Thursday, 26 June 2008

Cypriot language and blogs

I would like to draw attention on a phenomenon I noticed lately. That I noticed it lately doesn't go to say that it's a recent thing. I am talking about Cypriot blogs. Cyprus is a funny place. Its people (both Greek and Turkish speakers) speak their own varieties of those languages. The Greek Cypriot variety has distinctive differences from standard Greek, such as different phonology, different syntax and different vocabulary (enriched with elements of archaic Greek, French, Italian, Provençal, Arabic, Turkish, Catalan and English). This is a natural consequence of the language evolving through centuries of particular historical and cultural influences. There is a whole big argument as to whether the Cypriot variety is a dialect or a language, with many opinions flying back and forth. The main difference between the Cypriot and the standard Greek is that standard Greek speakers do not understand the spoken Cypriot.

Decades of Greek nationalism on the island rendered the spoken Cypriot Greek an 'unnecessary' element in the minds (and policies) of all those who wanted to highlight unity with motherland Greece. Therefore the local spoken language/dialect was deliberately neglected and downgraded (often considered a lesser quality, peasant language) in favour of the standard, Athenian Greek. This in turn has caused a number of issues: the fact that Athenian Greek is an artificially planted language to serve political purposes meant that very few people actually speak it correctly. Let's face it: you grow up, speak Cypriot at home and then you go to school and you are expected to adopt an Athenian way of speaking and writing. It would be the equivalent of asking British people to adopt a mixture of Latin and Germanic proto-languages in order to sound 'authentic' and not regional. The Brits would promptly give you the two finger sign (and not the victory one-although I know people whose parents told them off for speaking Geordie) The Cypriot phenomenon created a diachronic inferiority complex for the Cypriots who go through various levels of brainwashing in their lifetime in order to ensure 'national unity' and all the rest of it. So far the Cypriot variety was restricted to literature and comedy sketches with a distinctive 'rural' theme. That is to say that the Cypriot was a language restricted to the countryside, a 'peasant' thing, unfit for modern people who live in cities and drive cars. All our education, media, government language, services etc etc are in this forced Atheno-Cypriot garb, a weird mixture to say the least.

Until now. You see, blogs have given people the freedom to express themselves in their mother's tongue rather than some pretentious and unnatural 'AthenoNicosian' hybrid that just sounds irritating. The same way it would sound irritating if all Athenians all of a sudden decided to speak Cypriot. Cypriot bloggers have taken to writing in Cypriot, showing to all those who consider it inferior that it can actually be used in real life, for real situations that don't just involve tending to your goats or setting up arranged marriages between Vladimiros Kafkarides' daughter and Nana Georgiou's son. All blessed by Andreas Moustras playing the priest. And there are many brilliant examples of Cypriot blogs. Here are but a few of them:

This shows the strength of blogs. Anyone can write. Anyone can say anything. In any language they please. It is a sign of the times when the new president openly speaks the local 'peasant' language rather than something he can't speak very well anyway.

I am unaware of a similar Turkish Cypriot phenomenon, but I would bet it exists. This is not a political statement. Let's just say that it's natural to speak and write the language you learn at home, from birth. That way you can express yourself fully, without sounding contrived. How can people think that that's inferior? It just makes sense. If you think your mother tongue is inferior, you are definitely suffering from inferiority complex and delusions of grandeur. Grow up.

or Greek?


Bethan said...

Hey, very interesting stuff. I love languages and the whole socio-political stuff surrounding them (shame I can't express it better right now!) It is exciting to see the impact that web 2.0 is having - and the possibilities it is opening up for "ordinary" people who didn't have a voice before. It would be interesting to see if the same is happening in other countries - I'm thinking about Spain and the different regions - perhaps something similar in Galicia.

Marios said...

Thanks Bethan, I am sure it happens in Spain and with Basque, Catalan and Galician. That's the thing I love about blogs, it's freedom for everyone. Mind you, I did spot neonazi blogs etc but that's how freedom of expression works I guess. It's all or nothing.

Biluś said...

An wonderful, impassioned plea for respecting people's right to exist in their chosen way - which, given how we humans are, certainly IS political. For instance, it's not been such a long time that there was a great deal of social pressure to adopt Received Pronunciation in preference to our local dialects here in England - this was the way to rising up through the social classes... Things seem to have reversed somewhat now, though, with 'posh' people adopting the glottal stops of 'Estuary English' - bliss it is for blunt-vowelled Northerners!

btw, how about a translation of the cartoon?

Marios said...

I agree with you. It's going full circle somehow, but a couple of generations were made to feel uncomfortable for sounding regional, especially Brummies. I like the Brummie variety, and I think it's time BBC newsreaders started the news with an 'or-roit duck?' rather than 'This is the BBC news with...'

Cartoon translates as:

Person in middle: "Boys I've dropped a little one"
Person on the left: "God that stinks!"
Person on right: "Must be those black-eyed beans"

These are the three people who run for the presidency in February. The guy on the right won :-) Must be because he had the pasta instead.

Biluś said...


ευχαριστώ :-)

Sceptic Anonymous said...

Catalan has influenced the Cypriot dialect? I never heard this one before, could you please elaborate.

I must say I am getting tired with the advocates of the Cypriot language / dialect There are not too many Greek speakers today in the world and we seem so keen to isolate ourselves further through this linguistic navel gazing. If we ever elevate Cypriot into a 'proper' language what would be the point of this?

You state that it sounds weird when Cypriots speak Greek, I would say we might sound slightly awkward but this point has been blown out of proportion. In all languages you have a distinction between the written and spoken word. It just so happens in Cyprus this distinction is more pronounced because the spoken language draws from the Cypriot dialect but it is not altogether Cypriot as you point out. A lot of the words we use come from Modern Greek as well. At best what you call Cypriot is a hybrid language not that uncommon for a region that linguistically is on the periphery.

The Cypriot dialect is an anemic one, if you look at the blogs you advertise you will realise the dearth of the Cypriot dialect. It cannot discuss technological and contemporary issues that easily. In fact I suspect it lacks sophistication to be considered a full-blown language, it is a relic of the past. So there is some cultural value in it but is it really that great or is that a reason to detest so much standard Modern Greek which has been a force of progress and unity? God help us all if every region stuck to its semi-literate dialect because it has a 'rich cultural heritage'.

True post-colonialists and all the avid searchers of alternative truths and hidden messages will point out that the Cypriot dialect has been suppressed by the master discourse and so on. But the truth of the matter is that the nationalists have done us all a favour. When the Greek state was put together no one could understand no one. It was not only Cyprus that has its own dialect, so does Crete, so does Rhodes, so does every single part of Greece. The only difference is that Cyprus was never part of Greece to be streamlined properly. But we should count our blessings because at least we can understand and communicate with 11 million Greeks in Greece and how many more Greeks abroad. If we had our Cypriot language and identity we would be able to speak among ourselves and congratulate ourselves for being so unique that nobody understands us, great!