Dialects put up battle against test of time

The community of Hamidie lies on the border between Syria and Lebanon. At the end of the 1990s, Professor Roula Tsokalidou of Thessaloniki University went there to study the grecophone peoples of the Middle East. On arrival, and before she could finish her question, in broken Arabic, as to where to start looking, a cafe owner turned to a youth and called out in perfect Greek, «Where is your father, young man?» It is easier to hear pure Cretan in this part of the Middle East than on the island of Crete itself. The Cretan dialect, along with Pontic and Cypriot, are the three purely Greek out of the total five (including Cappadocian and Vlach) and which include dozens of other local linguistic idioms, that have withstood the test of time throughout the Hellenic world. Although dialects, whether geographical or ethnic, are dwindling, they have managed to survive in environments where they are in constant contact with other languages and cultures, according to three university surveys on the Greek language and its dialects, published last week by Thessaloniki University. The survival of Cretan in Hamidie derives from the people’s need to preserve their particular identity, according to the survey. «If they didn’t, they would feel they had lost a large part of their lives,» claims researcher Tsokalidou, assistant professor at the university’s Department of Preschool Education. In Syria and Lebanon, fifth- and sixth-generation Cretans whose ancestors had converted to Islam and were exiled from the island, still speak Greek and improvise traditional Cretan «mantinades» (short songs) although they have never visited the island itself, and do not have a Greek language school. Three thousand residents of Hamidie (of the 5,000 in Syria) and another 7,000 in Lebanon are nevertheless passing on the Greek language, highlighting the interdependency of language, society and identity. «When our ancestors came here, they didn’t known any other language but Cretan,» Talb, a 50-year-old Cretan from Lebanon told Tsokalidou. The Pontic dialect spoken by ethnic Greeks of the Black Sea coast has survived for the past 80 years in Greece and today is spoken by about 500,000 residents of 300 villages, most of them in northern Greece. It is the dialect that has been studied the most and has survived as the refugees who flooded into Greece from Turkey in the 1922 population exchange defended themselves against hostility from locals and strove to maintain their own identity. Today it is spoken by a sizable segment of the Greek population, along with modern Greek, according to the rector of Thessaloniki University’s teaching college Sophronis Hatzisavvidis in his survey «The Pontic Dialect in Greece Today.» Although modern Greek is now spoken within Pontic communities, the language of communication at weddings, baptisms and in storytelling is still Pontic, the lingua franca among young and old in some 50 villages inhabited solely by Pontic Greeks. A further bulwark against extinction was the influx of ethnic Greek refugees from the former Soviet states. The language spoken today by some 800,000 Greek Cypriots is not the old dialect but a «Pan-Cypriot common variety» developed over the past 50 years and which has gradually eliminated about 18 linguistic idioms on the island. It is a new dialect which includes many elements of modern Greek and which began to take shape around the end of the colonial period in the 1960s but developed more rapidly after 1974 with the movement of populations, particularly from the northern sector of the island. «’Common Cypriot’ is quite distinct with regard to accent and syntax but mainly in its morphology,» said Stavroula Tsiplakou, who teaches in the Science Education Department at the University of Cyprus, in her study on linguistic changes on Cyprus. Old Cypriot, although still spoken by the elderly in Cyprus, by bilingual Turkish Cypriots (230,000 of them) and Cypriot emigrants to Britain and elsewhere, is gradually disappearing.