The Last of the Calabrian Greeks.

John Kazaklis reports on a topic that has long fascinated me, the Greek of southern Italy:

There exists today a tiny enclave of Greek-speaking people in the Aspromonte Mountain region of Reggio Calabria that seem to have survived millennia…perhaps since the Ancient Greeks began colonizing Southern Italy in the 8th and 7th Centuries BC. Their language is called Greko. They survived empires, invasions, ecclesial schisms, dictators, nationalistic-inspired assimilation, and much more. Greko is a variety of the Greek language that has been separated from the rest of the Hellenic world for many centuries. There are various population estimates circulating, but after I visited the region in April 2017 and sat down with several community leaders, the clearest estimate of remaining Greko speakers seems to be between 200-300 and numbers continue to decrease.

To help bring more perspective, Greek was the dominant language and ethnic element all throughout what we know today as Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, and Eastern Sicily until the 14th Century. Since then, the spread of Italo-Romance languages, along with geographical isolation from other Greek-speaking regions in Italy, caused the language to evolve on its own in Calabria. This resulted in a separate and unique variety of Greek that is different from what is spoken today in Puglia. […]

There are many theories or schools of thought regarding the origin of the Greko community in Calabria. Are they descendants of the Ancient Greeks who colonized Southern Italy? Are they remnants of the Byzantine presence in Southern Italy? Did their ancestors come in the 15th-16th Centuries from the Greek communities in the Aegean fleeing Ottoman invasion? The best answers to all of those questions are yes, yes, and yes. This means that history has shown a continuous Greek presence in Calabria since antiquity. Even though different empires, governments, and invasions occurred in the region, the Greek language and identity seemed to have never ceased. Once the glorious days of Magna Graecia were over, there is evidence that shows that Greek continued to be spoken in Southern Italy during the Roman Empire. Once the Roman Empire split into East (Byzantine) and West, Calabria saw Byzantine rule begin in the 5th Century. This lasted well into the 11th Century and reinforced the Greek language and identity in the region as well as an affinity to Eastern Christianity.

Today, there is more evidence of a Byzantine legacy rather than an Ancient Greek or Modern Greek footprint.

There’s a great deal more at the link, both history and the current situation, as well as gorgeous photos and a video clip with a brief section in dialect. It ends with an IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: “Greko vs. Griko: Don’t confuse the two. The variation of Greek that is spoken in Calabria (Greko) is different from the variety of Greek spoken in Puglia, known as Griko.”


  1. David Marjanović says

    Nick Nicholas has observed somewhere on his blog that the ‘Ndrangheta sounds like something straight out of Sparta: it’s andragathia, “manly virtue”.

  2. I wish Nick Nicholas would drop by; I’m sure he’d have interesting things to say about this.

  3. John Cowan says

    The Nick post in question first appeared on Quora, but its most recent location is on the new and improved Hellenistoblabla. I have planted a comment there to hopefully attract Nick’s attention hitherward. We’ll see.

  4. Thanks!

  5. I’m going to do this in instalments, because I’m sadly overworked these days.

    Marianne Katsoyannou , lecturer at Cyprus Uni, had done her PhD in 1995 on the language of Galliciano, one of the Calabrian Greek villages (in fact the only one according to the article where Calabrian Greek meaningfully survives). She called Calabrian Greek dying even then: Le parler gréco de Gallicianò (Italie); description d’une langue une langue en voie de disparition. (Her fieldwork had been in the 80s.)

    Katsoyannou contributed an article on Southern Italian Greek to Nikos Sarantakos’ language blog last year. Its title: “The Potemkin Villagers of Magna Graecia”. That’s what she thinks of the Greek spoken there now: very few people truly speak it (in the mostly abandoned mountain villages). But a large number of people on the coast, where the ethnic group has resettled, learn Standard Greek, pop in a couple of local shibboleths, and like to think that they speak it. That includes, she claims, people that have nothing to do with the ethnic group.

    She derides them as Potemkin villagers performing for tourists. She says that they are appropriating the culture of the mountain villages without respecting them. She also rejects the local use of “grekanika” instead of “greko” to describe the language: it is a borrowing from Rohlfs’ 1964 dictionary Lexicon Graecanicum Italiae inferioris. And she dismisses their Greek as “a hybrid, with no native speakers, no communicative function, and of course no relation to the dialect spoken in the villages before the intervention.” She says she was first warned of the “self-taught Greek speakers” by Anastasios Karanastasis, who had written a 5-volume dictionary of Southern Italian Greek for the Academy of Athens in 1984.

    And she also derides their enthusiasm to identify as Greek and not just Greek-speaking (as they had become; she reports in comment 182 that when she first visited the area, some locals did not even know Greek was spoken in Greece. Although as I posted in my blog, the local soldiers who went to Greece in WWII certainly had worked that out.) In fact, that belated enthusiasm has resulted in Italian scholars no longer promoting their surmise that Greek in Southern Italy is of mediaeval origin: the locals won’t stand for it.

    She did say that the family that hosted her last year in Galliciano (the last holdout of the original villages) were not Potemkin villagers. But her concluding, bitter paragraph was: “next time you ask me about the language of the Greek-speakers (not the Greeks or the Grekani) of Southern Italy, do not rush to correct me when I tell you it is dead. Try and get the right information first, and when you organise your trip there, try not to settle for easy access to the Potemkin villages on the shoreline.”

    I have read similar reproaches about the Greek culture of Salento, which has long been a lot more vibrant than that of Calabria (including a substantial poetic and song tradition in the early 20th century), but which is now also full of people learning Standard Greek and doing Greek culture as a museum piece.

    Maybe. But I’m happy that the commenters were not all convinced. “Neo Kid Al Kuwaiti” (he’s back from Kuwait now, I think, so he’s changed his moniker) said in comment 6:

    “An interesting post, but I’m missing the “therefore” or the moral. I mean, there’s clear contempt in the post for the “frauds” who “learned Modern Greek with an Italian accent, decorated it with some data they found in dictionaries….” But I can see no reasoning—at least no satisfactory reasoning—why they should be condemned for it. If they want to be “grekani”, who are we to dictate to them what is right? “Genuine Greeks”?

    Marianne’s response to Neo Kid (comment 37): “I’m not upset by the issue of genuineness, but by them deceiving naive tourists going there hoping to breath in Hellenism.” His response in 42 was to ponder: surely there’s easier ways to make money there than learning Modern Greek and selling Hellenism. “And anyway, if anyone wants to feel like they’re the descendant of Archimedes, fine by me! We all follow our own ethnic myths, after all.” Hers in 64 was to mutter darkly about the unmerited European Union funding they’ve gotten…

  6. Very interesting! I can understand Katsoyannou’s being upset, but I agree with the commenter who pushed back and said if that’s what they want, what’s so horrible about it? By all means point out that it’s invented tradition and the local dialect isn’t “authentic,” but there’s no need for moral panic.

  7. Trond Engen says

    Not really to the point, but still interesting: In a recent feature article about the site of Timpone della Motta in Calabria, in the Danish online science magazine, the interviewed archaeologists date the beginning of the Greek colonization of Southern Italy to the early 8th century BCE, by Euboians.

    (Have you told Nick that his comment was in moderation and is now out of it?)

  8. Stu Clayton says

    I think it’s sweet that she is so concerned about genuine. I wonder if she is hoping to sell it to tourists as an alternative to the fake stuff now on offer. I can’t think of any other reason to get upset.

  9. David Marjanović says

    I can’t think of any other reason to get upset.

    Seriously? Invented traditions passing themselves off as the real thing and taking attention away from how endangered the real thing is couldn’t get anyone upset?

  10. I was going to make a comment like that, but then I remembered it was just Stu being Stu — he has to insist on the meaninglessness of everything but meaninglessness.

  11. Trond Engen says

    You might argue that everything tourism touches turns into plastic, so its much better giving it an invented tradition than the real thing.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    What’s wrong with turning a dollar on authenticity ?

  13. Trond Engen says

    Timpone della Motta is not so much a trading center as a hilltop sanctuary 10 km inland and 14 km northwest of the port of Sybaris. That says something about the reach of Greek influence in Oinotria — or the level of integration of Greeks into Oinotrian society. I see two reasons why Euboian Greeks would settle there. One is to service the religious needs of the colonists in Sybaris (and maybe elsewhere), in which case I’d expect a stable Greek presence in the region at least a generation earlier. The other is a dynastic alliance or a conquering, in which case the presence of Greek artisans at the political center could have been immediate.

  14. Lars (the original one) says

    To subvert an old quote: The most important thing is authenticity — once you can fake that, you’re set.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    You don’t even need to fake it when you can capitalize on it as is. Of course enthusiasm comes and goes in waves, so I wouldn’t invest too heavily in a given artefact of authenticity. Remember hula hoops !

  16. I never know if I am using the word right: is Stu a nihilist?

  17. Stu Clayton says

    No, he’s not. Er mißtraut allen Systematikern und geht ihnen aus dem Weg. That’s the worst that can be predicated of him. The second worse is a facetious earnestness that people mistake for nihilism.

    Nihilists is a good word, but I don’t really know what they do for a living.

  18. Nobody’s ever known what nihilists do for a living, ever since the 1860s. But it’s such a fun word!

  19. John Cowan says

    Except Mark Twain. In 1889 the Connecticut Yankee uses a series of spells to break up the blockage in the Well of Holiness (actually he uses dynamite, but the spells, along with some fireworks, are to heighten the effect). The second of these is no less than “Nihilistendynamittheaterkaestchenssprengungsattentaetsversuchungen!”

    (The previous one was “Constantinopolitanischerdudelsackspfeifenmachersgesellschafft!”, and the following two are “Transvaaltruppentropentransporttrampelthiertreiber-trauungsthraenentragoedie!” and “Mekkamuselmannenmassenmenchenmoerder-mohrenmuttermarmormonumentenmacher!” I supplied a hyphen for the last two in order to make them visible in the fixed-width space on this page.)

  20. My best guess is this.

  21. Very apposite! I like the addition of Yiddish and Spanish, and they even got “nihil” in there towards the end. (Spoiler: I thought the sudden “less than nothing” kind of wrecked the continuity, though.)

  22. The tune is an old jokey Yiddish song, Zuntik Bulbe: “Sunday, potatoes; Monday, potatoes; Tuesday and Wednesday, potatoes; Thursday and Friday, potatoes; on Sabbath, something new: potato kugel…” etc.

    I wondered about the “less than nothing”, too: I imagine they are making sure to state on which side they stand, in the debate between the clear-eyed American leftists, and the ones who still insisted on admiring the Soviet Union and Stalin despite everything.

  23. Thus we see once again how politics is the death of art.

  24. David Marjanović says

    You might argue that everything tourism touches turns into plastic, so its much better giving it an invented tradition than the real thing.

    Point taken.

  25. John Cowan says

    Anyway, isn’t the whole point of The Invention of Tradition that there basically are no non-invented traditions? (Actually, it isn’t, but that’s a possible if subverted reading of it.)

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    The revival of Cornish is not altogether a different case. The language was quite unequivocally dead (despite the hopeful claims of the occasional fantasist); and while I’m not myself a fan of zombie languages, I understand the motivation and wholly admire the sheer determination (and scholarship) involved in the revival. (They used to get EU money too, before the Anglo-Saxon Cosplay Liberation Front went and ruined everything.) Mind you, in the Cornish case, tourism is surely not an important motive.

    Perhaps the ‘Ndrangheta might branch out into language revival? (“Griko spoken here. This one time, we’re asking you nicely.”)

  27. Interestingly, I just recently read (and was disappointed by) a population genetics paper trying to tackle the same questions about the origins of the Calabrian Greeks. They confirmed that the residents of the more isolated communities in the heart of the Aspromonte highlands (Roghudi, Gallicianò) were genetically distinct from the typical Calabrians, while the more outlying villages were intermediate in composition. But this distinct genetic makeup seemed to have been largely or solely a consequence of centuries of reproductive isolation. And the authors avoided using any Greek samples from other regions further East to gauge possible similarities between the Calabrians Greeks and various other Greek communities. So many various comparisons, in the end, but probably not the ones which mattered.

  28. David Marjanović says

    When some Viking named Roger conquered Sicily, he figured he had a bit of a legitimacy problem. So he had a very golden Orthodox church built in Palermo. One of the mosaics shows him being crowned by God (not by the pope), and he’s labeled ΡΟΓΕΡΙΟС ΡΗξ, which creates a whole bunch of interesting linguistic questions.

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