Κυριακή, 28 Φεβρουαρίου 2010

Discovering an ancient language

LITTLE DID Mark Janse know that what had started as a spinoff to his doctoral thesis would, more than a decade later, lead him to discover a Greek-related language that most of his fellow linguists had for decades written off as extinct.

As he researched his thesis on word order in Ancient Greek, Dutch-born Janse noticed some tendencies in the change of word-order patterns from the 1st century AD onwards.

“This led me to formulate some hypothesis,” he says, “so I decided to look forwards rather than backwards and became interested in Mediaeval Greek, which was basically still the same.”
Consulting an old German book on Greek dialects, Janse soon realised that the Anatolian and Asia Minor dialects seemed to confirm his hypothesis. “They actually turned my tendencies into grammatical rules,” he says.

Among the many examples in the book, published in 1900 by Albert Thumb, was a text from Fertek, which Janse read at a talk held at the Netherlands Institute in Athens on February 3. The degree of its detachment from Modern Greek was demonstrated by the fact that few of the Greeks present at the lecture could understand it.

Early start

Janse, a research professor in Ancient and Asia Minor Greek at Ghent University, explains that he was always fascinated by undeciphered scripts.

“My father told me that, as an 8-year-old child, I used to go to the library to look at Egyptian hieroglyphs and copy Greek texts.”

He jokes that he always dreamed about discovering an unknown language in “South America or Papua New Guinea”.

“Then, of course, I met my wife and I never made it to the Amazon,” he quips. After his dissertation, Janse kept up his interest in Cappadocian, which he considered exotic enough. After a dozen or so years of presenting his research, Janse in 2005 received an astonishing email from a colleague at the University of Patra. Attached was a recent recording of a man saying: “Pateram doeka fsea epci“ (My father had 12 children).

Immediately recognising that these four words were Cappadocian, Janse found himself in tears. “It was a most wonderful experience. It was as if Homer himself had appeared and was singing the Iliad.”

Up to that point, he explains, all his visits to Greek villages inhabited by Cappadocian communities had revealed no traces of the spoken language.Hopped on a plane

“The next day, I booked my flights to Greece and, with my colleague, we travelled to the village of Mandra, near Larissa. We really thought we were going to find the last speaker of Cappadocian.”
His odyssey through numerous villages brought him to Agoineri, in Elassona, northern Greece. “The entire village, even younger people, speaks Misiotica [a Cappadocian dialect], including women from elsewhere who married local men. They have to learn it in order to communicate with the kaka, a Turkish word meaning mother-in-law.” Since then, he’s met many more fluent Cappadocian speakers, the youngest of whom was born in 1969.

While Janse is not entirely confident that Cappadocian can survive the next 50 years - this will ultimately depend on its speakers and not linguists - he says that the recent establishment of the Panhellenic Union of Cappadocian Societies (PEKS) is a major step.

“This shows that the Cappadocians do care. We are witnessing a revival, not just of the language, but of the entire culture as well.”Restoring pride

A major event in the Cappadocian calendar is the annual Gavoustema reunion.
In 2006, Janse spoke at the annual reunion in Greek and in some Cappadocian.

“There were 5,000 people there. Whenever I started saying something in Cappadocian, there was great applause. At the end, so many old people were in tears, hugging and kissing me afterwards.”
He says that the sight of a foreign professor telling them that they ought to be proud of their language and culture moved them deeply, as for years Greek society had made them feel ashamed of their language because of its marked Turkish influence.

Janse says that the bishop of Drama, who was in the audience, commended him afterwards for giving his people “back their pride and removing their shame”.The Cappadocians

LOCATED in central Anatolia, Cappadocia once formed part of the Hittite empire. It was subsequently Hellenised after the time of Alexander the Great, but the existing language of the area left a mark on the Greek spoken there.

Many of the Church Fathers were Cappadocian (such as Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa), and contemporary observers often remarked on their pronounced accents. With the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, Cappadocia was severed from the rest of the Greek-speaking world and its language became heavily influenced by the Turks. What came out was a mix of two archaic forms of presentday languages - Greek and Turkish.

According to a 1924 census of the Christian Cappadocian population, 22,500 inhabitants spoke exclusively Turkish and 17,500 spoke the Cappadocian dialects. Under the Lausanne Treaty of the same year, all Christian Cappadocians, regardless of language, were expelled to Greece, where speaking the dialects was not encouraged. Their language was long considered to be extinct, until researchers Mark Janse and Dimitris Papazachariou discovered native speakers in northern Greece.

Cappadocian, Janse explains, is more a series of dialects rather than a single language. Dialects could vary greatly, even between neighbouring villages, although they were generally comprehensible to speakers. The fact that these dialects were never printed prevented standardisation.Janse adds that Turkish structures had a huge influence on Cappadocian grammar, demonstrated by the tendency by speakers to add all the possible Greek suffixes to words when denoting case, such as in the word athroposiaiou (genitive plural for the Cappadocian word for person, athropos).

Janse also estimates that about half of Cappadocian vocabulary is Turkish. “Its speakers didn’t distinguish between Greek and Turkish words. For them, it was their dialect.”

Lesser-known languages and the onslaught of modernity

WHEN the Greek state was founded it faced a linguistic problem shared by many newly established European nations, namely the huge range of dialects and languages spoken by the citizens within its borders.It was an issue captured by Dimitris Vyzantios in the play Vavylonia (Babylonia), first performed in 1836. It’s the story of a group of people from different parts of Greece who decide to celebrate the naval victory of the combined British, French and Russian forces over the Ottomans at the Battle of Navarino (1827).

The play satirises the difficulties in communication among the members of the group, who cannot understand each other as they speak different dialects.


The imposition of a national school system and the desire of parents to ensure their children had a better future spelled trouble for the dialects and languages of Greece, none of which could match the universal appeal and currency of Greek proper. Rapid social change, in response to modernisation and greater access to education, explains the speedy shift from dialects and lesser languages such as Arvantic, which is closely related to Albanian, to Greek.

“If you were a 19th-century Athenian, more than likely you would have spoken Arvanitic,” says Aegean University sociolinguist Costas Canakis, of Arvanite extraction himself.

“This was a game of both repression and democratic institutions,” says Canakis, who compares the Arvanite experience to that of the Chicanos in the United States - monoglot Spanish-speaking Mexicans who force their children to speak English in the hope they can better themselves.

Rich experience
But as Yiorgos Yerou, president of the Arvanitic League of Greece, explains, exposing children to as many languages as possible enriches their capability to learn others. It’s a message that his association has tried to emphasise to Arvanitic-speaking parents in Greece.

Asteris Koukoudis, author of two books on the Aromanians (Vlach), speakers of a Romance language in Greece and the Balkans, argues strongly that his language derives its strength from its speakers. State support or its designation as a minority language would only have a negative effect.
He points to the fact that over 40,000 people of all ages (photo L) attend the annual Vlach festival in Metsovo, in Epirus.

“We are experiencing a revival of the interest in the language and identity by the Vlachs themselves, many of whom yearn for the old ways now that they live in cities.”Arvanites and Vlachs through the ages

ARVANITIC was the mother tongue of many of the leaders of the Greek War of Independence, such as Admiral Andreas Miaoulis (photo) from Hydra and the heroine Bouboulina.

What’s more, no less than seven Arvanites have served as Greece’s prime minister. Prominent presentday Arvanites include Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos and Archbishop Ieronymos.

The Vlachs have also left their mark on the modern Greek state. An eminent figure of the Greek Enlightenment was Rigas Feraios. Simon Sinas financed the erection of the Academy of Athens and the Orthodox Cathedral, Yiorgos Averoff sponsored the building of the Panathinaiko stadium (Kallimarmaro), and Athens Polytechnic was the gift of Nikolaos Stournaras. The founder of the National Bank of Greece, Yiorgos Stavrou, was a Vlach from Ioannina.


Special thanks to Dr Maria Anastasopoulou-Krimigis for sending me this interesting article


Δεν υπάρχουν σχόλια:

Δημοσίευση σχολίου