Markos Vamvakaris: Ο ισοβίτης

By: | Post date: 2011-01-18 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
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We saw a couple of posts ago the rebetiko musician Markos Vamvakaris in the 1930s, being more subject to the phonology of Puristic than Greeks might now expect of a singer extolling the underworld. Such an expectation says more about the romantic notions fomented by centuries of diglossia, than it does about the linguistic realities of 1930’s Peiraeus. But your humble correspondent, too, is subject to romantic notions, and your humble correspondent, too, was surprised.

There’s another song Vamvakaris did, in 1935, that runs along the same lines. It has even more Puristic in it, and in that song too the Puristic results in hiatus. The hiatus is so strong, that Vamvakaris the singer ends up doing more hiatus than Vamvakaris the lyricist. And the trigger for the extra hiatus is a namecheck of antiquity. But there’s a lot to say about the song—not all of it linguistic. So much to say in fact, that I’m going to hold over the lyricist/singer clash till the next post.

The song in question is not the 1937 Ήμουνα μάγκας μια φορά, “Once I was a mangas“, whose namechecking is thick and obvious:

Once I was a spiv, though with an aristocrat’s vein
Now I’ll be a scholar, like wise Socrates.
I’d be Paris, and steal away Helen
leaving Menelaus with his heart crushed.
I’d like to be Heracles when I first saw you,
to chop your head of like the Hydra.
What else do you want me to do to make you love me?
With a mind like that, you’ll be wanting to get with Xerxes.

No, the song in question is from a couple of years earlier. Its injection of antiquity works, because it’s not laid on thick: it’s linguistically out of place—yet strikingly appropriate to its thuggish context. The song is Ο ισοβίτης, “The Lifer”:

Στη φυλακή με κλείσανε ισόβια για σένα
τέτοιο μεγάλονε καημό επότισες εμένα
Εσύ ‘σαι η αιτία του κακού για να με τυραννούνε
οι πίκρες και τα βάσανα να με στριφογυρνούνε

Τώρα θα κάνω έφεση μήπως με βγάλουν όξω
κακούργα δολοφόνισσα για να σε πετσοκόψω
Να σου ‘χυνα πετρέλαιο κι ύστερα να σε κάψω
και μέσ’ στο ξεροπήγαδο να πάω να σε πετάξω

Εφτά φορές ισόβια τότε να με δικάσουν
και στη κρεμάλα τ’ Αναπλιού εκεί να με κρεμάσουν
Ψήνεις ενόρκους δικαστές τούς πλάνεψε η ομορφιά σου
καί με δικάζουν ισόβια για να γενεί η καρδιά σου

Με τη ραδιουργία σου μπουζούριασα το χύτη
δίχως να θέλω μ’ έκανες να γίνω ισοβίτης
Τέτοια μεγάλη εκδίκηση αν τηνε ξεμπουκάρω
όπως τον Έκτορα ο Αχιλλεύς τον έσουρνε στο κάρο

They stuck me in jail for life because of you
That’s how great a sorrow you’ve made me swallow
You’re the cause of my ills, for them to torment me,
and for disappointment and troubles to whirl around me.

Now I’ll lodge an appeal, in case they let me out,
you evil murderess, so I can chop you to pieces.
I’d pour petrol on you and then burn you
and I’d go throw you into the well.

Then let them condemn me to seven life sentences,
and let them hang me at the gallows of Nauplion.
You entice jury and judges, your beauty has tricked them,
and they condemn me to life for your heart’s whim.

Because of your intrigue, I knocked off the metalworker (?)
Without me meaning to, you’ve made me a lifer.
Oh what revenge I’ll have if I get out of here,
Like Achilles dragging Hector in his cart.

I’ll allow myself my bourgeois indignation at the protagonist; we should remember, of course, that Markos could act, and wasn’t necessarily saying it was his own wife he was planning to immolate—any more than that he had a crush on a teamster in Ο Αραμπατζής, or that he was a housewife abandoned by a drunken husband in Ο γρουσούζης. Still, the mangas that Markos sung about were no feminists.

Of course, when I told a female friend (rather more clued in to gender politics than me), that I was writing about a singer before he stopped singing about wife-beating for more bourgeois topics, she retorted that wife-beating is pretty bourgeois. Touché.

The song has a visceral grimness to it, precisely because of its nonchalant thugishness, and that does make it arresting. Which makes the trick he pulls in the final verse all the more effective. It’s incongruous to invoke the Iliad in a song about some low-life in jail. And yet, this isn’t just lightly worn high school learning: Markos has learnt his Iliad all too well. Achilles’ wrath, which made him desecrate his opponent’s corpse, is condemned by Homer himself as “shameful”, ἀεικέα (Iliad XXII 395). Achilles’ wrath is no more highminded than the lifer’s planned immolation.

Or these reenactments, courtesy of the US secondary education system:

The song has a fair amount of Puristic words in it, as we’d expect of a song not only with a shout out to the Iliad, but also several mentions of the legal system: ισοβίτης “life sentence”, ισοβίτης “lifer”, έφεση “appeal”, ενόρκους “jurymen”—as well as πετρέλαιο “petrol” (“stone-oil”, a learnèd coinage), αιτία “cause”, and ραδιουργία “intrigue”. There’s potentially one more learnèd word, in a passage which isn’t terribly clear.

In the beginning of the final verse, Markos sings that he has μπουζούριασα το /xiti/. Neither word is extant now, and if we ask the internets, we find that μπουζουριάζω means to put someone in jail.’s illustration is eloquent enough:

Τι κάνεις ρε στρατόκαυλε, με το μαχαίρι του ράμπο στην πορεία; Θα σε μπουζουριάσουν ρε καραγκιόζη!
What the hell are you doing, you army nutjob, carrying Rambo’s knife in a protest march? They’ll lock you up, you maroon!

Or another instance, from indymedia, with indymedia’s known anti-cop animus:

Κι εγώ θα θελα να κάθομαι και να τα παίρνω, αλλά το να μπουζουριάζω αθώο κόσμο, δεν είναι δουλειά, είναι ντροπή.
Oh I’d love to just sit around and earn money too; but locking up innocent people is not a job, it’s a disgrace.

In the thread at discussing this lyric, an etymology is offered from μπουζού “hiding place, jail”, which in turn is said to come from Italian bozzolo “cocoon”.

But of course, Markos’ Lifer isn’t supposed to be in jail for imprisoning his rival, but killing him. It turns out that μπουζουριάζω has a second meaning, “to eat up”. That definition is given in a 1932 song, Το λεξικό του μάγκα, “The mangas’ dictionary”. The song actually predates Greek recordings of rebetiko (those are mandolins on the recording, not bouzoukis), but it describes the lexicon of the same social circle, from the safe vantage point of the musical revue:

(3:16: Το μαχαίρι λέω λάσο και το τρώω μπουζουριάζω: “I call a knife a λάσο, and “eat”—μπουζουριάζω.)

Poster κκ in the thread has worked out that the second meaning applies in Markos’ song: to “eat someone” (τον έφαγα) is long-standing slang for killing someone, and Markos has made the expression more vivid by substituting a slang word for “eat”.

The problem is who the /xitis/ is that the Lifer has killed. Poster κκ—and just about all copies of the lyric online—assume it’s a χίτης, a Chi-man. The Chi-men were members of the paramilitary organisation “Organisation X” (Chi in Greek, of course); the Chi-men appear to have been rather more enthusiastic fighting communists than Nazis, and are now roundly reviled in Greece.

The catch with having Markos talking about Chi-men is, the Organisation was still ostensibly formed to resist the German occupation, and it was formed in 1941. Barring an undocumented talent for soothsaying, Markos is unlikely to have been singing about dispatching Chi-men in 1935. The only other likely match for /xitis/ is χύτης, a pourer—in particular, someone who works in a foundry (where metal is poured out).

So speculated by Aris in post #4. Now χύτης is a learnèd word, κκ’s response to Aris betrays the anti-diglossic romanticism that haunts all Modern Greeks:

Even if Markos really did mean a foundry worker, I imagine he’d use πασπαλιστής “smearer”, καρούλιας “reeler”, or some street word—not the kind of vocabulary you’d find in the Statistical Classification of Branches of Economic Acitivity or the Ministry of Finance.

… A learnèd word like έφεση “appeal” or ραδιουργία “intrigue”, you mean. True, it’s more of a surprise for how Markos names the victim in the song; but this is hardly the song to expect Markos’ Demotic to be pure and unsullied from officialdom.

There’s another suggestion on a forum that χύτης is short for χυτοσίδερο, “cast (poured) iron”, referring to prison bars. That would bring us back to μπουζούριασα meaning “imprisoned”, but grammatically it doesn’t stand.

But we’re supposed to be talking about hiatus.

Vernacular phonology, we have seen, avoids hiatus; and vernacular metrics reflects vernacular phonology. If your vernacular verse has a vowel next to another vowel, they are supposed to be slurred together into the one syllable; to have a metrical break between two vowels is poor versifying. Verse textbooks inveigh against it, but they inveigh against it because vernacular verse itself—in folksong, in the Cretan Renaissance, in the Heptanesian School—all avoided it. Thus the national anthem of Greece written by Dionysios Solomos, to pull up the first example I could think of, starts:

Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη
του σπαθιού την τρομερή
σε γνωρίζω από την όψη
που με βια μετράει τη γη.
se ɣno|ˈrizo a|ˈpo tin| ˈkopsi
tu spa|θiˈu tin| trome|ˈri
se ɣno|ˈrizo a|ˈpo tin| ˈopsi
pu me| ˈvia me|ˈtrai ti| ɣi

The metre is trochaic tetrameter: Dumdee Dumdee Dumdee Dumdee, Dumdee Dumdee Dumdee Dum. Eight and seven syllables to the line. If you take all the /i/s in the IPA at face value—with all hiatus—you’re going to have several syllables left over.

For the metre to work, μετράει is two syllables, /me.ˈtraj/ rather than /me.ˈtra.i/: perfectly vernacular, and that’s how the word is still pronounced. βια is also vernacular, reduced to one syllable; the word has now been displaced by the learnàd βία, in two syllables.

(At this point I could get sidetracked by the debate over whether Solomos used the word with its vernacular meaning of “haste” or its learnèd meaning of “violence”—a debate held in Greek parliament no less. I won’t get sidetracked this time, but I think it’s clearly the latter, which would make Solomos deliberately vernacularised the word, and consistently did so to avoid hiatus, as he actually wrote down in his notes on metre. The irony is, Solomos’ native dialect of Zante actually *has* hiatus; so he pronounced both “haste” and “violence” as /vi.a/, but followed standard Greek in versifying both as /vja/. Cornaro before him may have also vernacularised the word βια—though I think Erotokritos II 215 still refers to haste, even if in reference to a lion.)

The slurring of a vowel before another vowel (synezesis) also applies across word boundaries; so γνωρίζω από /ɣnorizo apo/ is pronounced as four syllables, [ɣ a.po].

And that slurring is regular in vernacular verse. Versifiers nowadays offend against it, because the language itself, tempered by Puristic, no longer finds hiatus offensive. But hiatus still sounds wrong in verse (if your ear is suitably trained), because verse as a tradition is aloof from the phonological mess of the spoken tongue.

Now Vamvakaris, it has to be said, was not much of a versifier. He does hiatus without good reason, and he does occasionally add or miss a syllable. So it’s not that we can draw ironclad conclusions from the hiatus in his verse. Still, we can see an informative pattern with respect to learnèd words.

Let’s try to jam his lyric to its metre—politikos stichos, iambic heptameter, the default Greek metre of the past millennium: ˘ ˊ ˘ ˊ ˘ ˊ ˘ ˊ // ˘ ˊ ˘ ˊ ˘ ˊ ˘

sti fi|laki| me kli|sane || isov|ia| ɣja se|na
tetjo| meɣa|lone| kajmo || epo|tises| eme|na
esi| se eti|a tu| kaku || ɣja na| me ti|ranu|ne
i pi|kres ke| ta va|sana || na me| strifo|ɣirnu|ne

tora| θa ka|no e|fesi || mipos| me vɣa|lun o|kso
kakur|ɣa ðo|lofo|nisa || ɣja na| se pe|tsoko|pso
na su| xina| petre|leo || ki iste|ra na| se ka|pso
ke mes| sto kse|ropi|ɣaðo || na pa| na se| peta|kso

efta| fores| iso|via || tote| na me| ðika|sun
ke sti| krema|la t a|naplju || eki| na me| krema|sun
psinis| enor|kus ði|kastes || tus pla|nepse i e|morfja| su
ke me| ðika|zun iso|via || ɣja na| ɣeni i| karðja| su

me ti| raði|ui|a su || buzu|rjasa| to xi|ti
ðixos| na θe|lo m e|kanes || na ɣi|no i|sovi|tis
tetja| meɣa|li ekði|kisi || an ti|ne kse|buka|ro
opws| ton e|ktora o ax|ilefs || ton e|surne| to ka|ro

A bit busy; let me explain.

  • A foot is delimited by | : there should be two syllables per foot, but for the last.
  • || is the caesura, the midverse break; synezesis, contracting two syllables into one across the break, is not allowed in traditional versification.
  • Learnèd words are in italics.
  • /j/ is used where synezesis has happened within a word, consistent with vernacular phonology. No learnèd words have a /j/.
  • Blue is synezesis across a word boundary, consistent with vernacular metrics.
  • Orange is an extrametrical syllable not explained by hiatus.
  • Red is hiatus within a word.
  • Magenta is hiatus across a word boundary.

Markos has hiatus at the caesura; since the break at the caesura is so strong, such hiatus can be ignored, and can’t be held up as a major fault of his versification. The extra syllable in ke me| ðika|zun iso|via, on the other hand, is a pretty basic blunder.

And in μεγάλονε /meɣalone/ “big”, Markos has added an -e to the nu movable, the liaison consonant. The vernacular allows this for pronouns, as the song shows: αν την-ε ξεμπουκάρω “if I unclog her” = “If I get out of jail”. But for nominals like μεγάλονε, it’s a sign the versifier has given up, and is begging for an extra syllable. It’s an old poetic license—instances turn up in Early Modern Greek; but they’re limited to verse. By my aesthetic, that makes it bad verse.

The thing is, if you discount caesuras, hiatus is limited to learnèd words. Admittedly, that’s a circular argument, since hiatus is characteristic of learnèd words anyway. But notice that we have several instances of learnèd words starting with a vowel—etia, efesi, isovia, isovitis—which trigger hiatus with the preceding word, rather than synezesis. The vernacular words don’t do that; in fact, we have a synezesis of three syllables mooshed into one in the vernacular pla|nepse i e|morfja| su [planepsj emorfja su].

Hiatus before a vernacular word happens only with a caesura, which doesn’t count. Hiatus is allowed before a learnèd word, caesura or not: the force field of Puristic can block the word from cosying up to its predecessor—kano| efe|si, ɣino| iso|vitis—just as it blocks hiatus within the word. But such hiatus it is not compulsory: esi se eti|a has hiatus within learnèd /etia/, but not in front of it. meɣa|li ekði|kisi also skips hiatus separating it from the preceding word.

The reason why I picked this song is its startling last verse. In that last verse, the Homeric names don’t trigger hiatus across word boundaries, just like ekðikisi didn’t. Or maybe Vamvakaris did sing a hiatus after all. Then again, maybe that wasn’t hiatus that Vamvakaris was singing.

It’s open to some question what Vamvakaris is actually doing phonetically with the last verse. But I’ve run enough over length in this post, to defer discussion till the next.


  • Trond Engen says:

    Way up there in μπουζουριάζω, I thought your stroll into mandolins and bouzoukis was your way of introducing an etymological connection to the latter.

  • John Cowan says:

    In fact, wife-beating is neither a proletarian nor a bourgeois nor an aristocratic matter, but a universal male privilege. 150 years ago John Stuart Mill laid it out for all to see in The Subjection of Women [paragraph breaks added]:

    Whatever gratification of pride there is in the possession of power, and whatever personal interest in its exercise, is in this case not confined to a limited class, but common to the whole male sex. Instead of being, to most of its supporters, a thing desirable chiefly in the abstract, or, like the political ends usually contended for by factious, of little private importance to any but the leaders; it comes home to the person and hearth of every male head of a family, and of every one who looks forward to being so. The clodhopper exercises, or is to exercise, his share of the power equally with the highest nobleman.

    And the case is that in which the desire of power is the strongest: for every one who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences. If, in the other cases specified [feudalism, slavery, military dictatorship, absolute monarchy], powers manifestly grounded only on force, and having so much less to support them, are so slowly and with so much difficulty got rid of, much more must it be so with this, even if it rests on no better foundation than those.

    We've done a lot in the First World in a century and a half, but there's still a long way to go.

  • John Cowan says:

    Monstr' 'orrend', inform', ingens, cui lumen ademptum, sang Virgil, only you don't use apostrophes in Latin.

    It's interesting that there's a Turkish translation of the Hymn to Liberty (see WP). Any idea of the provenance of that?

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