[MGSA-L] CYPRUS - A changing language

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Sat Oct 22 19:06:54 PDT 2011


A changing language
By Poly Pantelides Published on October 16, 2011

The story of the Greek Cypriot dialect is one of conquest by a
bewildering array of invaders, many of whom helped create a rich
linguistic tapestry that some now fear may well be wearing thin.

The future of this unique dialect was one of the themes of Thursday’s
European Commission and University of Cyprus organised event on the
Cypriot dialect, which was held to celebrate the European Day of

The audience was told at length about numerous conquerors who brought
with them new words and languages. Migration from Anatolia and Mycenae
in the Bronze Age introduced dialects of Greek. Much later, members of
the Greek Achaeans arrived in waves, as did Assyrians, Egyptians and

Then, more than two thousand years ago, Rome annexed Cyprus. Rome was
followed by the Byzantine Empire (the language of the Church) and
endless Arab raids. (We still use ‘mashallah’ or what ‘God wishes, he
grants’ from the Arabic to praise Allah for good things.)

The Frankish Lusignan rule from the late 12th century until nearly the
end of the 15th century continued the linguistic changes, much to the
chagrin of Leontios Machairas, a mediaeval Cypriot historian.

Using the dialect to write his Chronicle of the island, he wrote that
when the Lusignans came, people “started learning Frankish and
barbarised Roman and up until today we write in Frankish and Roman and
people don’t know what we’re talking about.”

The short Venetian rule, followed by 300 years of Ottoman control and
then British rule all added extra layers of vocabulary and expression.

For example, ‘karkola’ for bed comes from the Italian ‘carriola’.

‘Imish’ comes from the Ottoman Empire. In Turkish it’s a grammatical
construct designating disbelieved reported speech, but in Cypriot
dialect ‘imish’ is used to show that someone said something we don’t

And yet among the imports, we still have words from Homer.

“The Cypriot dialect is an ancient language that even today keeps
intact many words from Homer,” said dialect expert Michalis

Pashiardis, 71, has written numerous poems and plays in the
vernacular, has collaborated with magazines and newspapers and worked
at CyBC on cultural programmes.

Inevitably, many of the audience at the University of Cyprus talk
asked the panel of experts what they thought of Greeklish, the
increasingly used portmanteau of English and Greek.

Is it corrupting the dialect? Is it just a fad?

“It is an evolution of language which serves new needs,” linguist
Marilena Karielogou said.

“Whether or not a language is a language and not a dialect is a
sociological and political issue. It has nothing to do with the
language itself,” she said.

Yet nostalgia certainly exists for the language of the village. The
Aegean, the restaurant-cum-bookstore-cum-publishing house in Nicosia’s
old city, is often packed with characters hankering for a time past,
when people spoke a different dialect, less homogenous across the
island, more archaic and with a richer vocabulary.

Pashiardis is there most nights, while owner, Vassos Ptohopoulos, has
written his own book in which the richness of the language of his home
village in now occupied Yialousa features prominently.

“Do you remember when our grandparents used to sing some strange and
beautiful songs they called amanedes? I remember my grandfather in the
house’s garden, drinking and singing on his own,” the Aegean’s owner,
Ptohopoulos, says in a book he wrote, on sale at his restaurant.

Amanedes also featured at the University of Cyprus event. Terpandos, a
band which solely uses ancient Greek instruments, explained that
amanedes - Eastern laments - were originally Greek and that is why
they were banned by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal

There is a direct link, they said, between the ancient Greek historian
Herodotus tracing the use of amanedes in ancient Egypt and ancient
Greek songs of lament. The point is controversial, however, and not
universally accepted as historically valid.

But to a boy, listening to his grandfather singing, “it was like a
theatre show” Ptohopoulos said.

It’s a point which highlights the link between the Greek Cypriot
dialect and its convoluted history.

It’s so convoluted in fact that most Greek Cypriots use Turkish words
without realising. The slang for food that’s gone off ‘pagiatiko’ is
Turkish. Greek-sounding ‘sastismos’ for confusion and surprise is also
Turkish, as is ‘kappajin’ for pot lids.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pashiardis, who is more knowledgeable and
intimately connected to the vernacular than many others, doesn’t care
either way about words.

“I’m neutral,” he says when I ask him whether he’s sad that many
Cypriot words have been lost. “Some of them are getting replaced by
their modern Greek counterparts. That’s simply how it goes.”

Words lost to be replaced by modern Greek or Greeklish is neither good
nor bad he said. “Language evolves.”

Karielogou echoed his sentiment when she told Thursday’s audience that
people attach an array of issues that are political and sociological
onto language itself, when they are actually irrelevant.

There is nothing wrong, she said, with using the vernacular for some
purposes and common Greek for others – that phenomenon is widespread.

But she admitted that the dialect crops up in more places than you’d
think, citing a study that, while looking at the transcripts of the
House of Representatives which are corrected to fit standard Modern
Greek, found instances of the Cypriot dialect.

But not all agreed with Karielogou’s pragmatic assessment of
linguistic evolution.

Hambis, the well-known wood carver who has illustrated traditional
folktales in the vernacular, chose to speak exclusively in the

“I will talk to you in the language I live and breathe, as it helps me
express myself,” Hambis told the audience.

He said that language is a tool for expression and can be used
unexpectedly such as when giving a lecture in dialect which the norm
dictates should be in Greek ‘proper’.

His unexpected use of dialect made me recall a personal memory when I
came across the Cypriot dialect in what - through the ignorance of
youth - I had thought an unlikely place.

Lost in the Karpasia peninsula a few years ago, my father and I ended
up at a Turkish Cypriot village: Kaleburnu in Turkish and Gallinoporni
in Greek, or rather because this is a story about the Greek Cypriot
dialect, Galloporni.

The men in the coffeeshop were all in their fifties or older and
chatting away even amongst themselves in the Greek Cypriot dialect.

For my father, who grew up like Ptohopoulos in Yialousa which had its
own version of the dialect, the sight and sounds of older Turkish
Cypriot men using the dialect was no surprise.

But it was a rural Cyprus back when those old men learned the dialect
and life was very different.

Ptohopoulos for example describes in his book on Yialousa how they
used to bathe only once a week, knew the names and nicknames of
insects by heart, “what beautiful Greek many old men spoke even though
they weren’t educated.”

My grandmother says, for example, that her heart hurts when she has a
stomach ache. She speaks a different language to me.

“If you were only ten years younger than me perhaps we would have a
common language and we’d discuss things differently,” Pashiardis told

As it happens, he is over 40 years older than me but the fact that the
dialect changes shows that language, a living organism, can only move

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com

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