Learning Greek in Ohio.

Sarah Manavis has a nice piece at Prospect about “how immigration keeps old dialects alive”:

Like most children of immigrants, I grew up speaking a half-and-half combination of languages. My Dad was the only immigrant in his family to become fluent in English; aside from him, I had an entirely and only Greek-speaking side. The other side of my family, my mother’s, spoke entirely and only American English.

I, and the other children in my community, spoke these languages interchangeably until we spoke in full sentences, teething our way towards speaking English. I would occasionally accidentally use Greek words with American school friends, not realising I was using a different language.

Another thing I did not realise, in fact only realized in the last 5 years, is what exactly is the kind of Greek I speak. My mother, the American, and my sister and I all adopted the language that we spoke not just with my grandparents and relatives in Greece, but the bizarrely large Greek-immigrant community also nestled in southwestern Ohio.

Until I left my little Greek community, I had been under the impression that I was, of course, speaking modern Greek. […] Yet my mother, sister and I have all been met with the same response from Greeks since leaving the midwestern United States. “You sound like my yiayia,” they all say. You sound like my grandmother. […]

The insulation of a new country and the relatively strict cut-off date from when the last immigrants arrived helps not to cultivate a new language, but to retain a way of speaking lost to time moving on. These slightly outdated forms of formal languages are being preserved in all parts of the world, with some immigrant communities becoming the only lifeline for dialects about to become extinct in their countries of origin. […]

She goes on to talk about Ciociaro (“a distinct, several-centuries-old dialect of formal Italian, borne out of the rural region of Ciociaria in central Italy”), now hardly spoken in Italy but flourishing in “an Italian community in Sarnia, Ontario, a city in the southeast corner of Canada, just north of the US-Canadian border,” and Caribbean Hindustani (“a language predominantly developed out of South Asian slave trade to the Caribbean islands […] influenced by a huge number of languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Braj Bhasha, Dutch, Tamil, and French—to name a few”), and goes into related issues:

This brings us to the major problem in understanding how many of these new and preserved dialects actually exist in the world: tracking them all is near impossible. As of now, there is no country maintaining formal statistics on immigrant dialects, beyond formally tracking how many speakers they have of an already recognised language from particular immigrant groups’ home countries.

It’s a good read; if you get a subscription pop-up, just click on the page or hit refresh and it should go away. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. Paul Clapham says

    It’s not only dialects which get preserved by people who move to a different country. An example I noticed last month: My family decided to go to Greece for our Christmas meet-up (long story skipped), so in late December we were staying in an AirBNB in a small resort on the Pelopponese coast.

    Naturally we were the only ones there, since the Greeks weren’t going to their holiday houses in the middle of winter. But anyway most of the houses were fairly generic plaster boxes painted in rather Italian shades of terra cotta and other pastels. Except for one… there was a bright white house with Parthenon-like columns, and above it were flying the Greek flag and the Canadian flag.

    So our guess was, a Greek had emigrated to Canada and then several dozen years later had moved back to the Old Country and built himself a holiday home, in the old-fashioned style he was accustomed to.

  2. Very common thing. Eg. Macedonian dialects from the areas now administered by the Hellenic Republic are alive mainly in diaspora communities, due to the hellenisation, assimilation, repression and forced deportation of the native speakers by the Greek authorities.

  3. Southeast Asian Chinese is very interesting from the metropolitan perspective. Many speak what is phonologically “Standard” Southern Min (i.e. Amoy dialect or Taiwanese), but with so much basic vocabulary derived from Teochew that it can be difficult to understand to someone knowing only “Standard” Southern Min.

  4. On a related note:

    Fiji Hindi : a basic course and reference grammar

  5. I’ve experienced this myself. My family is Cuban immigrants to the US, but I grew up speaking Spanish to nobody but my close family. This means that the dialect of Spanish I speak is Cuban Spanish of the 1970s, with all the accompanying slang. It’s bizarre to realize that a lot of words I take for granted are actually “non-standard.” It’s even worse once I leave the Cuban community and talk to other Latin Americans, who use idiomatic constructions that I had only heard rarely within my own family. Really specific input will do that to ya.

  6. The Hutterites and various Amish communities speak endangered or other extinct varieties of German, and not particularly closely related.

    The Hutterites speak a koine of various southern Bavarian varieties but use Standard German for church services. The Amish in the US speak Rhine Franconian with a dash of Alemannic varieties so the result is something close to Palatinate German. Apparently the communities in South America speak a variety from Northern Germany mixed with Dutch. In other words the only thing they have in common is their religion.

    A friend from Birkenfeld in the Huensruck once told me that that area was a source of what we call the Amish and that it had not been settled by Germans during the Migration period but that people had just language shifted. I once heard him speaking to his grandmother and it wasn’t recognizable as anything like Standard German.

  7. Possibly Karen could assist on my attempting to verify “ñiñga,” a term supposedly from a Cuban dialect. I came across this years ago and periodically hit the usual Spanish language references and forums, but still I cannot verify. As I understand, the term means “absolutely not, no way, forget it.” Thanks for the help.

  8. Heh. That has a purely coincidental resemblance to Russian ни-ни [ñi-ñi], with the same meaning.

  9. There are two separate phenomena being discussed here: the first (which is what the author describes for her own command of Greek) is the preservation, among second generation members of a diaspora community, of older dialects/registers of a language, untouched by newer/standard forms in the original homeland (but definitely impacted by whatever the dominant language of the diaspora speakers is). The second is the creation (and transmission to the first generation born outside the original homeland) of a new variety (sharply unlike anything spoken in the original homeland) through dialect and/or language contact: such is the case of overseas varieties of Hindi. Obviously, given enough time, the distinction between the two phenomena becomes blurred.

    (Incidentally, overseas Hindi, including Caribbean Hindustani, isn’t a product of some South Asian slave trade: on the contrary, its emergence is due to the abolition of slavery: as a result, for land owners who could no longer use or import slaves, bringing in indentured laborers from South Asia was the cheapest legal option).

    Paul Clapham: what you describe (migrants returning to their home village with money made abroad) is not only true of Greece, but of other countries as well, and indeed in Italy, as a result, many Italian dialects have a number of anglicisms wholly unknown to the Standard: returning migrants were so numerous (and, as a result of the wealth they made abroad, influential) in many areas that the English loans they used were accepted by the larger dialect speech community.

    The author makes an interesting point in the end: because these migrant varieties are very much under the radar of officialdom, a great many new language varieties are now emerging, with many linguists quite unaware of their existence. How long will it take, I wonder, before we end up in a world with linguistic diversity steadily increasing?

  10. @Bill Boyd: Spanish Wiktionary and some other sources mention ñinga meaning “shit” in Panama, and a small portion of something in Venezuela. If it’s found in those two, I think there’s a good chance that Cuba might have it as well.

  11. I am no linguist but i do have two anecdotes.

    This can happen culturally also. My grandparents were from a European country and brought their holiday customs with them. We all grew up with these customs as cultural customs. In the age of the Internet we connect with cousins from the home country and find our cherished traditions are actually quaint anachronisms of early 20th century customs.

    On dialect and usage: I have a friend who left his country at 18 to be a student in the US. He rarely spoke his home language until he went home to visit 20 years later. His brothers and cousins ribbed him about his speaking because he spoke like an 18 year-old kid rather than as a 40 year-old adult.

  12. David Marjanović says


    The other way around: Hunsrück. 🙂

  13. @Lazar. Wow, losing that second ñ really opened the door. Thanks

  14. His brothers and cousins ribbed him about his speaking because he spoke like an 18 year-old kid rather than as a 40 year-old adult.

    The reverse phenomenon occurs when American reporters in, e.g., the Middle East interview members of the local elite who went to college in the US: 40-year-old professional people whose English is full of “yeah,” “you know,” “those guys wanna,” etc.

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The Dictionary of the Royal Academy doesn’t list many words beginning ñ or with more than one ñ in them, and a high proportion of those it does list are from Chile, which doesn’t surprise me. My youngest daughter learned to speak Spanish from her mother, but she was largely self-taught as far as spelling went. She makes very few errors, as she has my capacity to recognize when things “look right” and when they don’t. However, as she spent a significant amount of her childhood in Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago, and grew up think it was perfectly normal for a word to begin with ñ and to contain more than one ñ. When she wrote to me from Chile she usually misspelled niños as ñiños.

    More generally, it’s remarkable how fast everyday language changes, something one only notices after a long time abroad. After 30 years I’m conscious that modern speech in England sounds quite strange to me, and I’m sure that mine sounds old-fashioned to many people. Once when my daughter met a young Englishman at the place where she worked he told her that she sounded like his grandmother. As many of our friends are Spanish my wife has picked up a lot of Spanishisms: I don’t think she does as far as using vosotros, but maybe that will come, and she already uses a lot of words that sound odd to Chileans.

  16. My favourite ñ-word is ñandú.

  17. I’m partial to ñoqui.

  18. David Marjanović says

    40-year-old professional people whose English is full of “yeah,” “you know,” “those guys wanna,” etc.

    Strikes me as unremarkable… or perhaps professional scientists don’t talk like professionals 🙂

  19. People saying “you know” a lot has been a peeve of my father’s since the 1980s. I pointed out to him that Thurber had complained about this supposedly new usage in the Dec. 31, 1960 issue of The New Yorker.

  20. It’s probably been used since Sumer, if not the caves. When I was studying Irish one of the first things we memorized was An bhfuil a fhios agat? ‘You know?’

  21. (Which in Connemara Irish comes out something like “Willisad.”)

  22. The OED has examples of parenthetic you know from the 14th century, þou knowes, onwards. As a meaningless conversational filler it’s been attested in dialogues since the early 19th c. It may be much older, but since it — er — well, y’know, is a feature of spoken English — yeah, you know what I mean…

  23. Tá fhios agam!

  24. There are many examples of you know in Shakespeare. It is among several fillers used by the very informal Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Nay, but do so, then: and, look you, he may come and go between you both; and in any case have a nay-word, that you may know one another’s mind, and the boy never need to understand any thing; for ’tis not good that children should know any wickedness: old folks, you know, have discretion, as they say, and know the world.”

  25. I don’t think that’s actually filler: it does mean “you know that old folks have discretion” etc. I think it’s still closer to “as you know” than to modern “yunno”. The closest approximation to “yunno” that I can find is in Henry IV Part 2 2:4, where Falstaff says “For to serve bravely is to come halting off; you know, to come off the breach with his pike bent bravely, and to surgery bravely; to venture upon the charg’d chambers bravely —” The punctuation is rhetorical (so a semicolon represents twice the pause of a comma) and not structural.

  26. I took it to be filler because of the following “as they say”, with Shakespeare thickly painting Quickly’s uncouth speech.

  27. @David Marjanović: Well, I talk that way myself in casual conversation, but it sounds a bit jarring, to me at least, when an actual adult is talking to a reporter about a political situation.

  28. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’m partial to ñoqui

    ñoquis, surely — you wouldn’t want to eat just one. We have ñoquis quite often in this house.

  29. Yeah, Spanish seems to be fully on board with reanalyzing Italian i as a singular – e.g. espaguetis.

    As for initial or double ñ, I think the most common word that fits those two bills is ñoño, which means insipid or wimpy – although in some circles it also appears to be used for “nerd”. Probably of onomatopeic origin?

  30. Probably of onomatopeic origin?

    In Serbocroatian there’s njonjo, a noun with pretty much the same meaning, though it’s not overly common.

  31. Speaking of Greek, what’s the etymology of tazo lagoys me petraxilia? (No Greek seems to be allowed through either.)

  32. Also Nyonya. From Wikipedia:

    Peranakan Chinese commonly refer to themselves as Baba-Nonya. The term Baba is an honorific for Straits Chinese men. It originated as a Hindustani (originally Persian) loan-word borrowed by Malay speakers as a term of affection for one’s grandparents, and became part of the common vernacular. Female Straits-Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. Nyonya (also spelled nyonyah or nonya) is a Malay and Indonesian honorific used to refer to a foreign married lady. It is a loan word, borrowed from the old Portuguese word for lady donha (compare, for instance, Macanese creole nhonha spoken on Macau, which was a Portuguese colony for 464 years). Because Malays at that time had a tendency to address all foreign women (and perhaps those who appeared foreign) as nyonya, they used that term for Straits-Chinese women as well. It gradually became more exclusively associated with them.

  33. …ñoquis…
    Funny how that works. I’ve bought ñoquis and ordered them aloud, and still my mind insisted on typing a form I’d never encountered.

    On the other hand, ñoqui is ‘a punch’ in colloquial rioplatense Spanish, apparently because the pasta resembles little fists.

  34. “un ñoqui”.

  35. marie-lucie says

    (Spanish) ñoño, which means insipid or wimpy

    There is also French gnan(-)gnan which has a similar meaning ‘dull, boring, old-fashioned’ (used about a person or their opinions and habits). Not quite a slang word but definitely unrefined.

    The TLFI associates it with néant ‘nothingness’, specifically in the old compound fainéant lit. ‘do-nothing’, dialectally also feignant.

    In general very few French words begin with gn (= [ñ]). Apart from gnangnan there is un gnon ‘a hit (e.g. by a fist) that leaves a visible trace on the body’. The TLFI associates this one with un oignon (pronounced ognon), referring to the swelling sometimes resulting from a hit, but un gnon can also leave a discoloration.

    It is possible that both these words come from the region of Lyon. A traditional puppet show originally from that area features the main characters Guignol and Gnafron, respectively the smart and the dumb one. Most French speakers tend to pronounce the second name with initial [gn] rather than [ñ]. This is also how they pronounce gnocchi and gnou ( English ‘gnu’).

  36. I just ran into a WP article on a dialect of Venetian still spoken in Chipilo, near Puebla in Mexico.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Gnathostomes, however, always gets initial ñ… 🙂

  38. @David Marjanović: I’ve certainly heard it without sometimes.


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