The death of a language is rarely sudden: it is usually an unremarkable process of decline as a community gradually changes its linguistic allegiance, dropping an ancient mother-tongue for a stronger and more relevant language. Why insist on speaking words that are understood in only a few villages at the expense of fluency in a powerful national tongue?
The Greek side of my family comes from a Corinthian mountain village. Until the winding footpath leading to the village became a dirt road in the 1950s, and a paved road in the late 1960s, the language of the village was Arvanitika—or Arbëríshtë, as we call it. Greece has many native languages that are dying, such as Tsakonika, Nashtata, Pomak, and Vlahika. Growing up in the Greece of the 1970s, I never gave much thought to the health and durability of our glúkha trimeríshtë, our “valiant tongue,” nor did anyone else in our speech community. There was no movement to preserve the language, or to document it (it is a purely oral language) or to standardize it. When in the 1990s the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages sent linguists to survey the state of our language, the villagers felt that it was some sort of plot and chased them off with sticks.
One clear sign that not all is well with your native tongue is when you don’t know the word for “electricity” or “light switch”—because the words don’t exist in your language—but you do know that purtékë is the rod which you use to beat ripe olives off trees, and that shékuljitë are the hides of goats (lekúratë e dhívë) in which you ripen and store a cheese called djáthë të shakuit, “goat-hide cheese.” This special cheese stored in goat skins stays fresh for a whole year without a refrigerator—another word we do not have. So the modern Arvanitika speaker might know all about troughs (korita), shears (ngëshéra), sheep pens (vathratë), and all the parts of the plough (parmendë), but can’t say: “My iPhone doesn’t seem to get reception on this side of the mountain.”
Once a language no longer creates new words in the face of a new lifestyle, the language is bound to fade away as the old traditions become obsolete. Our people no longer weigh milk in “oka” units, or gather the milk in gigantic two-hundred–oka cauldrons (levétë t’madhë). The European Union has disallowed our production of unpasteurized cheeses—in fact there was a recent warning on Greek television for Athenian weekend excursionists to Corinth not to purchase goat milk from local villagers. The new pasteurization directives have outlawed the old wooden milk pails (kardháre nga dru), the flatpans (brakáche), the leather bottles (askópulj), the boiling pots (kusí), andthe Corinthian milk pans, which we call véshlja hekurimtë, “metallic ears,” because of their earlike handles.
I am not one to mourn the passing of the old ways. There was poverty and hunger in our villages, and the woods were filled with dangerous spirits—ljugat and káljketë and buchera—and evil water nymphs or nereids (neráidhe) lay in wait by brackish ponds after sunset to molest and drown shepherds. In the late 1930s, my uncles—the first generation to go to primary school—had to walk barefoot down the mountain path to a schoolhouse in a Greek-speaking valley, where they were threatened with canings should they speak their own tongue. But they did well in life: Uncle Yorgos rose to the highest ranks of the Greek air force, shedding all signs of his humble Corinthian provenance.
Unlike other endangered language communities elsewhere in the world, Greece’s native languages have no language-planning system or academy charged with standardizing the language and providing it with official new terms. When I visited Australia a few years ago, I heard that the Kaurna Aboriginal language, extinct for nearly a century, was not only being revived but was also being given a new terminology. New words were created out of old: mukarndo (computer), for instance, is an amalgam of muka muka,“brain,” and karndo, “lightning.” I heard that the Council of Wiradjuri Elders meets regularly to accept or reject neologisms, and that comic books were being translated into native languages to spark the interest of the young.
Many of our villagers, on the other hand, insist that Arvanitika is not a bona fide language but just a way of speaking, as opposed to Greek with its wealth of modern words and ancient lineage. There is a strong feeling in all our age-groups that we would do better to speak only Greek, that it is an impediment to insist on our village tongue with its treasury of irrelevant medieval farming terminology but a dearth of words for all things modern and interesting. Athens is seen as the city of bright lights and opportunity, while the village remains a backwater of oil lamps and poverty.
Linguists have words for people in our predicament. We are terminal speakers, and once we start switching back and forth from our heritage language to the national tongue, adopting simpler grammatical forms, we are partial speakers or semispeakers. Our language, once so rich, is moribund. As one of our dour proverbs says: “Ljá të kóratë edhé vate për karkalétse”—it has left the bountiful harvest and gone looking for locusts.