Linguistic Notes from Cyprus.

I’ve been following the adventures of Nick Nicholas on Facebook as he traveled through Greece and Cyprus, and I’m pleased to report he’s posted some linguistic observations at Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος (to quote myself from a few years ago: have I mentioned how happy I am that Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος is back?):

I’m not going to make this a course on Cypriot, and I’m not going to explain the technical terminology thoroughly; at least not yet. I’m tired, and I just want to capture the things that struck me about Cypriot after a week of hearing it all around me, even if in a potentially attenuated-for-“Penpushers” form.

(“Penpushers”, καλαμαράες, being speakers of Standard Greek.)

Phonology: my family were certainly doing most of the familiar Cypriot processes: double consonants, dissimilation of fricative + fricative (e.g. > fk, fx > fk), palatoalveolar allophony. They did not seem to be doing a whole lot of fricative + yod dissimilation (e.g. ðj > θc). x > θ I caught only a couple of times. As I’d been warned by Tsimplakou, lots of dropping of intervocalic ɣ, intermittent for ð (though ɣajðurin > ɣaurin “donkey” and koruðes > korues “girls” was regular), none for v.

Something I didn’t know about beforehand: ʎ > j. So I heard /palja/ [paʎa] rendered as [paja] several times.

Accentuation: the three-syllable limit on stress in phonological words is violated, as it is in Pontic: ˈipen-tu-to. The ascending accent of enclitics, which Standard Greek uses to comply with the limit (o ˈanθropos mu > oˈanθroˈpozmu), is alien to Cypriot, so alien that primary school children, per Tsimplakou, have to learn it sing-song—and come away with the impression that Standard Greek is a sing-song kind of language.

Vocabulary: mostly intelligible, though lots of lurking false friends: pefto is “lie down” as well as “fall down”, vareto is “heavy” instead of “boring”. Occasional stumbling blocks which had to be explained to me, but they were clearly watching their lexis around me. apoloɣume > apoloume as the English calque “apologise” rather than “speak in my defence” is common, and indeed is used instead of mere “I’m sorry”.

Morphology: as pointed out to me by Mertyris, avoidance of the –eō contract conjugation in favour of –aō (e.g. efxaristas), though that is a general trend in Greek dialect, and is characteristic of the vernacular away from learnèd influence. When they do use –eō, it’s not the Standard Greek –jeme, but the compromise with archaic Greek –jume. So “I’m bored”, an early Cypriot teen website, was : bareomai > varjume > varkume by yod dissimilation.

Syntax: the cleft is so omnipresent, I wasn’t even noticing it. As Tsimplakou pointed out, Cypriots can learn that Standard Greek uses focus dislocation for emphasis instead; what they do not pick up is that Standard Greek does not use clefts at all—it is hard to learn from negative experience.

Deixis: discourse deixis in Standard Greek is done by aftos, the unmarked 3rd person pronoun. In Cypriot, it is done by the overt demonstratives, tutos “this one” and dʒinos “that one”. So the unemphatic Standard causative ɣj afto “for that” ends up as the enthusiastic cleft ˈen pu tuto pu… “it is from this [clause] that…”

Intonation: falling, and particularly for men, choppy. That gets in the way of making sense of the vocative particle re. It is a fine line in Standard Greek whether it is to be taken as insulting or pleading, and the pleading interpretation is based on non-final intonation (or uptalk, when the re is added at the end of a sentence). Choppy falling intonation means a lot of very peremptory sounding re, and as a Penpusher, you do need to consciously remind themselves that they are not being rude at all, however it may come across.

“Penpushers” is certainly an interesting term!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    “Been up and down since I turned seventeen
    Well I’ve been on top, and then it seems I lost my dream
    But I got it back, I’m feeling better everyday
    Tell all those pencil pushers, better get out of my way”

    Don’t know to what extent the Cypriot καλαμαράες has a similar vibe to the vernacular AmEng pejorative “pencil pusher(s),” but an interesting potential parallel?

  2. John Cowan says

    I think so. Nick, back in 2009:

    But the thing about diglossia is, it is a stable arrangement, in which people know which form to use where; where using the wrong form is nonsensical, it’s ludicrous. There’s been a parallel in Greek for the past hundred years, but it hasn’t been Puristic vs. Demotic. It’s been Standard Greek vs. Cypriot. Giving a lecture in Cypriot, or a speech, or having a news article in Cypriot, is unthinkable, it’s nonsense (though the speaker might pop in a dialect word for colouring).

    But that does not mean Cypriots think their dialect is bad and not worth speaking, even if they occasional say it is. If you speak standard Greek to many a Cypriot, you may be excused as a Greece Greek, a “penpusher” (καλαμαράς, because none but a penpusher would speak standard Greek). If you’re not a penpusher by birth, then you’re a penpusher by affectation, and this engenders hostility. Not everywhere and and all times in Cyprus, but still often enough that the dialect is quite healthy.

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