News in Tsakonia, 1895

By: | Post date: 2009-04-14 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
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When Thanasis Costakis, fresh out of high school, sat down in 1930 with Hubert Pernot to give him language data, Tsakonian was still quite different from Standard Greek, not just in morphology, but syntax as well. The phrase I keep coming back to is αρχίνηε κχαούντα “he started barking”: participles could still be the complements to verbs in Tsakonian, as with Ancient Greek (and English); but that’s long been impossible in Standard Greek, which can only use the subjunctive:  άρχισε να γαυγίζει.

That difference did not last. Costakis started collecting texts himself in the mid ’40s, and nothing he collected since has any such surprises. By the time Dimitris Houpis was writing his bilingual works in the ’80s and ’90s, the Tsakonian read like a word for word translation from the Standard Greek on the opposite page. (And it may well have been.)

So any Tsakonian text we can get from before 1930 is most welcome. There isn’t a lot. The Lord’s Prayer got picked up by Thiersch in 1831, but that’s not the kind of text you’d trust the most. There are a couple of letters from the 1820s, some poems and songs that Oikonomou published in 1846 and 1870, and some folk tales that Scutt published in 1912. There’s Stratigis’ novella Τσουράννα, published posthumously in 1943. And that’s almost it.

Except that in 1895, a D.M. Latsis published a “Tsakonian Calendar”. And this Tsakonian Calendar clearly had Tsakonian prose in it. It certainly had enough jokes to pop into issues of Chronicles of Tsakonia for at least two issues; and Manolis Triantafyllidis quoted text from it for his Historical Introduction to his Grammar of Modern Greek—which for a fair while was as good a history of Modern Greek as we had.

So when I was in Greece in 1995—and 2000—I went looking for this book. It wasn’t in the National Library; it wasn’t in the Linguistics Departmental Library in Athens U; it wasn’t in the Departmental Library in Thessalonica U either (although we know Triantafyllidis had a copy, so it likely is somewhere on campus). I gave up the search eventually…

until Crete U digitised it and popped it online. It never would have occurred to me to look for it in Rethymnon; more fool I.

So. Now that we have access to the text, what does it tell us about Tsakonia and Tsakonian in 1895?

Well, I won’t be doing a linguistic analysis at 1 AM on a school night. I’ll just cherry pick the interesting stuff, and sociolinguistics will be easier this time of night than straight linguistics.

  • 51 pp; the thing starts with a calendar, so the actual content starts on p. 15.
  • It starts with a rather gossipy account of life in Lenidi in Puristic Greek. The highlights:

    • The steamship started coming to Lenidi around 1883. Getting into port was perilous, and porters would have to wade in and lift passengers out to terra firma for half a drachma.
    • Lenidi serviced not just Tsakonian villages, but Greek-speaking villages to its south, like Tsitalia (where Costakis was actually from.)
    • Big coffee drinkers; the author attributes this to the number of Lenidians in Turkey.
    • Not big café dwellers, being simple farmers; mostly fruit.
    • Lament singers would show up before the person actually died. One woman actually smirked εκάναϊ να μι βάτσωι “they’re here to cry over me.”
    • Pernot gets mentioned several times, and he obviously made quite an impression—although he’s only ever called The French Professor. So p. 22: “In 1892 a funeral in Leonidion was attended by the French professor, who had just arrived to learn the Tsakonian dialect; during the whole duration he kept wiping his eyes full of tears, which as he said did not cry as much under similar circumstances in his country in Paris, at the death of not an old man as here, but of someone in the flower of youth.” p. 23, Father Kleanthis Oikonomou was Pernot’s “interpreter, so to speak”.
    • They held funeral dinners.
    • Just like the Maniots, the Tsakonians called outsiders Vlachs. A quarter of the houses in Lenidi were owned by “strangers from the surrounding villages.” The Greek-speakers in turn called Tsakonian men κουφά (“deaf things”?), and Tsakonian women Μαρούας “Marys”.
    • No illiterates in Lenidi town under 50, apart from shepherds.
    • Six churches, two chapels by the sea: the Holy Apostles, and St Leonidas (Άγιε Λήδη), after whom the town was named. Lots more in the surrounding region.
    • Many Tsakonians had already emigrated, to Athens and Peiraeus, Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire, as well as Romania.
    • The Tsakonians in Athens and Constantnople were mostly winemakers: 3/4 of the wineries in Constantinople. This, although there were no vineyards in Tsakonia.
    • Lame antisemitic joke at the end: Jew flees Greek commercial competition, goes to the middle of Anatolia to set up shop, a Peloponnesian turns even there; Jew dies of envy. “That Greek must have been a Tsakonian!” Latsis exults. And you’re a shmuck, Latsis.

  • p. 31. Standard Greek ballad.
  • p. 32. Shaggy Dog story in Tsakonian: “Maroua’s Wedding”
  • p. 34. Lament on migration in Tsakonian, rhyming, and clearly originally in Tsakonian (unlike a lot of later song transcriptions).
  • p. 36. Shaggy Dog story in Tsakonian: “Macaroons in Athens”, on the mishaps of two old monolingual Tsakonian women in a patisserie in Athens. (They don’t understand Standard Greek, but they do know that one drachma a macaroon is much too much.) Oh, proof of monolingual Tsakonians.
  • p. 39. Lament on the Death of John Charamis in Tsakonian. Also rhyming.
  • p. 41. Jokes in Tsakonian.

    • In Vatsina (a shepherd community, and the most isolated of all Tsakonian settlements—in fact, the only place Charalambopoulos could get a young native speaker for his PhD in the 1970s.) Mother [in standard Greek]: George, come, let me give you bread and cheese.—Och you, I dinna want “bread” and “cheese”; ’tis breid an’ tjees I want!” [sorry]
    • “I won’t set foot in water again, unless I learn to swim first!”
    • “You’re sick? What ails you? … You can’t answer me? Well, if I get sick, and you come see me, I won’t answer you!
    • Crows are said to live 200 years. Man from Vatsina puts a crow in a cage. And waits to see if it’s true.

  • p. 42. Tsakonian translation of the “Letter of Jesus Christ”: a piece of “neoapocrypha” that was doing the rounds at the time in many a language, and mostly was about insisting on taking Sundays off.
  • p. 49. List of subscribers. Four times as many in Athens as in Lenidi, and several also in Constanţa, Romania.


  • John Cowan says:

    de Camp: The first-person narrator and putative author is indeed a Thessalian, the hipparch who’s escorting the elephant from Gandaria to Athens. Leon writes the narrative in straight Attic, though with some creative spellings for the foreign words: de Camp’s notes say that he actually uses digamma rather than beta for Persian [v], as well as a rough breathing in the middle of words like “Daha”. As for the dialogue, Leon’s own lines are mildly Thessalianized, and his sergeant and his men mostly speak straight Thessalian; there’s quite a lot of dialogue in Persian as well, though Leon conveniently renders it in Attic for his readers.

    (Attic = Standard English, of course; the Indian characters are speaking broken Persian or utterly broken Greek, both of which come out as Generic Pidgin.)

    Leon’s overall attitude to paederasty comes in two flavors: Thessalian, which is “homosexual = silly”; and personal, which is “okay for others but not me”. He calls himself ugly, obviously by the judgment of other men, not women. The whole thing is actually pretty impressively liberal for a 1958 American popular novel, really.

    Aristophanes: I grew up on the Arrowsmith/Parker translations — I can never remember who did which. The Scythian I remember speaks pure gibberish (not sure which play that’s from), the Megarian in The Acharnians speaks mock-Southern (as do the Spartans elsewhere), and the Boiotian speaks mock-bally-fool-with-eyeglass, even to the point of asking his flute-playing attendants to “whistle up ‘The Sphinx’s Posterior Opening’, can’t you?”

    The fake Persian ambassadors, who I think are named Shambyses and Fartaxerxes, say things like “WOAN GETTUM NO GOLDUM, GAPASSITY IONISH”, which leads to a Greek argument about whether the second half means ‘gap-assed Ionians’ or ‘Ionian (naval) capacity’.

  • opoudjis says:

    Nonononono, it was that translator of Aristophanes I found in Google Books who said he wouldn’t translate Doric into Scots, because he was teaching in Scotland. But aye, my tables get confused.

    I had to submit Aristophanes’ Doric to the grammatical rules of Doric in lemmatising it, and of course, you’re right: Aristophanes is hardly doing a scholarly rendering of Laconian and Boeotian.

    But then, refusing to render Boeotians in Scots, like rendering Athenians mincingly, is something socially determined by the translator’s society too. If the POV is the Thessalian’s, the mincing take on Athenians may not be historically that inaccurate. Then again, it might; haven’t researched non-Athenian attitudes to paederasty, but paederasty three hundred years earlier at least was quite widespread. In either case, the readership’s POV has now moved away from de Camp’s.

    With “eye dialect”, I was colliding my hash tables: I wasn’t referring to Scots, which has an established orthography, but to the renderings of Southern US speech in American Aristophaneses. (I don’t think anyone’s dared make the Scythians speak African American Vernacular, have they?) I misunderstood that it’s used to represent different pronunciations, but it is used to represent different accent, so American Aristophaneses would still have used it. There was a translation I read once trying to do shades of Southern between Boeotian and Megarian; I wasn’t in the position to judge how well it succeeded. It wasn’t this one, but this one’s doing eye dialect too.

  • John Cowan says:

    Boy howdy, do you have a collision in your hash tables; it’s Geoff Pullum who teaches in Scotland.

    I think Funny Scots is actually better than True Scots (the language of no true Scotsmen) for Aristophanic purposes; and de Camp, though no Aristophanes, is funny. His Arcadians speak Funny Early Modern English, for example, and his Athenians — well, his Athenians — his Athenians, unfortunately, speak Funny Homothexual: so not funny. Some jokes just don’t survive their context.

    As for “eye dialect”, I understand that to mean writing “trubble” for trouble or “sed” for said: not dialect at all, just gratuitous misspelling. What do you mean by it?

  • opoudjis says:

    Scots was the default for any rendering of dialect in Aristophanes. That was back in the good old days, when Loeb would get away with an entire book of Lucian being translated in their bilingual editions… in Middle English. (The Syrian Goddess, Mandeville’d into The Goddesse of Surrye.) Which meant you needed a translation for the translation! You sure had balls, A. M. Harmon:

    “It would be most unfair to Lucian to turn this tale into contemporary English. In order to have the same effect that it had in his own day, and to be really intelligible, it must seem to come from the lips of an ancient traveller. The version here offered seeks to secure that effect through mimicry of Sir John Mandeville. It is true that Herodotus
    was better known in Lucian’s time than Mandeville is known now, and his language seemed less remote. In every other respect, however — in his limited vocabulary, in his simple style, and in his point of view — Mandeville provides a mask uniquely adapted to the part — if only its wearer does not fall down in it and break it.”

    Sadly, even fewer people outside the readership of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A BlogM know of John Mandeville. Translators now wimp out, and the argument Halliwell presents in his translation fail to convince me. So you teach in Scotland, which means Scots = Funny Accent is Wrong, but you also think dialects were too real and urbane a fact of life for Athenians to treat Doric as Funny Scots or Funny Appalachian? Well all the more reason to treat Doric as Serious Scots or Earnest Appalachian. No, the phobia of eye dialect is part and parcel of levelling linguistic hegemony. And would that it (to reuse an old parlance of mine) would die in the arse.

    I can has snippet of Elephant for Aristotle? Aye.

    Herzlich Wilkommen, btw!

  • John Cowan says:

    Na, na, ’tis Thessalian at’s turnit in guid braid Scots. See L. Sprague de Camp’s historical romance An Elephant for Aristotle (money line: “I should not be surprised if a hundred years from now, men still remember the name of Aristoteles of Stageira”).

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