GREEK-SPEAKING ITALIAN JEWS.

An article by Andrée Brooks in today’s NY Times discussing the excavation of long-forgotten Jewish settlements (the Jews were expelled from southern Italy in the 16th century) contains the following remarkable information:

What is striking is that the inscriptions on the burial slabs found to date are almost totally in Greek. There is little or no Hebrew. When Hebrew is used, the characters mostly spell out Greek or Latin words. Both Greek and Latin were commonly used in that part of Italy at the time. This suggests an assimilated life for the Jews who may have lived here outside Venosa between the third and seventh centuries A.D. “Our Jews were not separated from everyone else in those early centuries,” said Dr. Cesare Colafemmina, visiting professor of Hebrew and Hebraic literature at the University of Calabria.


The Jewish Encyclopedia article on “Greek language and the Jews” assembles information about post-classical knowledge of Greek in a section called “In Later Times,” saying “Shabbethai Donnolo had a Greek education, and so to a certain extent had Nathan of Rome; the author of the Ahimaaz Chronicle often refers to the Greek-speaking Jews of southern Italy.” Let me just add, as a fan of weird dialects, that I wish at least some remnants of the former Magna Graecia of southern Italy had survived to the present.

Comments

  1. Twice while in Spain I stayed in the “Jewish Quarter” of a city, once in Cordoba near the famous old mosque (the Mesquita) and once in Gerona, former home of the Kabbalists.
    No community of Jews has lived in either place for over 500 years.

  2. My understanding has always been that traces of Magna Grecia are alive, if not well, in Sicily and S. Italy. A quick search did not find anything more informative than this page (which is worth a look), but I’ve spoken to Sicilians who confirm (or claim) that dialects ultimately descended from Doric Greek still persist.

  3. Great link — thanks, Z.! Excerpt:
    In the early sixteenth century Calabrian Greek was still vigorous in the inland districts south of Palmi and Cittanova but by the close of the seventeenth century it had receded into the Aspromonte mountains of the southern tip of the peninsula, an area comprising hte towns of Cardeto, Bagaladi, Motta San Giovanni, San Lorenzo, Melito, Condofuri, Roghudi, Bova, Palizzi, Africo and Sant’Agata. For the next century and a half the Calabrian Grecia (Greek-speaking zone) remained fairly stable, until the Risorgimento and Unification unleased a new tide of Italian linguisitic influence which accelerated the process of erosion. By the 1920′s the ancestral language of South Calabrians could be heard only in the small rural communites of Bova, Amendola, Condofuri, Galliciano, Roccaforte, Roghudi and Ghorio.
    Salentine Greek at first declined more rapidly than its Calabrian counterpart. Around 1400 it was already confined to a territorial strip bounded by Gallipoli and the Gulf of Taranto in the west, and Lake Limini near Otranto in the east, with Struda and Alliste as its respective northern and southern limits. By the twentieth century this Grecia had shrunk to a compact district south of Lecce/Luppiu made up of the villages of Calimera, Martignano, Sternatia, Soleto, Zollino, Martano, Castrignano dei Greci, Corigliano and Melpignano.
    By the time they became citizens of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the Italo-Greeks, mostly poor peasants, had long been severed from the Byzantine religious traditions and from the mainstream of Neo-Hellenic civilization… Although excluded from the churches, schools and government offices, Greek began to be taught in some villages in the decade following World War II on the initiative of private individuals… Nevertheless, in spite of these developments, Italo-Greek continues to be ignored the the Italian government. Furthermore the Calabrian Grecia, already in an advanced state of decay, suffered a serious setback when the floods of 1970 and 1972 forced the evacuation of Roghudi and Ghorio. The inhabitants of these villages have since been resettled along the Ionian coast and in Reggio where the language has little hope of survival.

  4. Don’t let the small numbers fool you into thinking these languages are history. When you arrive in a community where they are spoken, you realize that big demographics do not a language make. I was up in North Hungary this weekend trout fishing with a couple of Romanes linguists – hey, we needed an excuse to get out of town – and although the Carpathian Gypsy dialect in Hungary is said to be “dying out” at 500 speakers, it sure doesn’t seem so when you are smack in the middle of 50 of them.
    Check out http://europa.eu.int/comm/education/lami/en/gre-it-e.htm http://www.greece.gr/POLITICS/EuropeanUnion/secludedthoroughbreds.stm
    When I was in Italy last fall I found a couple of available CDs of Griko folk music – the traditional tarantella is big there – and you maight check http://www.grikamilume.com/traudia.htm or a review in English at http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/aramire2.htm#3

  5. Thanks — fascinating to hear a half-minute of sung Griko (from the second link)!

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