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On the Brink: Griko; A Language of Resistance and Celebration

Italy, a land of distinctive culture, is also full of linguistic diversity. The language officially spoken today is a convention of the 19(th) century Accademia della Crusca, which emerged after the wars of unification (Risorgimento) (circa 1848-1861). At that time, the intent was to forge an Italian people by forcing them to speak one standard language. This effort was only partially successful. Today within Italy's borders one can find pockets of minority languages like Sardinian, Albanian, and Friulan. Furthermore, while many Italians have a strong sense of Italian identity, they hold allegiances to their own towns and local dialects. An example is Griko, a near-extinct variant of Greek and other interspersed elements, spoken in a few villages in Salento (the Salentine plain), in Puglie, and in Calabria. These regions are located in Southern Italy, the ancient Magna Graecia, colonized by many Greek cities from 600 B.C.E. onward.

Speakers of Griko, who live and operate in Italy as fully assimilated Italians, call themselves Griki. This is not a paradox to them: although they are full-fledged Italian citizens, they are acutely aware of their Greek roots and they maintain multiple identities. They easily switch back and forth between Italian and the two local dialects, Romanzo, which is Italian based, and Griko. A key to their identity, and a factor that makes them unique, is their strong defense of Griko.

In Magna Graecia of antiquity, Greek was the language of preference; it was, however, interchanged with Latin and other languages. There, in busy day-to-day interactions, migrants, merchants, and clerks were familiar with several tongues. The consensus of most linguists is that ancestors of present-day speakers were migrant workers who came to southern Italy from impoverished mainland Greece and surrounding islands to work the rich estates of Roman landowners. Over the centuries, these farmhands were ignored by policy-makers, soldiers, and other invaders who "conquered" Italy. Ironically, the low status of the Griki may, in the long run, have served to "save" their language and culture.

The collapse of the Roman Empire (circa 476 C.E.) put the lower part of the Italian Mediterranean firmly under the influence of Byzantium, and, as cultural and commercial exchange increased, local use of Greek strengthened. Although the rise of the Ottoman Empire (circa 1288 C.E.) brought more change, the area returned to the influence of Christianity during the Counter-Reformation (circa 1545 C.E.), and Rome abolished Greek Orthodox rites. No longer able to worship in their native tongue, Griki went back to their ancient festivals and to their traditional music. From that time onward, as Latin Christian rituals became unintelligible, they sang their Mass in Griko in the streets. Not only did they hold on to their language; they shared much of their culture with speakers of Romanzo.

After the Risorgimento, the new government imposed Italian as the official language. In practice, however, only the wealthy could afford to stay in school to learn it properly. Griko villages remained essentially trilingual, with Italian reserved for higher education and official business; Romanzo used for everyday business; and Griko, the language of family and friendship, continuing to provide identity. There was no social mobility in speaking Griko. The easiest way to preserve Griko would have been to speak it to children; the young, however, were taught "the languages of progress" -- Italian, English, and more recently, Modern Greek. Along with out-marriage and emigration, educational factors substantially reduced the number of Griko speakers.

Starting from the latter part of the 19(th) century, Griko was actively reconstructed and studied. This effort continues today, thanks to a number of writers, students, and artists. These Griki are continuing their mission to save their language. To increase readership, literary works are being published in Griko, Italian, and sometimes in Romanzo. Group identity is being maintained with rituals that celebrate ancient traditions. Street festivals, which had fallen into disuse after WWII, are revitalizing the community.

In addition, the age of the Internet has given efforts to save Griko new weapons. Most of present-day Griki communicate through "Magna Graecia," a very active Internet forum rendering traditional village boundaries obsolete.

Recently, The European Union granted Griko "endangered language" status, and steps have been taken to introduce it into the school system. However, this legal protection has changed efforts to preserve the language. With children learning Griko in school, and, more importantly, learning the traditional culture, the "need to save Griko" seems less compelling and becomes less important as an aspect of Griki identity.

Perhaps a study of the efforts to revitalize modern Griko can offer valuable lessons which can be applied to other cultures. With typical hospitality, the group welcomes newcomers, even the odd anthropologist. My questions and comments online and my visits to Salento have been received with generosity. I've heard elders who see themselves as linguistic fossils speak Romanzo or Italian to children in order to give them social mobility. I've seen vigorous debates on whether to use the Greek or Latin alphabet, and on whether Italian words should be substituted for Greek ones. Most of all, I have seen Griko read, spoken, and sung with love.

It is my intention to continue the study of this ancient yet fully vital culture in the years to come, in order to formulate a module that, hopefully, may be applied to other endangered peoples.


Many thanks to the people of Salento who have made kalos irtate [welcome] a way of life. Thank you for the privilege of being one of you. I look forward to my next visits not only to learn more, but to be with friends and generous teachers.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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