Saturday, March 14, 2020


῾Σύρι σακάτ μιριά κι φέρι᾽μ του μαρκούτςαπ᾽ του γκαντούν᾽ my grandfather enjoined me.
Ἄντι, τι κάθισι κι κατσέρνς τς μύγις; Ιγκδά είνι,my grandmother added.
My friend from Greek school looked at me, mystified. “What language is that?
Twenty years later, while playing cards with my uncle, my wife heard this conversation:
  • Τς᾽ έχς τς ας;
  • Τσέχου.
  • Πουτς;
  • Νατς.
“What language is that?” she asked. When I replied “Greek,” she shook her head. “I know Greek,” she said. “I’ve lived in Greece. And whatever you are speaking, that is not Greek.”
We were speaking Samian, the dialect of my father and my native tongue. In various forms, it was spoken in Samos, and across the water, in Asia Minor, all the way to Aydin. The Greek alphabet cannot record the palatisations and nazalisations of its phonology, nor can it reproduce its extra vowels, and therefore it is seldom written, though Dido Soteriou made an eminently passable attempt at such a reproduction in her harrowing account of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, “Ματωμένα Χώματα.”

In my youth, it seemed like there was a Samian speaker in every street in Essendon. We formed part a linguistic continuum, oblivious, as children, to the existence of speakers of the other, for we generally only associated with our own kind. That is, until I started Greek school and in the process of describing working in my grandparents’ garden uttered the following sentence: “Πήρα του μπαγκράτς κι του γιέμσα νιρό.” The recently arrived from Greece teacher peered at me, horrified. “You did what?” she snarled. “Listen to me. Μπαγκράτς is a Turkish word. And I won’t tolerate you using those filthy words in my classroom. We speak Greek at Greek school.” At a family council that evening, we pondered which Greek word could possibly be used as a substitute for the offending Turkish one. Finally, the next week, my grandfather asked the teacher: “So what should he use instead of μπαγκράτς?” Looking at him incredulously, she affirmed snootily: “Κουβάς is the proper Greek word.” “You do know that that is a Turkish word as well don’t you?” my grandfather asked quietly. “So I’ll ask again. What word should the boy use?” She never again made fun of my diction.

Soon, I learned that if I spoke my own language to the others, the likes of whom I was coming across more frequently as my family and I discovered a Greek community living outside the confines of our transplanted village, I would not be understood. I learned to spell and read Greek words in a way completely different to the way I spoke at home. I also learned that to speak in one’s dialect outside the confines of one’s kinship group was to invite ridicule and aspersions of ignorance.

“You are a good boy,” one of my Greek school teachers told me when I was fifteen. “Your written Greek is excellent, but you have the most terribly heavy accent. You need to stop speaking like that or no one will take you seriously.”

“If you can’t speak like a normal human being,” my Athenian grandmother snapped at me later that year, on the bus to Omonoia, “then keep your mouth shut. I don’t want the neighbours thinking you are an uneducated yokel. Γιογιοοοοόγιογιοοοό,” she mimicked the way the a in Samian becomes elongated so it almost sounds like an o. “And you are supposed to be a good student. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t embarrass me.” And this from a lady who, while possessed of the most perfect Athenian patois, could let rip an unremitting barrage of the most multi-hued Epirote curses when she thought no one was within earshot.

And she was right. Boarding a boat to Samos from Athens, I listened in shock as the passengers, the majority of them tourists sniggered, while hearing a lady with a heavy Karlovassi accent hold forth in her mother tongue. By way of solidarity, I too began to declaim in Samian, hoping to establish a common bond. The effort was wasted. The lady formed the opinion that I was mocking her, and the passengers found the existence of a person too young to be speaking in dialect for the Helladic social reality, suspicious. I kept my mouth shut thereafter until I arrived on the island, my linguistic haven.

When my grandfather died, a rich linguistic repository died with him. With family ancestry from Asia Minor, his Samian was peppered with an amazing array of idiomatic expressions and completely alien sentence structures, placing the verb at the end of the sentence, like Turkish for instance, or using the nominative case where in Greek the accusative is used. My grandmother remained, and so, my Samian persisted, as the language of our relationship, the dialect in which my entire family history was conveyed to me, along with the context of the life of a village my grandparents never saw again and which has changed forever. It was a language of consolation, one of tenderness, its staccato rhythms rolling lazily off the tongue unhurriedly, the tongue falling like a guillotine over final syllables, slicing off redundant vowels without malice. Unlike the impatience and phonetic indulgence of Modern Greek, Samian is efficient, more laconic and susceptible to word play, a property that probably accounts for the infinitely more wry sense of humour of its speakers. Most of all, it was a language of continuity.

Yet I don’t speak Samian so much anymore, save with my father and my first cousin when we get together to reminisce about our childhood. On those occasions, my first cousin, who is older than I, will fill in gaps in my Samian vocabulary by supplying words that had become redundant within the family before I had a chance to be exposed to them. After my grandmother died, more and more migrants from the village followed suit. Suddenly, the pillars that held up my linguistic edifice began to crumble, and there were fewer people to speak to. Then, cable television arrived from Greece and gradually, the old grammatical forms and vocabulary began to be replaced by those gleaned from “Πρωινός Καφές” or “Καλημέρα Ελλάδα” and it was when I was accosted by an old ‘uncle’ with the cliched greeting: “Τι έγινε μεγάλε; ” instead of “Τι καν᾽ του Κουστάκ;” that I realised the end was nigh.

I still think in Samian and my natural inclination is to employ its phonology when speaking Modern Greek, often causing me to stutter, as the linguistic streams inevitably cross yet the truth is that it is a hearth language with an arrested development, unsuited and now unable to express concepts pertaining to the modern world. It would be pretentious and strange to employ that tongue to discuss Modern Greek literature, just as it would be out of place to discuss gardening in any other language than Samian, this forming the major context in which I learned that language in the first place.  My children speak Modern Greek, and I generally converse with them in that medium, for in a Samian community that, even among its elders is now primarily English-speaking, there now exists no social context in which to speak Samian, although I lapse into it continuously, especially in times of emotion.

 In a recent article by Aristeidis Rounis in Neos Kosmos, it was contended that over 30,000 members of the second generation speak the Pontian dialect on a daily basis in Australia. While this appears improbable, it is a fact that a large number older members of the second generation grew up in Australia speaking a dialect, one which they either discarded as the assimilated within the broader Greek and Australian communitie, or which they narrowly retained, restricting their ability to converse with other Greeks and leading to ultimate Greek language loss. We have never factored the use of dialects in planning for our Greek language education or assessing the linguistic background of our students. Most disappointingly, we have never formally studied the use of Greek dialects in our Australian diaspora, how they have impacted upon our social structures, our conception of identity and our linguistic development as a whole. This is a great shame as all of the Greek regional dialects spoken in Australia with the possible exception of Cypriot, are heavily endangered, with some, on the verge of extinction. Furthermore, it underlays a complete conceptual misapprehension as to the core of the hypostasis of our micro-communities and how they relate to one another, even as they diminish.

In “I, Claudius,” Robert Graves has the Etruscan priest Aruns predict the death of Etruscan within a generation. As a result, Claudius learns the language and embarks on a history of its people. No one will write the history of the dialect speakers, and if they do, it will be in a language not their own. Their unique perspectives, encoded in a language passed down the generations, through nuance, expression and experience, will be incomprehensible without an understanding of that medium. Lately, whenever I miss both my Samian and Epirote grandparents, I write stories in their tongue, wishing to once more hear their voice. “I stopped speaking Greek when my parents died,” the poet π.Ο once told me. “It made no sense to continue.” His words haunt me, as his poetry is laced with similar attempts to raise the dead, through dialect.

“I don’t speak Greek,” a person I met recently, warned me as I switched to that language. Then, focusing my intonation, he asked: “Are you Samian?” For the next hour, we spoke in our native tongue, me substituting Modern Greek words where the Samian did not supply them, he substituting in English, but both of us, employing a medium that binds us down the generations to a remarkably hardy and ingenious people on the most beautiful island in the Aegean, and revelling in that common bond. As we remembered ancestors and a way of Greek-Australian life that has gone forever, taking the language in which it was lived with it, there were tears in his eyes. “It’s been so long,” he muttered. “It’s been so long.” For his sake, mine, and so many others like us, this month, when you speak Greek in March, speak it in dialect. And remember.


First published in NKEE on 14 March 2020