New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
“I Cardia mu iclei ja sena, grica p’agapo”, and “Rize macrie ca pale/ Ce efuscoai sto chuma tu keru”, words from two famous songs sung in two geographically small communities in Southern Italy whose inhabitants are called Griki, or Grecani, are in a dialect that might sound very familiar to Greek speakers one minute, then totally unfamiliar an instant later.
Is this dialect derived from ancient Greek? From Byzantine Greek? Or is it Italian? All of the above and more, says Dr. Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei in her paper, “The Hellenic Influence in Southern Italy: I Griki” to appear in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Hellenic Studies, in press now. “The Modern Greek dialect is a combination of ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek, Italian and Mediterranean loan words”.
Dr. Balodimas-Bartolomei, who has researched the Griki, or Grecani, of Southern Italy extensively, even spending the summers of 2009 and 2010 within their communities, answered some questions from Chicago, where she is an associate professor in the School of Education at North Park Education.
GN: Do the Griki identify with their Greek heritage or show pride in what one could call their “Greekness”?
ABB: Yes, they certainly do, however, it is a unique pride. First of all, they are very proud to be Italian as my study demonstrated. They are proud to be of Griko descent… of their land, traditions, culture, and music.
GN: When you were in the Griko-speaking communities did you feel that you were in a Greek culture or in an Italian culture?
ABB: I truly felt that I was in both. I saw so much that reflected Greece and also so much that is Italian.
GN: Did the Greki respond to you as is if you were a patriotissa? Although you speak Italian, do you think they viewed you as a Greek?
ABB: Since I was talking Italian, people thought I was of Italian descent but the minute I said I was a Greek, the Griki were very excited about that and wanted to speak whatever they knew of either Modern Greek or Griko.
GN: Griko seems to sound a lot like Modern Greek sometimes. Can we trust our ears?
ABB:Griko, a Modern Greek dialect, is composed of ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek, Italian, and Mediterranean loan words, bears a strong affinity to Modern Greek; it also contains many archaic Doric features. Until the twentieth century, Griko lacked a written script. This altered at the end of the 19th century, when poet Vito Domenico Palumbo, recorded fifteen notebooks of Griko songs. There are two existing theories on the linguistic origin of Griko, one claiming that the language dates back to Magna Grecia and the other to Byzantium. The dialect is spoken in two small geographically and linguistically distinct Greek-speaking communities in Southern Italy: Grecia Salentina in Apulia and Bovesia-Grecia in Calabria. Both communities are composed of nine/eleven small towns.
GN: Are Puglia and Apulia synonymous?
ABB: In Italian the region is called Puglia and in English we say Apulia. When I am in Italy speaking Italian none of the Italians understand the word Apulia. They know it as Puglia.
GN: How many people are speaking Griko now?
ABB: As I wrote in my paper, the UN Refugee Agency and the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, estimated in 2009 and 2008 respectively, that Griko is spoken by between 2,500 and 20,000 people now with the majority of speakers well over the age of fifty. The Euro mosaic study made in the 1990’s of minority and regional languages cites only 2,500 people in Bovesia (Calabria) who know and understand the Griko language.
GN: Until recently, little was known about Griko, but there has been an increased interest in Griko. Why is this?
ABB: Several policies have been enforced for teaching the language in schools. In 1980, Regional Italian Law made it possible for the Griko language to be taught in Griko speaking areas; in 1992 the European Charter of Council of Europe gave
Griko endangered language status, protection of regional/minority languages, and calls for their promotion on all levels of education; in1995 the Framework Convention for Protection of National Minorities Council of Europe which was signed and became active in 1998 stated that minority languages are to be protected; in1999, Law N. 482/99 said that the Italian state recognized Griko as a minority language; and in December of 2000, Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights-EU granted recognition and support of EU minority and regional languages.
GN: Is the Griko language taught in schools in Grecia Salentina?
ABB: Griko language instruction has been minimal due to shortages of qualified teachers and inadequate instructional material.
GN: What is influencing the revival of the Griki culture ?
ABB: Community efforts and funding from regional, governmental, and international agencies and organizations have led to cultural manifestations. There has been a folkloric renaissance/revival of Griko culture and traditions; cultural manifestations have aroused community interest, especially among the younger generation, and computer technology has been a pivotal point in the revival of Griko… numerous websites have been created, and You Tube provides a number of excellent videos that feature the cultural manifestations of the Griki.
GN: What are some of the cultural manifestations that you mention?
ABB: The Griko/Grecani communities hold many concerts and festivals featuring regional music and dance. Grecia Salentina is noted for its Notte della Taranta concert. Bova Marina hosts two summer festivals in August, O Nostos, which is sponsored by the Jalo tu Vua Organization, and the festival Paleariza. Famous Greek artists such as Dionysios Savvopoulos and Maria Farantouri have appeared in several of the concerts singing Griko. They also hold art exhibits…there are twelve well-known artists featuring Griko artwork.
The Griko communities have also launched a number of local cultural linguistic initiatives. One of the most outstanding is the Museum House of Peasant Life and Griko Culture in Calimera, Grecia Salentina run by the Ghetonia Cultural Association with Silvano Palama serving as director. It contains materials dating back to ancient Messapian times, Rome, Byzantium and the Medieval Era. These include displays of Griko handicrafts and traditional pieces, such as embroidery, pottery, household goods and kitchen appliances. A fine selection of books, videotapes, newspapers and periodicals is also available. The reception room is an information center replete with multi-media and research material.
GN: How has Greece been influential in the revival of Griko?
ABB: The transnational exchanges required by Italian minority rights law require establishing contacts and exchanges across frontiers. The Greek government has also been very instrumental in promoting Griko and establishing closer links with the Griki/Grecani by inviting Grecani to attend summer camps in Greece, by organizing university exchange programs, seminars and poetry competitions for the two Griko speaking communities, and a number of Greek cities have become sister/twinning cities with towns in the two Greek-speaking communities.
GN: Are the younger generations of Griko Italians speaking their dialect, or is Griko vanishing?
ABB: As my study demonstrated they are interested in the revival of the Griko culture, however, the younger generation doesn’t seem to be interested in learning the language. As with Modern Greek in the USA if the language isn’t spoken in the home, it is not enough for children to study it once or twice a week. Language must be lived and incorporated into the daily lives of children.
The EURO study notes that the number of Griko speakers appears to have fallen by around 70% since the 1950s. UNESCO’s 2009 Endangered Language Report cites that there are only 2,000 Griko speakers in the Calabria region and 20,000 in Grecía Salentina. Such statistics indicate that the ancient Griko language is an endangered species.
GN: Your other areas of research include comparative international education, Greek/ Italian/ Jewish ethnic identity and ethnographic studies on the Greek Romaniote Jews, and Holocaust Education. What first sparked your interest in the Griki?
ABB: About 25 years ago I read a short article about this group of people in a Greek American magazine. I was intrigued by them and knew that someday I would have to go there and learn more about them and their land.
GN: Will you continue your work on the Griki in future?
ABB: Yes, I plan to do much more as I still have several areas to explore such as material and themes covered in schools; events and manifestations; the effect of the Greek crisis on promoting and helping the Griko language. I would also like to visit Calabria someday and do a comparative study on both of these areas.
Dr. Balodimas-Bartolomei was born in Chicago but her determination to master the Greek language took her to Greece, where she earned her BA in Greek social work and Greek Studies at Deree College in Athens as well as a BA in Greek Pedagogy from Rallios Pedagogical Academy. She then earned a MA in Linguistics and ESL from Northeastern Illinois University and a PhD in Comparative International Education and Policy Studies from Loyola University, Chicago. She is the author of “Footsteps through Athina” and frequently accompanies groups to Greece as a lecturer.