“Our roots are Greek but we are in Italy. Our blood is Greek but we are Grecanici,” said Mimo Nicura, a member of the so called Griko minority of Calabria and Apulia (Puglia). As we all know, Italy serves as the home of numerous ethnic communities. However, the history of the Griko people – and their language – deserves a special mention. The people are said to be the “remnants of the once large Ancient and Medieval Greek communities of southern Italy.” (Wikipedia) Although most Greek inhabitants have since become entirely Italianised, this unique community has managed to preserve its original culture. Let me emphasise, however, that the Griko people are distinct from today’s Greek immigrants who happen to have chosen the old region of Magna Graecia as their new home. Firstly, the quote at the beginning of this article indicates that the people advise us against confusing ‘Greek’ with ‘Grecanici’. Secondly, we shall not forget that the ancient Greek colonisation of Southern Italy and Sicily dates back to the 8th century BC. With this in mind, the Griko and Calabrian Greek dialects – the former of which I aim to present in this article – have an unbelievably close relationship with their mother tongue and its successor, Modern Greek.
In Greece, this unusual dialect is often referred to as ‘Κατωιταλιώτικα’ (Katoitaliotika, or ‘Southern Italian’). As we would expect, Griko has been influenced by Italian, although its impact on the vocabulary is more or less insignificant. In other words, it is mutually intelligible with Modern Greek – to some extent! Today I quoted the first verse of the Griko-language song ‘Καληνύφτα’ (Kalinífta, meaning Goodnight, from ‘Καληνύχτα’) to my Greek-origin mother. Surprisingly, she understood the majority of the lyrics with ease. So how important is the influence of Italian on Griko and other Italiot Greek dialects? Let me show you an example. The first line of the song says: «Εβώ πάντα σε σένα πενσέω» (Evó pánta se séna penséo), which my mum translated into «Εγώ πάντα εσένα…» “But what is ‘πενσέω’?” she asked. With my little, but useful knowledge of French, Italian and Esperanto, the answer was obvious. The Italian verb ‘pensare’ (meaning ‘to think’) applied the rules of Greek grammar to form a new word in Griko, thus replacing the Modern Greek ‘σκέφτομαι’. The rest are just a few consonantal changes and perhaps a low level of influence on the grammar from Romance languages, especially the dialects of Southern Italy.
So let’s talk about the key issue concerning Griko and Calabrian Greek: they are not handed down to children and the Italian government does little to protect the culture and the dialects. The community is recognised as an ethnic and linguistic minority in Reggio Calabria and Salento by the Parliament of Italy, yet the Italiot Greek language is severely endangered. It has roughly 20,000 speakers who are mostly elderly people, which means that the younger generations are unfamiliar with it. This is due to the fact that the language is not taught to Griko youth at all in Southern Italy. So what is the future of these matchless dialects? Can this amazing phenomenon be prevented from vanishing? I promise to make another mention of Griko in my upcoming article about the languages and dialects of Italy, which I will hopefully get to before school begins.