Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entry Apr. 2003; #2, added June 2018



1.The Greek Language in Italy                      2. The Current Situation 


1. The Greek Language in Italy
     Olden forms of Greek are still spoken
     in some villages in the circled areas.

map of Greek-speaking areasOne of the most fascinating things about southern Italy, linguistically, is that there are still villages in Calabria and Puglia where olden dialects of Greek are spoken. This, you might say, is almost to be expected. After all, the influence of ancient Greece in southern Italy is evident. The area was part of ancient Magna Grecia. It makes sense, then, that there might be a linguistic heritage left over, even over such a long period of time—although if you think about it, there are absolutely no places left in Italy where they still speak any other pre–Roman language, not Oscan, the language of the Samnites, or even the language of the once mighty Etruscans. In any case, the first temptation, indeed, is to explain relics of the Greek language here by saying that they are left over from the days when Greek sailors settled and built in Sicily, at Cuma and Neapolis. 

The problem is not quite that simple. There are a number of theories that try to account for the origins of the Greek currently spoken in the south of the Italian peninsula, a language that is Greek, yes, but not easily traceable to the language of ancient Greece. Here are some of the theories, which divide into Early Arrival (EA) and Late Arrival (LA), the latter having a number of variations:

(1) EA. They are, indeed, descendants of the settlers of Magna Grecia. Supporters of this theory explain the differences between ancient Greek and the Calabrian dialects by pointing out the enormous Latin influence of the Roman Empire for so many centuries. Also, languages change anyway, even with no outside influence. Isolation discourages change, true, but even if the Greeks of yore had crawled into caves in Calabria and closed the rocks behind them for two thousand years, their language would still have changed somewhat over that period.

(2) LA-i. In the last century, an Italian scholar, Morosi, based on his examination of the dialects spoken in Calabria, concluded that these people originally got here between the year 900 A.D. and the end of the 1100s. It has, however, not been possible to settle the dispute between EA and LA solely by examining the dialects, themselves. Other evidence must be considered. In Byzantine writings, for example, there are two references made to settlements in Italy during this period. The first is to the reconstruction and settling of the city of Gallipoli during the reign of Basil I at the end of the 9th century, and the second is a statement that Basil settled in Longobardia 3,000 former slaves from the Peloponnesius.

(3) LA-ii. The presence of Greek speakers in Italy might be due to the influence of the mighty Byzantine Empire under Justinian. From the middle of the 7th to the middle of the 8th century, of the 13 Popes in Rome, eleven of them were Greeks. Justinian made it a point to fill the position with Greek speakers because he felt they would better carry out the policies of Constantinople on the Italian peninsula. Also, there was a vast combination of Greek administrative officials, ecclesiastics, eastern merchants, and pilgrims from Greece and Syria, all of whom contributed to what some historians  have termed an "oriental elite" in Rome. 

Thus, the line goes, Rome, itself, was very Byzantine Greek by the 7th century. But, the counterargument goes, Latin and Roman tradition was still strong, and just how pervasive could the influence of a so-called 'oriental elite' have been in the outlying areas of the southern part of the peninsula? One would not expect Byzantine clerics and bureaucrats to move into the southern mountains and start families.  It is possible, however, that when the Lombards—the last Germanic tribe to sweep down over the peninsula—displaced the Byzantines, Greek–speaking refugees from central Italy fled south to settle in Calabria.

(4) LA-iii. It all has nothing to do with ancient or Byzantine Greeks. They are here because there was an influx of a considerable number of Greek-speaking elements from the East as a result of Arab conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries. The key word here is 'considerable'. Who knows? Although these invasions of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire probably pushed some Greek speakers west, there is no documentation of a mass migration, so this is somewhat of a speculation on what might have been possible. 

A variation on this is that when the city Alexandria capitulated to the Arabs in 642, a considerable part of the Greek population left. Some of them may have reached the west. There are two pieces of evidence for this:

—The frescoes in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome consist of five layers; the iconography in the second one is not only Greek, but specifically of the Alexandrian school. Thus, the logic runs, it could only have been painted by Alexandrian priests. 

—Also, there are Greek liturgical manuscripts extant in Italy; iconography and manuscripts are evidence of Greek influence from a specific period. (They are not, however, evidence of the mass migration which must have been necessary in order to produce entire Greek speaking enclaves on the Italian peninsula.) 

It is also true that during the Arab conquest of Syria and Palestine that many Greeks abandoned their homes. It is not clear, however, where they went. However, thousands of displaced Greeks who were living in North Africa at the time of the Arab conquest, might have had no recourse but to flee across the sea to Sicily and the southern Italian mainland.

(5) Late Arrival-iv  Bulgars, Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkan peninsula before, during and after the reign of Justinian (i.e., for virtually the entire 6th century). This produced a series of fearful convulsions, any number of which would have been enough to send thousands fleeing across the seas. This is confirmed by the Chronicle of Monemvasia, a document written at the end of the tenth century, and which draws on an earlier source, written shortly after the events occurred. It has been called an 'unimpeachable source' of description of the Avar and Slav penetration of Greece and the subsequent dispersion of the Greeks  around the year 600. To wit:

…In another invasion they (the Avars) subjugated all of Thessaly and Greece… they made also an incursion into Peloponesus, conquered it by war, driving out the noble and Hellenic nations. Those among the Greeks who succeeded in escaping… dispersed themselves here and there. The city of Patras emigrated to the territory of Rhegium in Calabria … some sailed to the island of Sicily and they are still there in a place called Demena, call themselves Demenitae instead of Lacedaemonitae and preserve their own Laconia dialect. *

This is evidence of an immigration to Sicily and southern Italy toward the end of the sixth century, not from the eastern provinces of the Byzantine  Empire, but from Greece itself. As the Slavs occupied virtually all the western part of the Peloponnesus, the population who managed to flee could find no nearer haven than Sicily or Italy. 


It is also plausible that all or at least some of these theories are partially true. Greeks started to spread out into southern Italy 2,700 years ago in one way or another and simply never stopped. We note that the two sections in the south (see map, above) where there are still pockets of Greek are Calabria (the toe of the boot) and Salento (the heel). They are divided by some distance and though it is common to lump them together as "Italiot Greek" or "the Greek still spoken in Italy," the two groups of speakers almost certainly have different and separate histories.

[I have drawn much of the above  information from,"On the Question of Hellenization of Sicily and Southern Italy during the Middle Age"' by Peter Charanis, in The American Historical Review, No. 52, 1946. * The cited material of the next-to-last paragraph is from that source. More on the Greek community in Naples -- and here is another entry on the diffusion of Magna Grecia.]  ^ top

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2.   The Greek Language(s) in Italy      added June 15, 2018

The Current Situation for Greko and Griko

Bova, the  center of Calabrian Greko       

I haven't seen any recent scholarly sources that contribute to the points discussed (above, in part 1). I reiterate (1) that it is likely that all are partially true; (2) that there are really two places where some form of Greek is still spoken (see map, below, right) and (3) that they tend to be lumped together as "Italiot Greek" or "Italian Greek" but they must have had separate and distinct histories. There are more speakers in Apulia (Puglia) on the Salento peninsula about 16 km/10 mi below Lecce, slightly closer to Adriatic on the east than to the Ionian on the west. The area in Calabria (the toe) is much smaller. It centers on Bova (image, right); it is, however from this Calabrian region that recent initiatives stem to save Greek in Italy. 


Greko   (the bottom circle)

In Calabria the name that speakers of Greek in Calabria use for their language is Greko (the version on the Salento peninsula is termed Griko. My attention was drawn to it again by an article in a Greek newspaper that praised recent efforts in Calabria to regenerate their language before it's too late. All this is to happen through the various wonders of information technology such as YouTube videos, crowdfunding, Skype lessons, none of which existed when I put up item #1 in 2003.

Back then the future did not look bright. If they had done nothing, it was realistic to give the language (in both versions) maybe 10 or 15 more years, tops. Yet the recent worldwide cultural interest in preserving minority and endangered languages has been a boon. Driven by sharp young university students and some scholars and professors, the joint forces of the internet and enthusiastic legwork have been enlisted to interview elderly speakers, get their stories, the poems and songs, then set up Greko language workshops and, above all, get people to commit themselves to speaking Greko and eventually to start writing in it again for administrative and social purposes as well as to produce original new literature.

Currently, workshops are planned to run from October 2018 to July 2019. The project is centered in an old noble residence in the town of Bova (second image, above right) the capital of Greek culture in Calabria. Bova is in the province of Reggio Calabria, down almost at the very tip of the toe of the boot. The Greek speakers in Calabria as well as in the Salento have joined forces to form the UGIM (Union of Greeks of South Italy) to make common cause in the name of bilingualism. Both versions, in Calabria and Salento, use Latin script (not Greek). The two spoken versions are not necessarily mutually comprehensible, at least not easily. In the interest of "common cause," modifications would have to be worked out if they hope to have a common "Italian-Greek" language. That is what happened on the island of Sardinia; when they broadcast in Sardinian, it is a "compromise" language. That is feasible.


Griko  (the top circle)

Map of the municipalities belonging to the
Grecìa Salentina im the Province of Lecce.
The towns are those where at least some
Griko is still spoken.

At least on paper, the Salento peninsula seems to be in better shape in terms of preserving the language. The Greek-speaking municipalities far outnumber those in Calabria. The Union of the Towns of Grecìa Salentina (Unione dei Comuni della Grecìa Salentina) was founded by the Griko population in 1966. There are eleven towns in Grecìa Salentina and collectively they are part of the province of Lecce in the Italian region of Puglia (Apulia). The purpose of this union was to promote the knowledge of Griko and preserve its culture by organizing research at the university, teaching the language at schools and publishing books and poetry in the language. Some of this has ready happened, but numbers can be deceiving. Of the municipalities shown in red and green, the green ones speak no Greek, and the red ones have few speakers. The total population of the entire area, red and green) is around 55,000, but even in the red towns, usage of Greek may be sporadic. In any event, Calimera (pop. 7,300) is the center of Greek preservation and revival. They have the bare bones of an official website here, but it is astonishingly empty.

Nevertheless, the citizens of Calimera take their "Greekness" seriously. One of the most interesting monuments in the town is this stele (image, left) slab monument. It was a gift from the city of Athens to Calimera in 1960 after the mayor of Calimera wrote the major of Athens pleading for something that would demonstrate how very Greek they all still felt and were! The mayor of Athens obliged with this 4th century BC stele of pure Attic marble straight from the National Museum of Athens. It manifests the Death of Patroclus and is one of the finest examples of a funeral stele that has ever been recovered. The town of Calimera mounted it in an appropriate shrine and inscribed below the tympanum these lines, first in Griko and then in Italian:

     Zeni sù en ise ettù ‘sti Kalimera
      Straniera tu non sei qui a Calimera

That is, "You are not a stranger [foreigner] here in Calimera."


None of this language preservation/restoration business is easy to do, even though recent constitutional changes in Italy guarantee your right to your language. In 1999 the Italian parliament (law 482) recognized the Greko and Griko communities of Reggio Calabria and Salento, respectively, as Greek ethnic and linguistic minorities. The law states that "the Republic protects the language and culture of its Albanian, Catalan, Germanic, Greek, Slovene and Croat populations and of those who speak French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, Occitan and Sardinian." 

Raising awareness is slippery. If you look at that list of minority languages, some of them really don't need much help at all. On the island of Sardinia, for example, there has been administrative support for the local language, and there are even radio and television programs in it (see this link). To varying degrees that is true of many of the others. Bringing back Greek as a working language, whichever version you're talking about, has staggering problems (which needn't be overwhelming but might be). Greeks have been going abroad for centuries for a variety of reasons. There has been a significant  depopulation of Greek-speaking towns, an Italian-Greek "diaspora", a dispersion of people, and the subsequent disappearance of entire villages. These former Greek-Italians now live in many parts of the world, but the number of those who remember their homes in Italy and the language they spoke (and perhaps still speak) is dwindling. One of the most interesting experiments will be to create a "reverse diaspora" by calling those people to "return home" if only electronically through such things as Skype. It will be instructive to look back in on these efforts when the first round of workshops in Calabria finishes next year. The process has already started, however. YouTube has a number of video clips of the current goings-on, such as this charming young lady's short introduction in Calabrian Greko (she switches into Italian at the 40-second mark! If you can't tell the difference, she'll take a breath and then say "Ciao". That's Italian. She also delivers essentially the same pitch in Greko and English here.) There are other clips, as well.

Odds & Ends — I now read that there is a small (about 500 persons) enclave of Greek speakers just a stone slab's throw across the straits of Messina in that Sicilian city itself. That might mean that they are speakers of the Calabrian variety. Some sources, however, list Sicilian Greek as "extinct". (Truly unfortunate for those speakers who are still alive!) Who knows? Also, a surprising (or not) number of young speakers of both brands of Italiot Greek have taken up the study of modern Greek in school. As I said, they take their roots seriously.


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