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Psycharis was born on 15 May 1854 to a Greek family from Chios island, in Odessa (in modern-day Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire), on the coast of the Black Sea. Nicholas I of Russia still reigned at the time of his birth and his government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life.
He studied at the École des langues orientales, where he later became a professor.
In 1882, he married Ernest Renan's daughter, Noémi, from whom he had four children, among which Ernest Psichari, Henriette Revault d'Allonnes and Corrie Siohan, raised in the Scheffer-Renan Hôtel, the current Musée de la Vie romantique in the heart of the Nouvelle Athènes neighbourhood, in Paris.
Psycharis was the populariser of the term diglossia, which describes a language community's simultaneous use of the genuine mother tongue of the present day, the vernacular, and a dialect from centuries earlier in the history of the language. The vernacular is of low prestige and is discouraged or totally forbidden for written use and formal spoken use, while the obsolete dialect is of high prestige and is used for most written communication and for formal speeches by institutions of authority such as government and religious institutions. Diglossia was a major issue in Greek society and politics in the 19th and 20th centuries (see Greek language question).
Psycharis also proposed an innovative orthography for Greek which never really caught on, despite being the focus of several serious attempts at implementation continuing into the late 20th century. A beginning Modern Greek textbook for foreign students, Ellinika Tora (Greek Now), employs some of his suggestions such as substituting rho for lambda when the pronunciation of the glide is conditioned by the other sounds around it – thus αδερφός (aderfos) instead of standard αδελφός (adelphos). While this and other of his suggestions more accurately reflect true pronunciation, they seem to have little chance of being adopted.
- Jean, Psychari (1888). My Journey [Το ταξίδι μου]. Athens: S. K. Vlastos.
- Musée de la Vie romantique, Hôtel Scheffer-Renan, Paris
- Works by Ioannis Psicharis at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Ioannis Psycharis at Internet Archive