Peter Constantine on Arvanitika: Is there hope for Europe’s endangered native tongues?

(This is a guest post from uber-translator and author Peter Constantine. His credits include Thomas Mann, Isaac Babel, Gogle, Chekov, Tolstoy, and someone named Sophocles. You can see all the damage he’s done right here.)

European countries have traditionally been viewed as linguistically homogeneous. Many Germans have never heard of South Jutlandic, and would be surprised to hear that UNESCO has listed twelve other languages of Germany as endangered. Many Bulgarians would draw a blank at Gagauz. But if you seek out distant European villagers on lonely mountains or on isolated islands, you might encounter a startling array of native European languages. The UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages warns that Tsakonian, Ter Sámi, Votian and a good dozen other native European tongues are now dying, and many dozens more are facing certain death. In Greece, too, we have villages where languages such as Vlachika, Pomak, Nashta, as well as Arvanitika, are only spoken fluently by the very old—and even they now prefer to speak Greek.

The elders of my Greek family are among the last fluent speakers of Arvanitika, once spoken in central Greece, on a few coastal Aegean islands, and in the parched mountains of the Peloponnese, which is where we are from. In my generation of 40-somethings there are still a few people who understand Arvanitika and can speak it to some extent, but I have never met anyone my age or younger who is fluent. Linguists classify us as terminal speakers because we are for the most part unable (or unwilling) to pass our language on to the next generation.

I am aware that the reason for the impending death of our language is that the world it existed in has come to an end. Along with its songs, poetry, mythology, and native wisdom, Arvanitika is an anachronism. The bitter life of sheep-herding, subsistence farming, and wool production in our barren mountains is a thing of the past, and no one from our village would want back the centuries of hunger and barefoot poverty. We have no term for “the good old days.” Though terminal speakers like myself might still know that the different parts of a weaving loom are called shulj, aném, inteh, podhariké, our language hasn’t kept up with a modern Greek world of abandoned villages and fast city living. Arvanitika has many words for candles, torches, and wicks, but no word for electricity. Our traditional everyday appliances were items such as the përpúshë, a long hardy stick used to stir and prod coal in the big village bread ovens or the panyárë, a rod with a wet rag wound around one end, which was used to wipe clean the broad oven floors. Villagers who today acquire a shining new car have to discuss it in Greek, but when we discuss livestock, Arvanitika terminology comes into its own. In our village, every type of dung has its own name— kakerdhítë (sheep), báglyatë (mules), mútëra (dogs—and humans). Bëstúarë are the contents of an animal’s stomach. Pagarkúarë is a young mule that has not yet carried any loads; vetúlyë is a yearling sheep and gesyem is the older leader sheep that marches in front of the heard with a biba, a big bell, around his neck; bonj is a word for copulation used only for donkeys. There are many Arvanitika names for pots, pans, and cheese-sifting colanders— but no word for a single twentieth-century appliance, or, for that matter, a nineteenth- or eighteenth-century one. The heart of our language froze in time during an era when the rest of Europe was in the grips of the Renaissance. We had no industrial revolution. All our native terminology reaches back to medieval times and beyond. Anything invented in more recent times has to be specified in Greek.

As the older generation left our arid Corinthian mountain village of Shin-Yann for a bright Athenian future, Arvanitika became a private, almost secret language. We began weaving more and more Greek into our speech, either because we had forgotten the Arvanitika words or because there simply are no words for things that concern us today. As virtual reality is fast becoming a new Greek reality too, the Greek language itself has been invaded by a host of foreign words, from “click” and “download” to “interface” and “blogging.” As the first Arvanitika groups are beginning to meet on Facebook and other social networking forums, a new, fast-tongued Arvanitika cyberspeak may be on the horizon. If a half a century ago a typical village greeting in Arvanitika was “Re, si yan’ uiñte?”—“Hey, how’re your olives?” the new cyber-greeting of our last speakers might well be: “Re, microblogeson?”—“Hey, you microblog?”


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