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Feature – A centuries-old dialect
15.11.2012, 16:36 (CET)
Rich in international influences, the Cypriot dialect differs significantly from all the other vernaculars and dialects of the Modern Greek language. At the same time, it is a dialect that has survived through the centuries and is still spoken by Greek Cypriots of all the age groups and social classes. The origins of the Cypriot dialect can be traced back to about 1.400 BC, a period during which Greek settlers colonised the island, and its history is completely interwoven with the history of Cyprus itself.

‘Cypriot’ is essentially the ancient-most Greek dialect which has survived, together with the little-spoken Tsakonian dialect, used by some people in the Tsakonia region of Peloponnese.

Based on the Arcadocypriot dialect of ancient Greek, ‘Cypriot’ has been influenced by all the different peoples who ruled the island across the years: Latins, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans – and more recently – English.

Philologist and renowned linguist Dr. Constantinos Yiangoullis, co-authored the book ‘Thesaurus of the Cypriot dialect’, following tireless research spanning decades.  He is therefore well-placed to provide reliable insight into the topic.

Α dialect that has survived through time

The Cypriot dialect, Mr. Yiangoulis explains, has lasted longer than all other Greek dialects for exactly the same reason that saw it come into existence.

“This is thanks to Cyprus’ geographic isolation from the other parts of the Greek-speaking world.”

International influence on the Cypriot dialect from the consecutive centuries of foreign rule, Mr. Yiangoullis argues, is an additional reason why “Cypriot” is distinctively different from the “proper” Greek language.  However, despite the influences, he adds, the Greek language in Cyprus has not been eliminated.

“It has survived because the Cypriot people have proven through the centuries that they were not a bunch of animals, they were people with a conscience, ideologies and resistance. In times of oppression and during crises, therefore, they had to retain their identity”.

One could assume, he adds, that after all these centuries, the Cypriot dialect; the Greek language in Cyprus, could have faded.

“Not only was it not transformed, not only did it not fade, but I would say that it ‘hellenicised’ foreign influences, since all the words were disseminated with Greek endings.”

A dialect rich in influences

According to Mr. Yiangoulis, the influences that other languages have had on the Cypriot dialect are as follows: 

“Unavoidably it has been influenced from the ‘Frankish’ language – and when we say ‘Frankish’ we mean ‘old French’, originating either from the so-called Provencal dialect, or from the Catalan dialect.”

“We were lucky in that during the Frankish rule, we had literary works in Cypriot such as the ‘Chroniko tou Voustronio’, the ‘Chroniko tou Machera’ and the ‘Love Songs of Cyprus’. Therefore, the Frankish influence on the Cypriot dialect remained in literary memory, as opposed to the years of the Ottoman period, where it was present in administrative documents and in our spoken language,” he said.

“Cypriot,” he continues, “also has influences from Latin, given that in the first five centuries of the Byzantine period, which was before the Roman Empire was split in east and west, the official language was Latin. The Greek language was established in Byzantium between the sixth and seventh century BC. We, of course, also have a number of influences from the period of Venetian rule. When we say Venetian, we essentially mean the Italian language. Following that we have Ottoman influences and finally English.”

Cypriot dialect and literature

It makes sense that, as a dialect, the use of ‘Cypriot’ is restricted mainly to oral language and to daily interactions between Greek Cypriots. Yet, there are many literary works written in Cypriot dialect.

Among the many poets who wrote in ‘Cypriot’, Vasilis Michaelides (1849-1917) is undoubtedly unique. Often described as Cyprus’ “national” poet, his most well-known works include the ‘9th of July’, ‘Chiotissa’, meaning girl or woman from the island of Chios, and ‘Anerada’.

Another very popular Cypriot poet is Demetris Lipertis (1866-1937). Until 1911, Liperis wrote poems in ‘demotic’ Greek (Dimotiki), the modern vernacular form of the language, and in ‘katharevousa’, which is a conservative form of the Modern Greek language conceived in the early 19th century as a compromise between Ancient Greek and Dimotiki of the time, widely used both for literary and official purposes. From 1911 onwards however, he makes a definitive turn towards the Cypriot dialect.

There are of course many more other Cypriot poets and novelists who use the dialect. One example is the final part of the Cyprus Presidency inauguration ceremony which took place in the Curium Ancient Amphitheatre on July 5 included songs on renaissance poetry performed in the Cypriot dialect.

At the same time, the Cypriot dialect can also be found in traditional folk songs, whose origins and composition are unclear. It is however believed that they reflect a rather long period of Cypriot history, which begins from the middle of the Byzantine period until the end of Venetian rule. Some of the most well-known folk songs in the Cypriot dialect are ‘Traouin tou Digeni’, translated as ‘Digenis’ Song’, in reference to the achievements of hero Digenis Akritas, the medieval legend of ‘Arodafnousa’, ‘O Pramateutis’ and ‘Triandafilleni’.

The period of Ottoman rule does not have anything of note to display from a literary point of view when it comes to works in the Cypriot dialect, since the writers of that time used Greek extensively, with hardly any Cypriot words.

A non-traditional dictionary

When it comes to the ‘Thesaurus’ that he has co-authored, Mr. Yiangoulis makes a point of noting that it is not a dictionary in the traditional sense of interpretation alone, but a treasure in the sense of simultaneously providing interpretation and etymology.

“I call it a Thesaurus because in my work I try to incorporate the timelessness of the Cypriot dialect. From when it was created and how it took shape, until today,” he said.

Mr. Yiangoulis is of the view that Greek Cypriots have a responsibility to respect the Cypriot dialect.

“We should be careful with the Cypriot dialect; we should respect it and try to keep it. People should be given the freedom to form their language naturally and may this dialect last for as long as it can,” he concluded.