.

It was no surprise that the issue was not discussed further. Rather, it became an anecdote that very few would even consider repeating.

As for the two Konstantinos Karamanlis interlocutors, Konstantinos Tsatsos (July 1, 1899 – October 8, 1987) was a Greek diplomat, professor of law, scholar, and politician. He served as the second President of the Third Hellenic Republic from 1975 to 1980.

Evangelos Papanoutsos (July 27, 1900 – May 2, 1982) was an important Greek educator, philosopher, theologian, and essay-writer of the twentieth century who served in Parliament during the first Karamanlis term (1974-1977). His contribution to the rehaul of the Greek educational system is widely known. The main reforms attributed to Papanoutsos were, among others, the establishment of primary education and the separation of secondary education into middle school and high school.

Papanoutsos’ educational work was strongly criticized by coup plotters of the colonels’ dictatorship and was almost completely vilified in the 1967 to 1974 period. However, with the restoration of democracy, the Georgios Rallis’ educational reforms of 1976 were essentially based on Papanoutsos’ own philosophies of education.

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