How Modern Greek Came to America

Posted by Curtis Runnels

Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University and an expert in Palaeolithic archaeology in Greece, here contributes to From the Archivist’s Notebook a story about how Americans first heard Modern Greek being spoken in the early 19th century. An aficionado of antiquarian shops, Runnels has frequently discovered unique documents of great historical and informational value, such as the four documents presented below, which tell us the story of a Greek merchant, Nikolaos Tziklitiras, who, after landing by accident in Boston in 1813, became the first Greek teacher in town and laid the foundations for the spread of Modern Greek studies in America.

On a late autumn day in 1813 the ship Jerusalem made its way slowly into Boston harbor.  She was a long way from home.  The 750-ton ship began her journey in Smyrna with a Greek-speaking crew bound for Cuba to take on a cargo of coffee, sugar, copper, and hides for Boston.  Unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned.  Contemporary reports in the Niles Weekly Register, a popular news periodical of the day, relate that the Jerusalem was detained in September on her way to Boston by the British on account of the copper ingots in her cargo, and the ship was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  She evidently put into Boston on her way to Canada (“September 18: The Greek Ship Jerusalem”).  Now, in November, having sorted out her difficulties with the British authorities, she was at last bringing her cargo to Boston (“November 27: The Greek Ship Jerusalem”).

The news of Jerusalem’s detention as announced in Niles Weekly Register, Sept. 18, 1813.

The arrival of the Jerusalem in Boston was newsworthy because as far as the authorities knew she was the first Greek ship to reach the United States.  It was something of a sensation, and members of the public, along with officials, merchants, students, and at least one Harvard College scholar, Edward Everett, flocked to the dock to see the ship.  One man in the throng, however, was not interested in the story of her voyage and capture, nor was he interested in her cargo of Cuban sugar and coffee.  John Pickering (1777-1846) had come to hear the crew talk.

Once in a Lifetime

Having learned “Oriental” languages while serving as secretary to the American Minister in Portugal in the 1790s, John Pickering now practiced law in Boston.  There he acquired a reputation as a grammarian and a linguist, and his keen interest in languages, both ancient and modern, led him to perceive in the unexpected appearance of the Jerusalem a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn modern Greek from living speakers of the language (Larrabee, p. 299n4).  His desire to learn how Greek was pronounced was at least in part because of the well-known three-hundred year old controversy over the correct pronunciation of ancient Greek begun by Erasmus (Pickering, p. 4-25).

Few people in the United States knew anything about modern Greece in the years before the Greek War of Independence.  Though ancient Greek culture and language were staples of American education, only two Americans are known to have travelled in Greece before 1821: Joseph Allen Smith and Nicholas Biddle (Larrabee, p. 10-11).  I suspect there were other visits by American merchants and sailors in the early nineteenth century, as ships plying the Mediterranean must have put into ports in the Aegean, especially the island of Syra.  But if there were American visitors other than Smith and Biddle they left no records of their impressions.  Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844) kept a journal and wrote several very descriptive letters home, but these unfortunately remained unpublished until our own day (McNeal 1993).  Biddle made the trip to Greece in 1806 as part of a tour of Europe, and his travels were undertaken in order to learn something about the political circumstances in other countries to fit him for a political career when he returned to Philadelphia.  His observations on modern Greek culture and language, especially its pronunciation, would have been of great value for scholars like Pickering had they been known.  As it was, Pickering was unable to find out anything about modern Greek even during his time in the Mediterranean.  He was prevented from travelling to the eastern Mediterranean because of quarantine laws, and Greek-speaking merchants and sailors rarely ventured beyond Malta in those days (they were under pressure from the Sublime Porte to remain within the eastern Mediterranean).  So it is not surprising that Pickering was excited by the prospect of speaking with the Greeks on board the Jerusalem.

Pickering hit the jackpot.  There were two men on the ship fluent in Italian (the lingua franca of Mediterranean commerce) who were able to converse with him.  One of them, Captain Lazarus Nicholas Katara, a native of Hydra, had little education and knew nothing about ancient Greek, but the other one was the man for the job.  Nikolaos Tziklitiras was a merchant who had resided for many years in Constantinople and was now the supercargo, or officer in charge of the cargo, on the Jerusalem.  A native of Navarino (modern Pylos) in the Peloponnese, Tziklitiras was intelligent, educated, and familiar with ancient Greek; and he was willing to instruct Pickering in modern Greek and its pronunciation.  Pickering’s first lesson was how to pronounce his tutor’s name: he tells us that Tziklitiras pronounced his name “cheek-lee-teeras” and went by the Italian version of his name “Nicola Ciclitira.”  Thus we have a record of perhaps the first modern Greek lesson on American soil (Pickering, p. 1-3).

From Supercargo to Greek Teacher

Olympic gold medalist Konstantinos Tsiklitiras, grandson of Nikolaos Tziklitiras. Source: International Olympic Committee, public domain.

The ship and its crew probably remained in Boston over the winter (Pickering referred to his conversations with Katara and Tziklitiras as taking place “in 1814”) and sailed for the Mediterranean with the return of good sailing weather in late spring.  Captain Katara would turn up again in Greece where he ran into Edward Everett, the Harvard scholar he met in Boston (Larrabee, p. 29).  After a few years Tziklitiras returned to Boston to stay and to earn his living as a teacher of modern Greek and its pronunciation (Pickering, p. 1-3).  He remained in Boston for four years, and he married in 1815 a French woman (Phebe Catharine Ouvre) and had two children, one of whom, his son Nicholas, would become the grandfather of the noted athlete Konstantinos Tsiklitiras (1888-1913).

These facts can be gleaned from the reports in the Niles’ Weekly Register, the biographical background provided for Konstantinos Tsiklitiras on line, and a small book on the pronunciation of Greek published by Pickering in 1818.  Particularly interesting is the lithographed facsimile in Pickering’s book of a letter in Greek by Tziklitiras that establishes the date of his return to Boston and his intention of becoming a teacher.  To these sources we can now add a small collection of manuscript documents in the Archives at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).  One day about 20 years ago I received a small packet in the mail from a bookseller in Brockton, Massachusetts (John William Pye, 1948-2016).  Pye explained that the documents were miscellaneous items that had turned up in a box of materials obtained at auction.  He had no idea of their provenance or content, but knowing my interest in all things Greek, he thought I might like them.  A short examination led me to believe that they were possibly an independent record of Tziklitiras’s contribution to the teaching of modern Greek in the United States, and for this reason I donated them to the ASCSA.  They deserve a detailed description.

One document is a piece of tattered paper on which are written names (including “Tzikliteras” and “Jenks” in Greek), a Greek alphabet, and a quotation from the Greek New Testament.  At the bottom, in English, is a note: “[This] specimen of Greek chirography is from Mr Tzikliteras, [a native] of the south of the Morea, now resident in Boston, [and a] teacher of youth. He was supercargo of the Greek ship, lately in this port. My introduction to him was due [to the] kindness of my much esteemed & accomplished friend, the Hon. [John] Pickering Esq. Boston August 25, 1818.”  The note is signed “W. J.” for William Jenks.

William Jenk’s note about Tziklitiras, 1818. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

The second document is a holograph letter in Italian signed (in Greek) by Nikolaos Tziklitiras and addressed to the “Honorable John Pickering Esq.”.  Tziklitiras reminds Pickering that he promised to provide some proverbs and other quotations in idiomatic Greek to Mr. Jenks and asks Pickering to give the enclosed manuscripts to Jenks when he sees him.  The letter is also dated “Boston, 25 August 1818.”

Handwritten note by Nikolaos Tziklitiras to John Pickering, 1818. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

The third document bears the same date and a text in Greek on one leaf written and signed by Tziklitiras.  It consists of Greek alphabets, proverbs, and Biblical quotations.  On the second leaf of the paper the Greek texts are translated into Italian and signed ” il peloponnissio greco, Nicola Ciclitira.”

Handwritten note by Nicholaos Tziklitiras, 1818. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

The final manuscript is a letter in Greek addressed to “loanni Zugomala (Chiote) in America” from “his mother” and dated “Smyrna, June 15, 1830.” The writer hopes her son’s studies are going well and begs him to “dip your pen in the ink” and write her a letter.  The Greek text has a note in English (“My own omission”) keyed to a word that has a correction to the spelling, suggesting that this manuscript is a copy of an original letter.  An English translation on the back in another hand ends by stating “The above transl. by a Greek, probably” and “Tr. Dec. 3rd. 1830”.  It is unknown whether this letter is connected with Nikolaos Tziklitiras (perhaps the translator mentioned in the note?).

Letter addressed to Ioanni Zugomala in America from his “mother,” 1830. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

These documents belonged to William Jenks (1794-1884), a minister, one time professor of Oriental Languages and English at Bowdoin College, the founder of a mission for seamen in Boston, and the author of a Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible (six volumes, 1835-1838).  Jenks was also a co-founder of the American Antiquarian Society and the American Oriental Society.  Jenks, who was a private teacher in Boston at the time of the arrival of the Jerusalem was, like Pickering, an accomplished linguist.  He was reputed to have the largest private library in Boston. (The William Jenks Collection is housed at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.) The significance of the documents that once belonged to Jenks and are now in the ASCSA is that they confirm the presence of Tziklitiras in Boston in 1818 and his connection with John Pickering, and illustrate how Tziklitiras engaged with scholars who were interested in modern Greek and the nature of the information they sought.

Tziklitiras remained in Boston until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence when he returned to Greece with his son and young daughter (who died at sea).  During the war he served in the Peloponnese in a series of administrative positions before returning to Pylos at the end of hostilities.  He became a magistrate and died in Pylos in 1840.

In the Footsteps of Tziklitiras

The scholarly interest in modern Greek in the United States, however, did not end with the departure of Tziklitiras.  Colonel Alexander Negris, a distinguished veteran of the War of Independence, settled in the Boston area around 1827 and taught modern Greek at Harvard for two years.  He published a Grammar of the Modern Greek Language in 1828, the first grammar of modern Greek in the New World, in which he remarked “I can claim the credit of being the first to inspire men of learning and taste in America…with the desire of becoming acquainted with the living dialect of Greece” (Negris, Preface).  After Negris’ departure, modern Greek instruction at Harvard was undertaken by Evangelinos Apostolides Sophocles, who would make the greatest contribution to Modern Greek studies in America.  Sophocles was born at Tsangarada on Mt. Pelion in Thessaly about the time of Tziklitiras’ arrival in the United States (there is some inconsistency in Sophocles’ date of birth, between 1807 and 1814, an inconsistency due no doubt to Sophocles’ noted reticence in personal matters.  Sophocles was educated at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, and at some point came to the attention of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions in Boston.  He sailed for Boston in 1828 with the missionary Josiah Brewer and two other Greeks.  After studying at Amherst College and holding various teaching posts, he moved to Harvard College in 1842 as Tutor in Greek (Professor of Greek after 1860), where he remained until his death in 1883 (Larrabee, p. 181, 255).  His contributions to modern Greek studies were many.  Besides teaching ancient and modern Greek to generations of students and scholars, he published many books, including a Romaic Grammar, and a History of the Greek Alphabet, which were standard texts for many years.  Sophocles was succeeded at Harvard by Aristides Phoutrides (1887-1923), who translated modern Greek literature and established Helikon one of the first Greek student organizations in the United States.  And today, thanks to the endowment in 1977 of the George Seferis Chair of Modern Greek Studies at Harvard University, the study and teaching of modern Greek introduced two hundred years ago by Nikolaos Tziklitiras from the deck of a ship has become a permanent part of higher education in the United States.

On How to Pronounce Ancient Greek

While the interest in modern Greek flourishes today in the United States, the same cannot be said about Tziklitiras’s views on the pronunciation of ancient Greek.  Pickering tells us that Tziklitiras effected a change in his thinking about the pronunciation of ancient Greek:

“It now appears to me highly probable, nay almost certain, that the Greeks of the present day pronounce very nearly as their ancestors did, as early as the commencement of the Christian era” (Pickering, p. 3-4).

Biddle too had been surprised to learn that modern Greek was pronounced differently from the way he had been taught to pronounce ancient Greek.  At first he was skeptical about the application of modern pronunciation to ancient Greek, but he changed his mind.  He asked in his journal:

“Can a foreign people dictate to the descendants of the Greeks how Greek is to be read?”

concluding that “[there] was a strong argument in favor for the use of modern pronunciation” (McNeal, p. 146-148).

Tziklitiras’s letter to Pickering about how to pronounce ancient Greek, as published in Pickering 1818.

The question of the correct pronunciation of ancient Greek has been debated for centuries.  Before the time of Erasmus in the early 16th century it was not uncommon for ancient Greek to be pronounced much like modern Greek.  Erasmus adopted a new, and in the view of many scholars arbitrary, method of pronouncing ancient Greek that would eventually become the accepted pronunciation in Europe and later the United States (Pickering, p. 4-15).  Tziklitiras obviously did not accept the Erasmian pronunciation.  A. E. Sophocles, on the other hand, summarily treated the matter saying “we may safely assume that the Romaic pronunciation, as a system, cannot go farther back than the seventh century of our era” (Sophocles, p. 92, emphasis in the original).

John Gennadius (1844-1932), the founder of the Gennadius Library of the ASCSA, however, was in Tziklitiras’s camp.  He expressed his views on the subject in a number of periodical articles at the end of the nineteenth century.  Always a sharp critic of contemporary methods of teaching Greek in Europe, Gennadius believed that the prevailing Erasmian system of ancient Greek pronunciation impeded the learning of ancient Greek.  Gennadius argued that it was better to learn modern Greek first because the knowledge of modern Greek and its pronunciation would facilitate the learning of ancient Greek.  Unfortunately the views concerning the pronunciation of ancient Greek held by Gennadius, and before him Biddle, Pickering, and Tziklitiras, have not won over the majority of American scholars, and today the Erasmian pronunciation of ancient Greek yet prevails.  It is fitting, therefore, that Tziklitiras’ unpublished papers, disiecta membra from the ship that brought modern Greek to American shores, and at least temporarily convinced American scholars to pronounce ancient Greek in the same manner as the living Greeks, should be housed at the Gennadius Library.

Note: For a brief presentation of the four manuscripts when they were first received by the ASCSA in 2006, see AKOUE Fall 2006, p. G4.


Gennadius, John, 1895, “The Proper Pronunciation of Greek,” The Nineteenth Century, vol. 38, no. 224, pp. 681-698.

Gennadius, John, 1896, “Erasmus and the Pronunciation of Greek,” The Nineteenth Century, vol. 39, no. 227, pp. 87-97.

Gennadius, John, 1897, “The Pronunciation of Greek in England,” The Contemporary Review, vol. 71, pp. 373-393.

Larrabee, Stephen A., 1957, Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece 1775-1865, New York.

McNeal, R. A., 1993, Nicholas Biddle in Greece. The Journals and Letters of 1806, University Park, Pennsylvania.

Negris, Alexander, 1828, A Grammar of the Modern Greek Language, Boston.

Pickering, John, 1818, On the Pronunciation of the Greek Language, Cambridge.

“September 18: The Greek ship Jerusalem,” Niles’ Weekly Register, volume 5 (1813), p. 42.

“November 27: The Greek ship Jerusalem,” Niles’ Weekly Register, volume 5 (1813), p. 214.

Sophocles, E. A., 1842, A Romaic Grammar Accompanied by a Chrestomathy with a Vocabulary, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sophocles, E. A., 1848, History of the Greek Alphabet with Remarks on Greek Orthography and Pronunciation, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Online References

“Modern Greek Studies Harvard” (accessed 29 July, 2019)

“Konstantinos Tziklitiras,” (accessed 29 July, 2019)Κωνσταντίνος_Τσικλητήρας

“Sophocles obituary”

“William Jenks Collection”


3 Comments on “How Modern Greek Came to America”

  1. Glenn Bugh says:

    Fascinating article, Curtis. Thanks for sharing. Of course, historians of the Ottoman occupation of Greece are aware that a Greek colony was established in 1768 in Florida, then under British control. It was named New Smyrna (now New Smyrna Beach) after the birthplace of the Greek wife of the British founder, Dr. Andrew Turnbull. The Greek colonists eventually relocated to St. Augustine where you can find some of their descendants and an appealing little Greek Orthodox church dedicated to St. Photios. It is claimed to be the first National Greek Orthodox Shrine in America. So, technically, these Greeks introduced modern Greek into the Americas some decades prior to the Boston episode. Just some details to round out the story.


  2. Dear Curtis, Thank you for this fascinating essay! Many of the early members of the ASCSA favored the modern pronunciation. Here is Managing Committee member Bernadotte Perrin, writing from Athens in the May 1890 issue of student newspaper of Western Reserve College (today part of Case Western Reserve University): “The modern pronunciation…is probably quite as near the pronunciation of Sokrates as the Erasmian. There is no good reason why it should not be used in reading ancient Greek….”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.