Defending Old Languages: Cultures, Discourse, and Heaven

The Mystery of Holy Language

International Greek journalist George Alexandrou speaks with the editor of Road to Emmaus, to warmly plead the cause of culture, tradition, language, and our profound need for Orthodox roots.

GEORGE: Before we begin to speak about older forms of language, we must start with the fact that each living tradition reflects a heritage of many centuries, and that these traditions come to us not only through books, but through verbal tradition as well. One of the greatest threats to human culture that we face now is globalization, which is being promoted as multiculturalism and an acceptance of differences, but this isn’t really true. What we have is monoculturalism, which is spreading like a virus throughout the world, extinguishing cultures and languages.

In the United States, for example, the “melting pot” has long been a visual symbol of the way the country dealt with foreigners. I can accept this concept for the United States, but I can’t accept it for the whole world. Actually, I should say, I can’t accept it for the minorities and indigenous people of the United States, who have a right not to be forced into this melting pot, which is a dictatorship of monoculturalism.

RTE: The idea of a melting pot has given way to the new model of a “salad bowl” where all of the ingredients or individuals remain uniquely themselves, while they are mixed together with everyone else in society.

GEORGE: The melting pot idea is actually more innocent because it pressured people to react in an “American way”. But this “salad” can’t preserve individuality or cultural characteristics because an individual will be lost in a “salad”. Why? Because by ourselves, individually, we are nothing. Can you imagine yourself as an Orthodox individual without other Orthodox people? Or not having other people of your own ancestry around you? Even God accepts us as a people—In Isaiah and in the Psalms, “all the nations pray to Him.” So, it is important that these small communities all have the right to make their own way, and that they respect one another. This would be the real “salad” of multiculturalism. Just saying, “I accept his individuality,” isn’t enough because a person’s individuality is connected (perhaps in eternity also) with the individuality of his unique community. He can’t survive in isolation. But these unique communities themselves are being swallowed up. Just look at your second or third generations—they are either completely inculturated into modern America, or they struggle on the fringe, like the native American youth. This is the context in which I want to put our discussion of language.

As another example of monoculturalism, take blue jeans. Everyone from Malaysia to Singapore to Uganda to Paris to Russia now has to wear blue jeans. Many of our cultures have lost their national dress, and this is a tragedy. Can you imagine having only one type of flower all over the world? One flower with different colors? This is horrible. But if the Greek Orthodox, or the Australian aborigines, or the Navajo Indians are able to keep their characteristics and their language as a people, then this will be a real salad with independent ingredients. In fact this isn’t happening because the minorities are pressured to become part of main-stream society, and their young people are seduced into it.

RTE: How does this separate multiculturalism you are talking about differ from nationalism?

GEORGE: Nationalism is the opposite of globalization. An example of this is if you go to an ethnic Orthodox parish where they may not accept you fully because you are not one of them. This kind of racial nationalism was condemned as a heresy by an Orthodox Church synod in Constantinople in 1872. As Christians, we must always walk on a tightrope. You can preserve your national identity, but at the same time, you must be open to others. You can be American or English or Irish, but you must also preserve the national identities of those who are Orthodox—the Russians, Georgians, Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, Antiocheans, Finns, and so on. This is vital for your faith, you cannot cut it off, and at the same time, we Greeks must accept you in a brotherly way.

A Christian must fight for freedom for everyone in this world, yet at the same time we must be very strict with our own tradition. This is a tight-rope, and this is what it means to be a Christian. The Moslem-Arab way, the “moderate middle,” is to be always wise and moderate, but we Orthodox can never be proud or sure of our path, because we believe that everything that is done on earth is done through the medium of sinful people. The Orthodox way is to have one foot in this world, and one foot in the other world. We must ask God about every step. It is not easy to be Orthodox, but at the same time it is very easy. You don’t feel alone, you have God with you, but if you put your ego first, it’s impossible.

So, we ask ourselves, how can a Christian who lives in a multicultural world follow the will of God, which is His freedom? In this we have a sort of Orthodox compass, which is St. Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles who, through the Edict of Milan, gave absolute freedom of expression to any religion in his empire. With this edict, he denied that he himself was a god, which the earlier Roman emperors had proclaimed, and left everyone free to follow their own practices unless it involved something horrible such as infanticide or human sacrifice. He even allowed the heretics to be free. In the same way, he organized the Council of Nicea, where they made very strict decisions about what the Christian faith is, and this, I think, points the way—a modern Orthodox Christian must live in an absolutely free world, while being very strict with his own spiritual life. As Christ has told us, we are not of this world. We must leave other people free, but we ourselves must not live outside of the freedom and will of God.

You can see that Constantine’s experiment and decisions were very good because he created the Byzantine Empire that lasted for over 1100 years. So, if we have a voice in the secular world, we need to look closely at what he did. We are also free to follow saints who had other opinions because we understand that all of this advice is from people who sinned and made mistakes, but were nevertheless sanctified by being a part of the Church.

Defending Old Languages

Now, to move on to the question of languages—as I said a moment ago, traditional languages contain the wisdom of local communities that have existed for thousands of years. Destroying a language is destroying this wisdom with its unique perception of good and bad, of medicinal herbs, of how we live in the desert, how we face the winter, techniques of farming, how to live by the world’s great rivers, how we describe snow or the green color of the Amazon jungle or the sea waves of the Pacific Islanders. All of this is still very important for us.

There are three general types of languages that are important for us in this discussion. The first are the very ancient languages, which originated after the Tower of Babel. For example, we have the Australian Aborigines’ languages, the Paleo-Siberian languages and the Negrito languages of Andaman Islands. Although I don’t want to get into a discussion of the age of the earth, according to archeologists, these languages are 40,000 years old. Even if you believe that the earth is far younger, these are some of the oldest languages on the planet. You also have the San (Bushmen) languages (the “click” languages) and the Paleo-Arctic languages—Lapland, Yupiat, and other northern tongues. Then we have the pygmy language, which has been lost as the pygmies now speak Bantu. In losing the ancient pygmy language, we have lost a huge sum of wisdom.

These languages all have elements that go back to the roots of human language, to the time not long after the Fall. These are the roots of our life. As Fr. Theotimos Tsalas, a priest from Congo has said, “The indigenous languages of Africa have many words and phrases that point to the people once having had faith in One God, and this is even proof that once there was faith in One God over the whole earth. If you lose these languages you lose the ancient myths, and you lose all of these aspects of facing God.”[1]

A second group of languages are the old languages of people who made very great civilizations, or very small but important civilizations, from 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. These include the Georgian, Iberian, Armenian, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Syriac, Ethiopian and Aramaic tongues, and some others. These languages happen to be written as well, and they contain a whole universe of meanings, of thoughts, that we cannot lose. (Spoken Latin we have already lost.) The Chinese are quite self-reliant and they can maintain their language, but the Georgians and Greeks are small countries with few people; yet it is very important to keep these languages alive because the New Testament and many early and later Christian texts were written with them. Arabic is rich and also has Christian components, but that came later. Before Arabic, classical Syriac and Aramaic were the liturgical languages of much of the Christian Middle East. Unfortunately, the Aramaic dialect that the Lord spoke exists now in only a few small villages.

The third category are old languages that were dead, but have been recreated—like Coptic, which has been preserved as a literary language, or the Hebrew language of the Jews (although they also have others such as Yiddish and Ladino), which has recently been revived as a spoken language. Also, the Welsh revived their language, which had not completely died out, but was spoken by very few, and the Irish are trying to do the same.

RTE: You speak about these languages as if they hold the same forms that they had from the beginning, but languages do change, and many languages have changed greatly even in the past century, although some of those changes were forced. The 20th century political upheavals slaughtered languages as well as peoples.

GEORGE: Yes, it is linguistic slaughter, as you call it. This is a slaughter of civilization, of wisdom, of a whole tradition. There has been a terrible transformation of Greek, and in Russia it is the same. For example, young Greeks growing up now cannot understand the Greek of 100 years ago, but Greeks living 100 years ago could even understand the Homeric language of 3000 years ago.

In Isaiah 43, the Lord says, “Let all the nations be gathered together…” This is important, because God doesn’t only speak of humanity in general, but of the wisdom of the nations. He wants us as nations, but if you cut off these traditions and languages, you cut off your own roots on the planet. This is the wisdom of our forefathers, the breathing of the tribes and peoples of the earth.

If we unthinkingly continue to do away with these languages (that is, if I want everything to be in modern Greek or in English), if we continue to homogenize and simplify, we will lose these ancient aspects of human wisdom which were gifts from God to His people when He gave us the right to name the animals, the plants, the stars.

For example, the Arapaho Indian can call a rabbit something so unique that we could never have imagined the word or the concept, but once we understand this name, we know that the rabbit means this for us as well. Or perhaps Slavic speakers in the Carpathian Mountains have a special word for the bear. It is not just a word, but a special characteristic that these people have identified in this animal, the way in which they interact with the bear and what they have learned from it. If we lose their language, we lose not only the sound of the word, but all of this knowledge. We are losing human wisdom, the ways a human society faced the glory of the Lord.

In the same way, the natives in the Amazon River basin have many different words for “green”. We must learn their language to really understand “green”, but to do so we must save it—not just by copying it into a dictionary, but by helping these people to preserve their tradition. Sumerian and other ancient languages are now entirely confined to books and this is a tragedy. You may learn how to read Sumerian, but you will never know the essence of the living words.

You also have this linguistic wisdom in North America. For example, we all know that the Eskimos have very many words for snow, but if the Eskimo is forced to inculturate and use English more and more, you will lose these forty possible descriptions—forty ancient wisdoms—for snow. You will be trying to describe snow with just a few words, and the Eskimos themselves will forget what they know about snow. But if they keep their language, we will all be wiser—we can know snow through their language.

An even more universal example is the use of medicinal herbs that are unique to each area. If we lose this language, we’ll forget the use of herbs that these people knew. These herbs are life-giving, and if you leave these traditions, you lose this oral wisdom and you lose knowledge.

Also, English-speakers don’t want to lose their Old English or Shakespearean English traditions. There is a richness for you in these forms that is more complex and beautiful than your modern English, and although not everyone reads it easily, it is an important component of your cultural and human treasures. The English language has these examples as every language does, but you must go to the roots of your words and your own unique culture.

RTE: I imagine that if we dismiss these other languages as something that doesn’t touch us, we not only lose vital theological concepts, but even the ability to express certain states or feelings. For instance, the Russians have a single word with which they express the spiritual concept of “joy-making sorrow,” which is often used in Orthodox literature. This is a concept we simply don’t have as a single word in English.

GEORGE: Yes. We think that in simplifying and modernizing, our language is going to be accurate and more people will be more able to join in and share, but this is a mistake. In any large city now you find modern kids creating their own intricate slang, and this is not a simple phenomenon. A human being needs something rich, mythical, and hierarchical. He wants simplicity, but not insipidity, and he transforms simplicity into complicated forms to express what he actually experiences. Slang carries feeling as well as meaning.

RTE: So we English-speaking Orthodox have been grafted onto a living body of tradition without which we cannot survive?

GEORGE: You can even cut down a plant and if you leave the roots a new plant will grow. But if you cut the roots you can never restore the plant.

As an example of what we could lose if we ignore those roots, take something as fundamental as the New Testament. In Greek you have this Kaini Diathiki, the New Testament. If you know the Greek language well, you know what this means and you know that the words “New Testament” are a very bad translation. Kaini Diathiki means something that is absolutely new, that is appearing now, at this moment. This is Kaini. It means something that is appearing for the first time in the whole universe—something absolutely important that has never been there before. This also is Kaini. Diathiki is the material inheritance of a father to his son, or the inheritance of a nation to its youth. It is also a testament—omologia. Diathiki also has to do with segments: every segment of something is a thiki, but diathiki covers and orders all of the segments as well. So, when you hear this word you understand that this is something absolutely new, but that it covers all of the parts as well. Diathiki is also about property, about leaving a witness, a declaration of what is to be inherited. Can you imagine? This is the material property that God the Father is leaving us—His Son who was incarnate for us. But if you just say “New Testament” where is this materiality? It’s just a phrase. (Even “New” isn’t right.) Where is the inheritance, where is the property of my father? This is just an example of one word. You can find thousands of such examples in the Bible. If you lose the Greek Church language, replacing it with a simplified modern Greek or English or French or a German variant, you are going to lose all of this wisdom.

RTE: Some Orthodox English-speaking converts ask why ethnic Orthodox should keep their own old church languages on foreign soil, or even on their native soil. I frequently hear people say, “The Greeks and the Russians don’t even understand their own services, why should their churches keep the Slavonic and old Greek languages? It’s just hanging onto a dead past.” How would you answer this?

GEORGE: We can translate the services into English, or into Indonesian, or into the Papua New Guinean language, because understanding their basic meaning is very important. We must translate them, but we can never forget that keeping an ancient tradition alive is not keeping a mummy in a glass case. A living tradition gives inspiration for new things. The healthiest tree is one that has very deep roots, but if you cut the roots, the tree will fall. This is why it is foolish to say, “No, we don’t need this old tradition.” You need the tradition to stay alive yourself.

It’s not necessary for everyone to learn the ancient Greek language, but it must be preserved for those who are interested as a living tradition, so that these people can help the rest of us understand the real meaning of these words.

I have the same problem with the Old Testament. Although we have the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament which is, as we say, “God­inspired,” I still need to know elements of Hebrew to really understand and appreciate this text.

RTE: Can we speak now about Greek itself? As the original language of Christian scripture and the eastern Church Fathers, it holds a primary place for all of us. How many forms of Greek are we speaking about?

GEORGE: The earliest Greek we know of is Mycenaean Greek. The next stage, Ancient Greek, is the term used for the development of the Greek language from the Archaic (c. 9th to 6th centuries BC), Classical (c. 5th to 4th centuries BC) and Hellenistic (c. 4th century BC to 6th century AD) periods of the ancient world. Different forms and dialects of Classical Greek were used by most of the famous Greek philosophers and dramatists. The Attic dialect of the Classical Greek period was the language of the intellectuals, and the dialect of ancient Athens. This was followed by Byzantine Greek (5th to 15th centuries AD), and then modern Greek.

The Hellenistic phase, with the Greek known as Koine, arose during the reign of Alexander the Great in the 4th-century BC. Koine had a simplified grammar and was used as a common language throughout the Hellenized world as it was easily learned by foreigners and for simple people who needed to communicate across cultures. Koine was the language of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and the New Testament was written by the Evangelists in Koine as well. Educated Greeks, however, rejected Koine as being too simplistic, and they reintroduced Classical Greek for writing. Thus, Byzantine Greek, which is the Greek of the Orthodox services and what many of the Church Fathers wrote in during the 5th to 15 centuries AD, remained rooted in the Attic-Classical tradition, while the spoken language continued to develop. Modern Greek, dating from the 15th century has many local dialects.

The Koine Greek of the Bible was simpler than the Greek that had come before, and also simpler than the Greek sermons and commentaries of the Church Fathers who came later. The Fathers used a form of Koine that was enriched with a classic Attic dialect. Even with these different phases, I have to emphasize that from at least 1,600 years before Christ until now, Greek is the same language: the letters of the alphabet are all the same, and even modern Greek keeps the essence of the older Greek inside the words.

RTE: As a modern Greek speaker, do you understand the Greek of the Church Fathers?

GEORGE: Yes, I have studied it. I would guess that a modern Greek person who hasn’t studied it would understand from 30% to 60%, but it takes time. As a comparison, Shakespeare is probably more difficult for English-speaking people today than the biblical Koine is for us—more like the Attic dialect is for us now. Nevertheless, for a modern Greek speaker, the roots of these words are clear, and for an intellectual, the Koine is fully understandable. Later Byzantine Greek, which the Lives of the saints were written in, is very close to modern Greek and we would understand 95%, but it’s much more difficult to read a sermon of St. Basil or St. John Chrysostom, because they use the Attic dialect. The liturgy is a mixture of anachronisms from the Attic language and Koine.

For example, in the Greek of the Pascha service, we say, Defte lavete fos, which is sometimes translated into English as “Come, receive the light” or “Come and take the light,” but this not at all the fullness of its meaning. Defte means “Come to us—leave your place and come to our place, leave your situation and come to us.” And lavete is not only “take” or “receive” but it also means to “share with us” “conquer” “include” “accept” “being convinced”. Fos is not only “light” but “life” “happiness”, “joy” and “glory” too. To be precise in English, you would have to say: “Leave your place and come and have a communion of light and joy and life and glory with us. Share them with us and conquer them also, in receiving them.” This is absolutely different from “Come, receive the light”. If you don’t understand the essence of Orthodoxy in its own Church languages, then you can never really understand your roots. It’s the same with Hebrew, but the problem with the Hebrew language is that it was dead for so many centuries that we cannot recover all of its ancient components.

Another example is from the Divine Liturgy: Tas thyras, tas thyras, en sofia proshomen: “The doors, the doors, let us attend.” If you say “The doors, the doors,” in English that signifies the physical door into the altar. In modern Greek it has this meaning as well, but in the old Greek thyra also means “the house”—and allegorically “paradise” or “the entrance to Paradise.” Thyra is also used in theatre—it is the door through which the actors and actresses pass onto the stage. Thyra also refers to the eyes and ears, so when a Greek hears, Tas thyras, tas thyras … he thinks not only of the physical doors before the holy altar, but about the doors to paradise, and this is also a call to concentrate, to open our eyes and ears to Our Lord Himself, because we are seeing a reenactment of the life of Jesus Christ. It has four meanings, two of which you cannot get in translation.

We can also say paedia, which is usually translated into English as “education” but this is not what it really means—it’s not just education, but a whole system of training a person how to be free, how to socialize, how to communicate with God, with nature, with community, and with people. The word “education” comes from the Greek ekpedefsis, which means “to give skills (mainly to a slave)”. But paedia is to make free people. So, if you translate both of these words as “education” without knowing the old tradition, you have lost their essence. Modern Greek preserves the ancient Greek tradition, as modern Russian represents the ancient Slavic tradition, although both are getting more simplistic every year. We must keep the ancient forms because these languages hold the essence of our eternal truths.

We also have the common example of having many Greek words for love–agape, eros, filia, storge (to be tender), thelema (to desire something). Agape, for example, is the real love between mother and child, or the feeling for a spouse. Agape is also the love of God. If you are to reduce this in translation to just the one word “love,” you are losing all of this richness and variety. How can one word encompass everything?

Then we have the word “cosmos”. In ancient Greek, the word kosmos means jewel. It is the jewel of the Lord. But if you use cosmos in the way the English understand it, you lose the ancient Greek essence and the Christian essence, that this is the jewel that God himself presented to His people and to the whole universe. You understand it as simply “a world, or universe” but it really means “a jewel that is more than everything, and yet is inside of everything.”

RTE: What does Greek use for the word “spirituality”, which is such a general category in English?

GEORGE: In Greek we have the word, pneumatikotika. This is usually translated in English as spirituality or spiritualism, but both terms are extremely bad, because pneumatikotika has nothing to do with the spirituality of the pagans or the spirituality of the intellectuals. It is something absolutely different—it means “to live under the Orthodox way of life, and to be connected to the Holy Spirit.”

For pagans and Hindus we would use pneuvmatismos, which means “to be under the spirits.” It’s the same root but an absolutely different meaning. This also means to call the spirits and to be obedient to them. I think your English “spiritualism” means the same.

If we are talking about the spirituality of an intellectual, we say, pneumatiko, “through the mind”. These are absolutely different. But we would never call someone like Socrates pneumatiko. We would call him, illumino or “philosopher”.

An Orthodox pneuvmatikos could never be referred to by these words, because he is dedicated to the Lord. He is enlightened by the Holy Spirit and speaks out of this enlightenment. This is why I believe it is sometimes better to leave words as they are, as we left Allelluia and Hosanna in the Bible. These ancient Hebrew words were better than the Greek, so the Septuagint translators left them as they were. Translating pneuvmatikotika into the English “spirituality” is absolutely destructive, because you cannot get into the idea of spirituality. You cannot refer to pagan, Hindu, Jews, or even other Christian denominations, as pneuvmatikotika. The simplistic phrases of “Orthodox spirituality” or “pagan spirituality,” or “spiritualism”, absolutely lose the essence of this word, but English-speaking Orthodox could leave the word as it is, pneumatikotis, and adopt it into their vocabulary. This is like saying Pascha instead of Easter.

I’m a very strong defender of leaving the words we cannot translate as they are. An alternative would be to create a word that is absolutely new (as the Chinese Orthodox are now trying to do to convey the fullness of theological thought.) A reader who is completely new to Orthodoxy will be easily mislead if he reads about “spirituality” when his whole background has been something connected with, for example, general sociological concepts or “esoteric” teachings. It’s much better to leave the Greek or Slavonic term or to construct an absolutely new term that cannot be confused with other English terms, so that you can impress upon the reader that this is a new form of spirituality that he’s never known before—something absolutely Orthodox.

Poor translations also distort your understanding of the Bible and Church history. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, in the passage about St. Dionysios the Aereopagite, the Greek translation says, “…and there were some males, and amongst them was Dionysios the Aereopagite and the woman called Damaris.” This mention of a woman wouldn’t make sense unless she was the wife of one of them. The English translations I’ve seen are often completely wrong, because they read, “There were some men [meaning people in general], and among them was Dionysios the Aereopagite and a woman called Damaris.” These poor translators see this verse as singling out two individuals in a crowd.

However, if you go to the modern and ancient Greek, we still say, “George and the woman named Olga,” meaning myself and my wife. If my wife and I go to any Greek village today, they will say exactly the same thing: “Georgios came and the woman, Olga.” It is perfectly clear that this means my wife, and it is absolutely clear in both Koine and modern Greek that Damaris was Dionysios’ wife. That’s why St. John Chrysostom and St. Ambrose of Milan understood it literally that she was the wife of St. Dionysios. In the West, they’ve turned this into a controversy.

This is a very clear example of how modern Greek still carries the meanings of the older forms, and how many mistakes you can make in translation if you don’t know the essence of the language.

RTE: In regard to mistranslation, someone once asked Elder Paisius of the Holy Mountain if they could study theology abroad. He said, “You have to be very careful where you go to study. The thing that happens is that our young people go to England, to France and other countries to study, and while there they catch all kinds of viruses and then go on to do their dissertation. They study the Greek Fathers in translations from our own language prepared by the foreigners who either because they could not render the meanings correctly or by design they added their own erroneous notions. Our own Orthodox scholars who are learned in foreign languages will catch this foreign virus, carry it to Greece and spread it with their teaching. This is not to say that someone who is careful will not be able to separate the gold from the amber.”[2]

George, in light of all of this, what do you suggest for English-speaking converts or converts of other languages? Many traditional Orthodox are alarmed by some western converts who would like to ignore or even break ties with the older Orthodox traditions and patriarchates: it’s like a schoolchild raising himself.

GEORGE: As I said before, the ancient Greek tradition and the ancient Greek liturgy keep the real essence of the Christian faith, as does the Slavonic and other old Church languages. These traditions and languages are not just something for quaint foreigners. It’s like trying to teach the Koran without knowing Arabic, or teaching the Vedas without knowing the Indian languages. It’s senseless to try to become Orthodox without respecting these ancient cultures and languages. Converts are not obliged to know Greek, but you are obliged to respect the ancient ways. If this is neglected, you are destroying the roots and essence of your own faith.

The problem is not to promote the Greek language, the problem is to conserve it in the minds of the people who are willing to study it. This is enough. They can interpret for the rest. Not everyone needs to learn Greek, but there should be a nucleus of people in every Orthodox country who learn ancient Greek, Koine, liturgical (Byzantine) Greek, and even modern Greek, which keeps the essence of the old meanings. Then their translations would be more accurate and beautiful.

RTE: And perhaps even lead to Orthodox schools for translating church texts from Russian-Slavonic, Syriac, Arabic, Georgian, and the various forms of Greek.

GEORGE: Yes. May the Lord bless it.

From: Road to Emmaus Vol. XI, No. 3 (#42). Reprinted with permission.

[1]See Fr. Theotimos Tsalas, We Are Going to Live in Paradise, Road to Emmaus Journal, Issue #18, Summer, 2004.
[2]Elder Paisius, Spiritual Counsels, Vol. 1: With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian, Souroti, Thessaloniki, 2006, pg. 325.
Marina Neveux 12/15/2023 7:59 pm
wonderful article. very interesting. Thank you Marina Neveux
Isidora5/16/2018 8:29 pm
Bravo! For this lovely, important article, I wish the scoring went up to 100. I will be sharing with my priest's daughter who is studying Greek. May the Lord bless her studies.
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