COMMUNITY

Britain’s Cypriot dialect under pressure

EVA TOMARA

Varosi, a Cypriot coffee shop in London’s Palmers Green district, closed down recently (left). Dr Petros Karatsareas, lecturer in sociolinguistics at the University of Westminster (right), has conducted research into the social pressures the Cypriot dialect is exposed to in London.

TAGS: Community, Cyprus

London, 1990. Six-year old Skevi, of Cypriot background, was late for class at her Greek community school, which left her unable to find somewhere to sit.

She asked for a “chaera” (meaning “chair” in Cypriot). The teacher knew what a “chaera” was, but refused to help Skevi and left her standing by the classroom door.

She asked the girl to explain what a “chaera” was, in a way to motivate her into using the proper modern Greek word. Skevi then requested a “chair,” using the English word.

“In that moment I realized how problematic my speech was,” 34-year old Skevi says today.

Dr Petros Karatsareas, lecturer in sociolinguistics at the University of Westminster, acknowledges that linguistic denial can have a serious impact on the person.

“The girl was raised in an environment where Cypriot was the only language being used,” he says.

Greek Cypriots send their children off to these Greek schools to be taught the modern Greek language, which is essentially a “foreign” language to them, Karatsareas says, noting that it is not spoken at home.

This impacts the existence of both the Cypriot language in their lives, as it is not the “correct” form, but also the Greek language, since it is not understood as useful to the learners.

Karatsareas reveals that he was exposed to many vivid stories told by Cypriots living in London, while he observed multiple sociolinguistic concerns involving the usage of their dialect. In his research, he has examined all the social pressures the Cypriot dialect is exposed to in London, as a language viewed as inferior to modern Greek.

According to that research, the dialect is at risk of dying. With English taking over the world, subordinate languages used in the UK are at great risk of disappearing. This phenomenon was highly observed in the late 20th century.

The amount of pressure existing in this environment is not the only reason why language deteriorates through each generation. A sense of responsibility and pressure has a powerful impact in maintaining the household language from generation to generation.

“The Cypriot community is facing the pressure of committing to modern Greek instead of their dialect,” Karatsareas explains. 

Greek community schools in London further portray the Cypriot dialect as a “rural” type of dialect, suggesting that it’s a type of language that appeals to the illiterate and uncultured individual – an idea that mainly originates from Cyprus itself. 

“It was imported into London by the first generations of migrants [after Cyprus gained independence in 1960] and it expanded as generally low-educated economic migrants connected the Cypriot dialect with that particular profile.”

Meanwhile, the idea held among Cypriots back home of their British-based kin does not help. “They look down on them as backward, saying that they speak a 1950s Cypriot dialect.”

As a result, Karatsareas says, the Cypriot dialect is further subjected to interlinguistic and intercommunal pressure.

The first step involves acknowledging the value of the Cypriot dialect, as it is crucial to each individual to know that every aspect in his identity is valuable. The Cypriot dialect deserves more recognition in the community educational system, while it should not be classified as a rural-level language. 

Karatsareas reveals that the Greek language is endangered too, since it is not definitive that the future generations will be learning and using it.

“It’s early enough to save the Greek language from fading abroad, as the second generation is still in development,” he concludes.

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