As you enter the mountainous village of Pera Melana in the southern Greek Peloponnese peninsula, you will likely hear the roar of scooters hurtling down the narrow roads and the chirping of birds flying ripe fruit from the trees. But if you approach the central cafe in the village, you will hear a rather unusual sound. It’s the buzz of conversations among the elders in a 3,000-year-old language called Tsakonika.
The speakers are the linguistic descendants of ancient Sparta, the iconic Greek city-state, and are part of a rich cultural heritage and a population called Tsakonian.
Thomais Kounia, nicknamed “the Empress of Tsakonika” for her fluency in the language, talks to her friend about the bread she baked that morning, but my Greek translator cannot understand her. Instead, Kounia translates for him into Greek, and then he tells me, like a Chinese whisper game. I am amazed. These ladies are among the last to speak fluently one of the oldest living languages in the world.
It is the only continuing legacy of the ancient Spartans and one of the oldest languages in Europe
Today, only about 2,000 of the 10,000 Tsakonians, mostly elders, still speak Tsakonika, and the language is limited to 13 towns, villages and hamlets around Pera Melana. While Greek is the official language of the region, Tsakonika is often spoken at home and in public here. However, its future remains uncertain.
“We are losing Tsakonika without genuine teachers,” Kounia said. “I have been trying to preserve it for 40 years. It is my duty to do so.
BBC Travel A Conversation at Tsakonika
Tsakonika is not only important to the identity and culture of the Tsakonians, it is the only continuing legacy of the ancient Spartans. It is also the oldest living language in Greece – predating modern Greek by about 3,100 years – and one of the oldest languages in Europe.
When we go to Sparta it feels like home
“If we lose our language, we cannot pretend to be Tsakonian,” explained Eleni Manou, professor and author of Tsakonika in the nearby town of Leonidio, the de facto capital of Tsakonia.
Tsakonika is based on the Doric language spoken by the ancient Spartans and it is the only remaining dialect of the western Doric branch of the Hellenic languages. In contrast, Greek descends from the Ionic and Attic dialects on the eastern branch. Although each of them uses a similar alphabet, Tsakonika has more phonetic symbols and differs in structure and pronunciation. Unsurprisingly, Tsakonika is closer to ancient Greek than to modern Greek, but neither of these languages are mutually intelligible.
A famous phrase similar to Tsakonika was coined by Leonidas I, king of the Spartans, in 480 BC. during the Battle of Thermoplae, as he led 300 of his men and about 1,000 other Greeks in combat against up to 500,000 Persians. Given the inadequate forces, the Persian commander demanded that Leonidas surrender all arms or die. Leonidas replied in Laconian: “Come and get them!”
Laconian was the Doric dialect spoken in the Spartan state of Laconia, and in the Middle Ages it became known as Tsakonian or Tsakonika.
“Tsakonika is the main proof of our Spartan connection,” noted Manou. “And in terms of the heart, we are direct descendants. For me and for many other Tsakonians, when we go to Sparta, we feel right at home.
Although Pera Melana and the other villages where Tsakonika is still spoken are about 55 to 100 km northeast of ancient Sparta, their geographic distance from the capital that once ruled them has actually helped preserve the language. . After the Visigoths sacked Sparta in 396 AD, the city was finally abandoned and the remaining Spartans fled and settled in these mountainous regions. Over the centuries, Tsakonika has been preserved in these isolated farming communities that quietly passed the language down from generation to generation. These communities remained relatively isolated until after the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), which resulted in mass education and improved infrastructure.
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“The construction of roads and ports has allowed people to get out of villages,” Kounia said. “Many residents never returned.”
In the 1950s, the introduction of electricity to all Tsakonian villages and exposure to national broadcast media further connected residents to the outside world. Many have also moved to other countries to seek better employment opportunities. One of them was Panos Marneris, now Tsakonika teacher, poet and songwriter who runs the Tsakonika language website.
“Until 1970, when I left for the United States, Tyros and other villages in the area where I grew up spoke 100% Tsakonika,” he says. “But every year I went back to visit, more and more people weren’t talking and that bothered me. The road from Astros to Leonidio was built in 1958. Twenty years later, people stopped talking about Tsakonika.
About 5,000 people still spoke Tsakonika in the late 1950s, according to Manou. But that number fell by more than half over the following decades when modern Greek became the national language in 1976 and outside teachers came to Tsakonia to teach it. In addition, Tsakonika has been stigmatized as a “peasant language”. As a result, Manou’s mother-tongue father refused to teach him Tsakonika because he deemed it unnecessary and shameful. In fact, her generation largely suppressed it with their children – a decision many now regret, as Tsakonika is listed as a “critically endangered” language by Unesco.
Until the 1990s, Tsakonika was still taught alongside Greek in some local schools, but then became only optional. Nowadays there are hardly any schools in these aging villages because so few children live there.
“Only 12 children live in my village today,” Kounia said. “It’s a big problem without a younger generation to pass the language on.”
BBC Travel The difference between ancient Tsakonika and modern Greek
While Tsakonika’s long-term viability remains in doubt, its past stigma is long gone.
“In the 60s and 70s there was a change in attitude about Tsakonika as something to be cherished rather than hidden,” Manou said. “In fact, many young Tsakonians were angry with their parents and grandparents for not telling them about Tsakonika. I begged my father to tell my children about it, but he refused. Now it’s all the rage with the younger generation.
Today, teachers, philologists and politicians are eagerly trying to revive the language. At a minimum, they give Tsakonika the respect she deserves as the language of King Leonidas rather than the peasants.
In Leonidio, bilingual signs in Tsakonika and Greek greet visitors. One proudly declares: “Our language is Tsakonika. Ask people to tell you about it. Tsakonika is also featured in the city’s Tsakonian Museum; in the Tskakonian Archives, a heritage club founded in 1954 to preserve the Tsakonika writing; and the annual Melitzazz Festival each summer. The latter features Tsakonian music, dancing, carpet weaving, stone architecture and a sweet local variety of eggplants.
The word “laconic” comes from Laconia, whose inhabitants were known for their verbal brevity and concise sentences.
“Today it is embarrassing not to speak Tsakonika,” noted Haralambos Lysikatos, the mayor of South Kynouria in Leonidio, very proud of his Tsakonian heritage. “It’s my dream that most Tsakonians speak it.”
Historically, Tsakonika was an oral language; by their austere and simple way of life, the Dorians only used the language out of necessity and did not write anything. In fact, the word “laconic” comes from Laconia, whose inhabitants were known for their verbal brevity and pithy sentences. Thus, there are relatively few Tsakonian words – around 8,000 to 10,000, compared to as many as 5 million in modern Greek.
“This is why there is no Tsakonian literature,” said Maxim Kisilier, head of the Department of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, hailed by Tsakonians as one of its best speakers. “But there are expressions of love.”
“It’s quality over quantity with Tsakonika words,” Kounia joked.
The biggest challenge is to preserve the written language
The lack of vocabulary is not a problem because Tsakonika borrows words he does not have from Greek and even a handful from French. The biggest challenge is to preserve the written language.
“Tsakonika has a very special phonetics and it’s difficult to write typographically,” Kisilier said.
The best effort to date is a three-volume dictionary published by Kounia’s uncle in 1986. Today, several speakers are seeking to update and republish it online. The southern and northern municipalities of Kynouria and the Tsakonian archives morally support this initiative but lack the funds to do so.
“What is not written fades away,” noted Tsakonika author Sotiris Steniotis, who has started compiling words for a new Tsakonika dictionary. “In the information age with the Internet, we must not lose a language. Every Tsakonian village should have a Tsakonika center for its inhabitants and Tsakonika courses should be offered in Sparta and Athens.
Petris Dimitris, mayor of Prastos, intends to create such a center in an abandoned tavern in his almost deserted village. Currently, only the Tsakonian Archives and a few other places offer Tsakonika classes in person.
This year, Covid-19 inspired Manou to offer Tsakonika courses online for the first time, opening up a great opportunity to expand teaching. She also hopes to launch a regional radio show to unite the Tsakonika-speaking areas. The digital revolution has even hit Tsakonian’s dusty archives, which aim to digitally safeguard all of its Tsakonika publications.
“More people need to get involved, especially young people – I beg them to get involved – to preserve this language,” Marneris urged.
In the hearts of the Tsakonians, their language will survive, but it will be an uphill battle. Modern digital dictionaries can save the last words of the ancient Spartans, but only if, as Leonidas would say, the Tsakonians “come and get them!”
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