Kaliarda XIV: The schematicism of Kaliarda

By: | Post date: 2017-12-01 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

Kaliarda is unintelligible on purpose, although you need to see extended instances for that to be obvious: not the song parodies that Petropoulos put in his appendix, which are merely Kaliarda-coloured Greek, or the Kaliarda you can find now on YouTube, but pieces like Pavrianos’ song Kaliardosynes, or indeed Klynn’s skit “Won’t One Faggot Speak Out” (Ένας Πούστης Να Μιλήσει)—for all that its Kaliarda is bookish and outsider—and noone who actually spoke Kaliarda would be so sympathetic to The People1.

Note how much of those texts is in red, the colour I used for Romani. As Montoliu was perceptive enough to pick up, Kaliarda deliberately builds new words on Romani bases, to maintain unintelligibility, and it uses its vocabulary parsimoniously, to keep it autonomous from Mainstream Greek. That means it is indeed artificial: the comparison with Esperanto was made in passing in a comment to Revenioti’s trailer on YouTube by Panos Panagis, and it’s fair. Indeed, for reasons of protecting its autonomy, Kaliarda is much more schematic than Esperanto, which itself is highly schematic among auxiliary languages. (Schematic in interlinguistics means “using a small vocabulary and compounding to maintain ease of learning”; the opposite pole is naturalistic, which involves using internationally common or familiar wordstock.)

A better comparison is the variant vocabularies that adults have to learn in societies, which rely on keeping their vocabularies low for learnability.

Like initiate languages: they can do some prodigious collapsing of lexical categories to keep vocabulary down. Kaliarda doesn’t quite do that—but the multiplicity of meanings of avelo, as a root verb (never mind its use as a light verb) is certainly unusual, and arguably artificial. As Montoliu again perceptively said, avelo would never have ended up with that range of meanings, if the speakers of Kaliarda had remained Rom: it happened because it was a Rom vocabulary taken over by gadjos as an artificial code.

… Or pidgins: Kaliarda is still Greek, and thus still flexional, so the comparison with isolating pidgins is not immediately obvious; but the prodigious compounding is the kind of thing you’d see in pidgins.

… Or, much more to the point, like cants. Which, after all, is what Kaliarda is.

I’ll come back to Triantafyllidis’ 1947 talk on cants,2 for its glancing mention of Kaliarda. But its mention of the parsimony with which cants use their vocabulary describes Kaliarda even better than the cants like Dortika which he did document.

Cants (συνθηματικές γλώσσες “password languages”) have a characteristic idiosyncrasy: given their relatively poor vocabulary, many words express concepts generically, which are kept distinct in normal speech. Dortika uses grast [< Romani grast “horse”] for horses, but also mules, and any beast of burden. The meaning “beast of burden” is most relevant, and the hearer can understand what exactly is meant from context or circumstance; or maybe they don’t, but that doesn’t really matter anyway. So the very few verbs are particularly multivalent. It’s as if the practitioners of secrecy languages worked out centuries ago the method launched in our time by English linguists and educationalists through Basic English:3 mangono [in Koutsavakika] means “take”, but also “steal”, and, followed by “a woman”, “marry”. praxalno [in Kudaritika, Epirus Builders’ Cant] is “work”, but is said of various things one can do: praxalnao ligrova “prepare food”, i.e. “cook”; but also “twirl” one’s moustache, or “strike” a bell. (p. 316)

We have seen this generic usage time and again in Kaliarda; not just with avelo meaning everything a verb can do, and dzazo meaning everything avelo does not, but also with nouns and adjectives; latsos for example being both “good” and “beautiful”. We noted that the Turkish Gay Cant was much closer to Romani, in having more concrete meanings to its words. Triantafyllidis exemplified genericness with Dortika grast; but Dortika is still closer to Romani than Kaliarda, in having more specific and less schematic word usage. For example, Dortika constrasts dʒala, dʒan with naʃto for “leave”; it has a distinct word for “sick”, mirelos < Romani merela “he is dying” (cf. Kaliarda baro “heavy thing”); it contrasts sumnal beautiful, healthy” and ʃapano “good” (cf. Kaliarda latsos for both). Recall that Dortika is a secrecy language, but its transmission was less artificial than for Kaliarda: its speakers are believed to have been hellenised Rom, as opposed to ethnic Greeks who took over a Romani idiom and elaborated on it.

It would be proper to speak here of periphrases occurring when a single-word rendering is not available. For example, absent a word for “be hungry” [Standard Greek pino], they will see θelo na tsaxtaiso “I want to eat” [in Alifiatika, Tinsmith Cant of Murgana, Epirus].

The Kaliarda use of avelo as a light verb is a logical outcome of that trend; we have indeed seen Pavrianos’ song lyric where “I am hungry” is rendered as avelo xalxalo “I want eat-eat” (or “I do hunger”, if xalxalo refers to hunger.) Kaliarda is not merely paraphrasing verbs, but systematically supplanting them with light verb locutions.

This lexical impoverishment is one of the reasons that they often come up with synoptical phrasing, in telegraphic style: [Dortika] posa stale to mas? “how much money the meat?”, i.e. “how much does the meat cost?” [Cant Not Specified] tsiukas kaloerepse “sun has turned monk [retired]” i.e. “night has fallen”. Yet cants also display the opposite phenomenon: lexical multitude. Thre are many words with identical meaning for the same thing, for concepts which are particularly emotionally salient for cant speakers. Of the 120 words I have recorded for Dortika, four are for ouzo/raki: atie, kias, mars, piki. We find that phenomenon elsewhere, e.g. in French argots. This richness in very concrete concepts has also been noted in cultures with a lower level of civilisation.

Yes, it was 1947. Petropoulos’ counting of synonyms in Kaliarda may well have been motivated by that observation: he makes a point of counting 45 synonyms for “gay [bottom], 10 for Kaliarda itself, 8 for “sperm” and “leave, escape”, 7 for “train, gossip, paederast [= top]”, and so on.

Triantafyllidis then goes on to note (p. 317) that “leave, escape” is the concept with the most synonyms in his records of cants, and on p. 315 he smirks “that’s spot on, isn’t it?”—speakers of cants are people who need to make a run for it, when whatever they are keeping secret is no longer a secret.

Kaliarda, as we have seen, is more artificial and more semantically underspecified than other cants. A lot of that artificiality has to do with its use of compounding, typically Romani-based, which is quite prodigious—and which does not seem to be paralleled in other Greek cants.

Compounding in Kaliarda—even three-part compounding—can be quite utilitarian. Take for example the listing of words relating to “death”. “Death” itself has a compound word in Kaliarda. The English idiom for dying, kick the bucket, has the Standard Greek equivalent τινάζω τα πέταλα “to fling one’s horseshoes”; it relies on the same notion of a dead body jerking straight, but refers to horses rather than people. Kaliarda brings it back to human shoes, with τζάζω τα τιραχά dzazo ta tiraxa. dzas-tirax- in turn becomes a productive morpheme for “death”:

  • dzastiraˈxaðiko “kick-the-bucket shop” = “funeral parlor”
  • dzastiraˈxas “kick-the-bucket-ist” = “executioner”
  • dzastotiraˈxakis “kick-the-bucket person (diminutive)” = “criminal, murderer”
  • dzastiraˈxokuto “kick-the-bucket box” = “coffin”
  • dzastiraxoˈmazema “kick-the-bucket gathering” = “funeral”
  • dzastiraxoˈbenama “kick-the-bucket speaking” = “eulogy”
  • dzastiraˈxosvoli “kick-the-bucket ashes”, dzastiraˈxospira “kick-the-bucket pellets” = “koliva, wheat ritually given out at funerals”
  • dzastiraxoseˈkeri “kick-the-bucket sweet”, dzastiraxoˈsolo ibid. = “poison”
  • dzastiraxoˈtrupa “kick-the-bucket hole” = “grave”
  • dzastiraxofiˈtevo “to kick-the-bucket plant”, dzastiraxoˈxono “to kick-the-bucket hide” = “to bury”

The words looks pretty elicited of course; you can see Petropoulos asking “so what other words are to do with death?” You can see a smirk in a lot of these: “planting” for “burying, for example, or “death sugar” for poison. Then again, my earliest exposure to Pidgins included “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” in Tok Pisin as mi kam long plantim Siza long graun, no long mekim laulau bilong em. Granted, that was from Brush Up Your Pidgin, which does not take Tok Pisin terribly seriously; but if you had to make up a word for “bury” or “poison” with deliberately limited resources, those coinages are not necessarily absurd.

And yet, some of the compounds are truly coloured with a darkly cynical sense of fun; and the fun-making is certainly not limited to sex, as people often assume of Kaliarda. We already saw Klynn (somewhat clumsily) insert the word for “benefactors” into his skit; this is the full cynical sequence:

  • dzaz-berde “throw away money” > “make a donation”
  • dzazberdepuros “throw-money old-man” = “national benefactor, philanthropist”
  • dzazberdepurotsarðo “throw-money old-man hut” = “public building founded by a national benefactor, such as the Zappeion Hall.

The much longer series of words prefixed with vakul- “church” display both parsimony and anticlerical humour:

  • vakulaɣlaˈrizο “church non-dozing” = “attending a church vigil”
  • vakuloˈɡastroma “church pregnancy” = “church dome”
  • vakuloˈkerasma “church treat” = “holy communion”
  • vakulokreˈmala “church hanging noose” = “marriage” (from the mainstream slang “hanging noose” for “marriage”)
  • vakulolutsopuˈros “church light old man” = “beadle” (“church light” = “candle”)
  • vakuloˈbuki “church book” = “Bible”
  • vakulomasˈtura “church being-stoned” = “incense”
  • vakuˈlomolo “church water” = “holy water”
  • vakulonisesˈte “church clothes” = “cassock”
  • vakulodavaˈdzis “church pimp” = “bishop”
  • vakulopuˈros “church old man” = “priest”
  • vakulofeˈrofusta “church iron skirt” = “church bell” (“skirt” from the shape of bells)

I look forward to giving a list of the funniest of these, but I am still groaning under a wealth of material I’m unearthing on Kaliarda (and that commenters on Sarantakos’ blog are unearthing for me.) There will be posts on:

  • Minniti-Gonia’s paper on Italian in Kaliarda
  • Sechidou’s paper comparing Kaliarda with other Romani cants and Greek Para-Romani. (I’ve rushed this draft out, because at first glance it looks like she’s already anticipated what I’m saying here.)
  • Triantafyllidis’ papers on Dortika
  • Triantafyllidis’ glancing comments on Kaliarda
  • Spatholouro’s find of police attention to Kaliarda from 1963
  • A snippet of Kaliarda remembered from Larissa in the 1970s
  • A summary of the funniest and linguistically more salient words of Kaliarda



  • John Cowan says:

    avelo meaning everything a verb can do, and dzazo meaning everything avelo does not

    Mark Twain said that the list of German nouns could be reduced to Zug and Schlag, and it is said of Arabic that every noun means its basic meaning, the opposite, a kind of camel, and an obscenity.

  • wm.annis says:

    I don’t have much of interest to add to this discussion, except to note that there are natural languages with rather extreme light verb systems: http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~lingsymp/Pawley_paper.pdf

    But I do want to say how much I’ve been enjoying this series on Kaliarda.

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  • July 2024
    M T W T F S S
    1. Klynn has his “faggot” refer to “The People”, with the honoured wording of the Left: Ενώ ο Λαός… The more realistic Kaliarda for that would have been to popolo < Italian popolo (you can almost see the Venetian nobleman sneering), or i plivia “the plebs” (you can definitely see the urbane gays sneering.)

    2. Manolis Triantafylidis. 1953. Ελληνικές συνθηματικές γλώσσες [Greek secrecy languages]. Ελληνικά 4: 661–684. In his Άπαντα [Collected Works]: 2; 299–320.

    3. Basic English hit peak publicity just after WWII, “as a means for world peace”.

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