In the south of Italy, villagers speak a form of ancient Greek that goes back to the eighth century B.C.
By Rebecca Sonzogni
In a remote corner of Southern Italy, nestled between olive trees and whitewashed houses, you might hear old women talking in a language that goes back to the eighth century B.C. After the evening church service, they walk on cobbled streets towards their houses. “Kalinìtta” (Good night) they say.
Whoever enters one of the nine small towns of Grecia Salentina in Apulia can witness this unexpected ritual every day. In these areas, a form of ancient Greek is still spoken.
This dialect is called Griko and it is considered the last living trace of the Greek colonial settlements that once formed Magna Graecia.
“Far from the Turkish influence, Griko is an uncontaminated photograph of archaic Greek,” said Silvano Palamà, president of Ghetonìa Cultural Association, an organisation that promotes the Griko tradition.
Griko owes its survival to the seclusion of the areas in Southern Italy where it is spoken. The barrier of the Ionian Sea kept its ancestral heritage safe from the evolving language of mainland Greece – from Hellenism until today.
Ancient Greek enthusiasts still catch authentic traits of the language and, by overcoming the differences in pronunciation, understand the meaning with Modern Greek. “The topics of Griko oral poetry are really close to those of ancient Greece,” said Brizio Montinaro, Griko anthropologist. “Until 40 years ago, the Griko funeral lament was identical to the texts of the Euripides tragedy.”
But over recent decades, in Calimera, Castrignano de’ Greci and Martignano, some of the small towns where Griko is still alive, the number of speakers has dwindled due to a language shift to Italian. Local elderly people, true custodians of the Griko tradition, are taking the language with them as they pass away. Though Griko remains the first language in retirement homes, young people do not speak the dialect anymore.
“In the past, you could find people behind the counter who you could talk in Griko,” said Roberto Licci, member of the Griko music band Ghetonìa, based in Calimera. “But the reality is now heterogeneous.”
Until the 1950s, in Grecia Salentina kids grew up speaking this form of ancient Greek. But from the sixties, the government tried to impose the Italian language everywhere. The agricultural community spoke Griko and this caused the dialect to have a negative connotation.
“When we started going to school, our parents stopped speaking what was considered the language of the poor,” said Licci. “They were afraid that it would be an obstacle to our progress.”
At the time it was unusual to be bilingual and Griko speakers were marginalised. The people “with the two tongues” then stopped using the dialect, without realising its immense cultural heritage. “The more a language is spoken, the less people realise its uniqueness. It is when it disappears that its validity is perceived,” said Palamà.
This lack of historical consciousness caused Griko to be classified as severely endangered and today roughly 20,000 people speak it.
Griko is not only a language, it is also a way of living
Amid the rustic tranquillity of the Grecia Salentina countryside, visitors find reminders of Griko cultural traditions. Walking among the unfussy buildings and the scented citrus grove, it is easy to see fast fingers moving on accordions and guitars. Listening to local musicians, you notice their tambourines are full of blood. The dancers’ steps get more and more frenzied. Griko folk music is a whole-body dance.
“The earth pushes everyone from below. It tickles your feet, you cannot stand still, it is impossible not to dance,” said Licci. People move frenetically following a hypnotic ritual that goes back thousands of years.
This dance was thought to be the cure for tarantula bites and, metaphorically, for someone possessed by the devil.
Despite these lively and authentic traditions, a large majority of current speakers think that the Griko cause is already lost. “When a language no longer expresses modern concepts, it dies,” said Montinaro. “Its memory is preserved, but its decline cannot be stopped. Griko is a love that fades away.”
But starting from the end of the 19th century, writers and artists pledged to keep Griko alive. This dialect went from being considered the language of shame to becoming a living monument of Hellenism — thanks to the new global rhetoric of diversity as a treasure.
Nevertheless, this renewed interest is not enough. Funds are needed to safeguard this endangered language. “The economic situation of local authorities in Grecia Salentina is not good, there are not enough funds to support cultural activities,” said Licci.
Since 1999, an Italian law has recognised and economically supported linguistic minorities. “Griko speakers have been waiting for their language rights for years. But this was designed to benefit strong minorities,” said Palamà. “The law does not finance those making sure that dialects such as Griko do not disappear.”
In such a context, plenty of private cultural associations believe in the survival of Griko and the tradition it represents. “It is likely that Griko will not return to being spoken as it was, but we do not want it to die this way,” said Giuseppe de Pascalis, cultural curator of Glossagrika, an association to preserve Griko.
“The positive signal comes from young people. They are aware that our dialect marked all modern languages,” said Palamà. “They want to learn Griko, not so much for communication as for tradition.”
“Can you imagine a big fire that talks to you, illuminates you, warms you? Imagine that it slowly turns off. Other sources replace it. You have light, warmth and plenty of noises that will not certainly make you regret the ancient fire,” said de Pascalis. “I do not know how much roots, traditions and history matter, but we are becoming standardised, without a past, almost aseptic. In such a way, we will have little humanity to offer to the future.”
And while the Griko linguistic island tries to survive the Italian sea, the sound of Kali Nifta, a popular song, keeps on spreading in all directions. Some say that this serenade is for a lovely woman, others that it is for a vanishing language that feels like home.
Evò panta ss’esena penseo
jati ‘sena, sfichi mmu ‘gapò
ma pu pao, pu sirno, pu steo
e sti kkardìa panta sena vastò
[I always think of you,
because I love you, my soul,
and wherever I’ll go, I’ll wander, I’ll be,
I will always carry you in my heart.]