Still frame from ‘Fragility of Language’, (Nefeli Kentoni, 2020)
By Antonis Pastellopoulos
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. This anonymous, yet famous statement, popularized by linguist Max Weinreich, emphasizes the arbitrariness of the distinction between languages and dialects, drawing our attention towards the political processes behind the decision to codify a particular vernacular into formal language, while condemning other linguistic variants into the subcategory of either the dialect, or the idiom. In Cyprus, the local vernaculars accumulated neither armies nor navies, despite the fact that at least one of them, what we refer to today as the Greek Cypriot dialect, had become the lingua franca of the island by the end of the 19th century, further accumulating its own written literature, while remaining incomprehensible to the mainland Greek speaker. There is ample evidence to support the view that the Greek Cypriot dialect could have become a formal language if history had taken a different course, imitating perhaps the case of the Maltese language. The reasons as to why this did not take place are complex, connected with processes of modernization which began with the arrival of the British in 1878, to which the rise of Greek and Turkish nationalism are also intrinsically connected. What is sufficient for now is the recognition that as Greek and Turkish nationalisms became hegemonic in Cyprus, giving rise to strong senses of a Greek and a Turkish national identity, an ideological ranking over different linguistic versions of Greek and Turkish was also introduced. This ranking fiercely opposed the use of the dialects, which were rendered culturally inferior, uncultivated, rude, and impure; in short, as contaminated versions of the pure, ‘proper’ Greek and Turkish languages spoken on the national mainland. The Greek Cypriot dialect was therefore consciously demoted in status, its use denoting inferiority in cultural development, with Katharevousa Greek and Standard Modern Greek becoming the languages of education, culture, law, politics and the mass media.
Of course, the dialect was far from eradicated, as it remained, much like today, the language spoken among Greek Cypriots throughout the island. Its formal use was however both symbolically and practically restricted to folk music and informal speech. Nonetheless, its use was not ousted completely from the public sphere, surviving in the form of the comedic Kypriotika (Cypriotic) sketches, which were performed primarily on state radio. These sketches appear to have been the only acceptable medium within which the Greek Cypriot dialect could be articulated during the 1960s, in those first years of the island’s troubled independence. Thus, the Greek Cypriot dialect did survive on the airwaves in at least one peculiar form, despite its cultural demotion and stigmatization.
The 1990s were in some ways an even more depressing period for the dialect, as the election of Glafkos Clerides to the Republic’s presidency placed hard-line nationalists in government, a development which was reflected not merely in political discourse and educational policy, but also in what I will simply call here a policy of linguistic catharsis. An active formal campaign to cleanse the dialect from ‘foreign’ phonetics was attempted, changing the official writing and pronunciation of places and names, a campaign that was apparently widely ridiculed by the Greek Cypriot population. The hegemony of the Standard Modern Greek over formal, or ‘proper’ speech was however so absolute that even when Andreas Panayiotou, an anarchist and sociologist, was invited in 1992 to Horis Plaisa (Without Constrains), one of the most popular TV shows at the time, for an interview about Cypriot identity, the discussion was carried out in Standard Modern Greek, even while the interviewer and the interviewee, who were both fluent in Cypriot Greek, were also discussing the use of the dialect and its stigmatization.
Even so, the Greek Cypriot dialect was increasingly being employed in local television programs, notably in comedies, which appear to have been perceived as a lighter, less formal forms of entertainment, and therefore as an acceptable medium for its employment, similarly to the Kypriotika sketches. Notable shows that come to mind include Manolis kai Katina (Manolis and Katina 1994-2007), Istories tou Xorkou (Stories of the Village 1996-2011), Para Pente (In the Nick of Time 1998-2004), Ta Psarka (The Fish 2000-2001) and Vourate Gitonoi (Run, Neighbours! 2001-2010). Another notable TV show, Aigia Fouxia (Fuchsia Goat 2008-2010), which, like Vourate Gitonoi before it, became for a brief period of time a sort of cultural phenomenon, is not included in the aforementioned listing because it appeared after new transformations in the use of the dialect were already unfolding extensively. Despite being informally censored at the time due to its political and historical commentary, the film Akamas (2006) by director Panicos Chrysanthou should also be mentioned here. Filmed almost exclusively in the Greek Cypriot dialect and accompanied by narrative songs performed by Michalis Tterlikas, the film was not only the first Cypriot production to be screened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, but also entailed such a careful commentary on modern Cypriot history, that delicate details are often missed in the first viewing. The dialect has continued to be used in films with heavier, more critical scripts and subject-matters, to such an extent that its use does not appear to be questionable anymore. Notable examples include Shadows and Faces (Gölgeler ve Suretler 2011), Fish n’ Chips (2011) and Smuggling Hendrix (2018).
With the turn of the millennium, new, emerging technologies came to increasingly dominate our lives. It was just after 2000 that mobile phones were widely introduced in Cyprus, a development often neglected when discussing the Greek Cypriot dialect, as critical readings tend to favor the internet in their commentaries. Nonetheless, it was not the internet, but SMS texting which first made writing in the dialect a mass phenomenon – with the availability of mobile phones on every other hand, a specifically Cypriot Greeklish written version of the dialect emerged, distinguishing it from the Greeklish of mainland Greek speakers. Admittedly, one of the reasons for the employment of Latin characters in SMS messages has been that these characters were able to represent more accurately and efficiently the sounds of the dialect, than Greek letters could (a common example is using J instead of Τζ). This was only accelerated with the introduction of the internet and its accompanied new activities, particularly online chatting, in which Greek Cypriot speakers primarily use the Greek Cypriot dialect to communicate, combining it with a new local slang and the use of English words and phrases. This development has been a turning point in the history of the dialect even though it is not widely recognized as such. After the mass introduction of mobile phones, there was no other comparable moment in history when so many people were writing in the local Greek Cypriot dialect, since an increasing majority of the population suddenly became writers and readers, rather than merely speakers and listeners of their dialect.
The emergence of free blogging websites, such as Geocities, Blogspot and WordPress, further enabled individuals to write publicly for the first time with no production or distribution costs, while simultaneously having the capacity of reaching hundreds or even thousands of people. The Cypriot blogosphere was at its peak (2008-2012) an active community of writers publishing entries ranging from day to day activities and personal stories, to social grievances and political analyses and commentaries. Much of this heterogeneous literature was written in the dialect using the Greek alphabet, with each blogger creating her own rules of phonetic expression, grammar and spelling, consciously or unconsciously experimenting with the peculiarities of expressing a living, evolving vernacular, in a written form. Comments on these blogs were likewise often written in the dialect using either Latin or Greek characters. There was also the emergence of forums, in which similar developments were taking place (the one most familiar to me was islandanarchy (2009-2013), the forum of the Greek Cypriot anarchist and far-leftist circles). The rise of the internet of course enabled also the direct communication between Greek and Turkish Cypriots without having to attend meetings mediated by NGOs or political groups, or even having to cross the buffer zone from the (then) recently opened checkpoints.
Roughly during the same period, there was also an increasing use of the dialect in music production. Although not acknowledged as much as it should be, the first widespread use of the dialect in modern musical production appears to have emerged in Greek Cypriot hip-hop. Cypriot metal and punk, both identifiable subcultures from the 1980s and 1990s respectively, never employed the dialect (the only example I can think of, Zivanished, emerges in 2011). A similar comment can also be made in relation to Greek Cypriot rock. While Greek Cypriot hip-hop was initially produced in Standard Modern Greek and English, soon it began to consistently employ the Greek Cypriot dialect, reaching a sort of informal consensus regarding its use, over and above Standard Modern Greek. Although this might not be a surprising turn of events in the history of global hip-hop, since the local slang, dialects and languages are often prioritized in hip-hop productions, it is a significant shift for musical expressions in the Greek Cypriot dialect, as it is with Greek Cypriot hip-hop that we have, for the first time since the 20th century codification of Cypriot folk songs, an ever-increasing lyrical composition produced, circulated and performed in the local dialect. Yet if Greek Cypriot hip-hop established the dialect in musical production for a new generation, Monsieur Doumani’s internationally acclaimed work entrenched the dialect in new musical experimentations that are listened to, loved and admired well beyond the territorial confines of our little island. Through Monsieur Doumani’s work the Greek Cypriot dialect, as a language worthy of artistic recognition, has become global.
Theater is another cultural sphere within which the dialect is increasingly gaining ground. Two plays from 2020 and 2021 are sufficient to prove this point. Out of Necessity, an undoubtedly interesting and original play by Fresh Target Theatre, was performed in 2020 entirely in the Greek Cypriot dialect, all while posing questions over history and Cypriot identity to its audience. Given the significant attraction it had generated, the play was renewed multiple times in 2021.The adaptation and performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by the AntiLogos Theatre group in 2021, which received two major awards in the Third International Maltepe Theatre Festival in Istanbul, was perhaps the most ambitious example, as a Greek and Turkish Cypriot actor performed the roles of the protagonists in the Greek and the Turkish Cypriot dialects respectively, with the performance accompanied by the relevant subtitles.
In the sphere of literature we can note an increasing utilization of the dialect, particularly in poetry, both within subcultural zines, as well as in formally published poetry compilations. The use of the dialect appears to me to be slower in fiction, but is nonetheless identifiable, as is the case of Oi Protoplastoi (2015), written by Sofronis Sofroniou. I am not a consistent reader of Cypriot literature and cannot offer here a more thorough examination, but given the rapid increase in cultural production utilizing the dialect, a similar shift will probably also be reflected in fiction, within of course the specificities, particularities and traditions characterizing the medium. Translations of existing literary texts into the Greek Cypriot dialect are also noticeable. We can here list the translation of the comic book Asterix at the Olympic Games (2007), of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (2018) and of Homer’s Iliad (2017) and Odyssey (2019), with the translation of the Iliad already in its third edition. Given the enormous literary and cultural significance of Homer’s works, not merely within the Greek-speaking world, but internationally, their translation into the Greek Cypriot dialect should also be viewed as a symbolic achievement, as a definitive statement over the literary value and capabilities of the dialect itself. Additionally, the publications of the Common Dictionary of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot Dialect (2015) and the first part of the Learning Cypriot Greek (2019) textbook, as well as other interesting projects, such as cyslang.com (2016), an online initiative aiming to document the Greek Cypriot slang left out of official dictionaries, indicate a heightened interest not only in learning about the dialect, but in preserving it for future generations as a linguistic and cultural heritage.
Lastly, we can observe a notable increase in the production of political writings utilizing the dialect, usually within the sphere of extra-parliamentary politics. While numerous such texts exist, a notable example is the pamphlet Yes to a Federal Cyprus (2016) written by the political group Syspirosi Atakton, which was published in three linguistic versions, English, Standard Modern Greek and the Greek Cypriot dialect. Similarly, the writings of the group antifa λευkoşa widely employ the dialect, an observation that is immediately apparent if one opens either of the two issues of their political magazine Antifa Tropikal, published since 2019.
The dialect is further employed in other mediums connected with grassroots politics, including leaflets, stencils (and other forms of graffiti), protest banners and placards. The use of the dialect in political language gained momentarily heightened attention during the Os Dame (That’s enough!) anti-governmental mass protests of 2021, when the Minister of Education Prodromos Prodromou commented negatively on the protests by stating that their slogan, which was rendered in the Greek Cypriot dialect, was misspelled. It is worth pointing out that in the political sphere the use of the dialect appears to still be restrained to grassroots protests, with Standard Modern Greek remaining hegemonic in institutional, formal politics. For example, when the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL), the institutional party of the Greek Cypriot left, organised its own anti-governmental protest during the same year, it chose to name it Den Pai Allo (It cannot go on), using Standard Modern Greek rather than the Greek Cypriot dialect. Of course, there are examples of politicians utilising the Greek Cypriot dialect in their public appearances, perhaps as a populist tactic, attempting to portray themselves as representatives of the ‘common man’.
In contrast to positions raising the alarm over the dialect’s potential eradication, I have serious doubts that the dialect will disappear anytime soon – while the dialect is increasingly seeing some words fading out of use, other words are being introduced, with today’s slang potentially becoming tomorrow’s vocabulary. As the dialect is neither officially codified nor taught in formal education, it appears to me that it will continue to evolve from the bottom-up, entrenching itself further and further unto contemporary Cypriot reality. It is after all during our contemporary times, rather than the previous century – rich as it was in its poetry and folk traditions – that writing, performing, and singing in the Greek Cypriot dialect has become widespread to a seemingly unprecedented degree, a process that appears only to be accelerating, rather than stopping.
Antonis Pastellopoulos is a doctorade candidate for Sociology at the University of Warwick
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Publications Referred to in the essay
antifa λευkoşa (2019) Issue 1. Antifa Tropikal, Nicosia: Independently Published. Available at: https://movementsarchive.org/doku.php?id=el:magazines:tropikal:tropikal1 (Last Accessed: 1 April 2022).
antifa λευkoşa (2020) Issue 2. Antifa Tropikal, Nicosia: Independently Published. Available at: https://movementsarchive.org/doku.php?id=el:magazines:tropikal:tropikal2 (Last Accessed: 1 April 2022).
Goscinny, R. (2007) Asterix at the Olympic Games (Ο Αστερίκκος στους Ολυμπιακούς Αγώνες). Loukia (Translator), Athens: Mammoth Comics.
Hajipieris, I. & Orhan, K. (2015) Common Dictionary of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot Dialect (Κοινό Λεξικό Της Ελληνοκυπριακής και Τουρκοκυπριακής Διαλέκτου, Kıbrıs Rum ve Türk Diyalektlerinin Ortak Sözlüğü). Athens: Iamvos.
Pissouros, A. (2019) Learning Cypriot Greek: Part One (Μαθθαίννω Κυπριακά: Πρώτον Μέρος). Nicosia: Armida. Additional information, including audio lessons, available at: https://mathenokipriaka.com (Last Accessed: 1 April 2022).
Saint-Exupéry, A. (2018) The Little Prince in Cypriot (Ο Μικρός Πρίγκηπας στα Κυπριακά). I. Hajipieris (Translator), Athens: Iamvos.
Sofroniou S. (2015) Oi Protoplastoi (Οι Πρωτόπλαστοι). Athens: To Rodakio.
Spanoudis, A. (2017) Homer’s Iliad: A Metric Poetic Rendering in the Cypriot Dialect (Ομήρου Ιλιάδα: Έμμετρη ποιητική απόδοση στην Κυπριακη Διάλεκτο). Nicosia: Haviaras & Philippou.
Spanoudis, A. (2019) Homer’s Odyssey: A Metric Poetic Rendering in the Cypriot Dialect (Ομήρου Οδύσσεια: Έμμετρη ποιητική απόδοση στην Κυπριακη Διάλεκτο). Nicosia: Haviaras & Philippou.
Syspirosi Atakton (2016) Yes to a Federal Cyprus [Brochure]. English Version Available at: https://syspirosiatakton.org/yes-to-a-federal-cyprus. Greek Cypriot Version Available at: https://movementsarchive.org/doku.php?id=el:brochures:sispirosiatakton:omospondia_cy (Both Last Accessed: 1 April 2022).