Kaliarda XXI: Hatzidakis

By: | Post date: 2017-12-08 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Linguistics, Modern Greek

The discussion on Sarantakos’ blog had derailed from Kaliarda to Lupine beans, because of how Faltaits had rendered Lubinistika as Lupinarika (possibly conflating it with the Roman lupinaria). In bringing the discussion back, Spatholouro popped yet another rabbit out of his archival research.

To come back, as we should, from lupines to lubines, I had a sudden realisation yesterday that I had read in Zaimakis’ dissertation (Καταγώγια ακμάζοντα, published by Plethron), a reference to Rubinistika.

And indeed, on p. 151 he refers to an article by Aris Hatzidakis in 1928, in the newspaper Ελευθέρα Σκέψις of Iraklio, Crete, which mentions some words (like balamos, parnies, tekno) used by the dialect of bottoms and prostitutes, Rubinistika as the compiler called it probably through mishearing, without Zaimakis noticing it and correcting it to Lubinistika.

The newspaper has been tracked down, with the generous assistance of the Vikelaian Library [City Library of Iraklio], and these are some excerpts of interest:

What is this “Rubinistika”? aveˈlem ˈena dabaˈkaki, eraˈkli. That is how they ask one another for cigarettes. So is this an autonomous language?

To start off, I should note that expressions of this sort have always existed, in all times and places, that the plebeians and procurers of Ancient Rome spoke their own dialect. […] What should be stated first of all is that Rubinistika is the secrecy language of catamites and prostitutes, a kind of Pig-Latin, an idiom of the underworld.

When it dates from, I am not in the position to say. I can reveal for your interest that this secret idiom is taught by catamites to the newly-fledged [female] prostitutes of Athens in the corners of Bernitsas’ café, in the corner of Haftia and Patisia St, across the road from Marinopoulos.

The aim and reason for this vocabulary is for it not to be understood. Rubinistika borrows its mechanisms for forming words from street language (γλώσσα του πεζοδρομίου). It contracts, transforms, merges, and jumbles words in an acrobatic game of expression, in a spontaneous creation of words with no etymology and no derivation. The thought of the catamite and prostitute becomes a word, and so they enrich and perpetuate their idiom, giving it novel nuances, and the expressive power of a true language. […]

This idiom has also spread to the lower social classes which is involved with common women, and young men with perverted urges. As I’ve already mentioned, it has ended up as a language of the underworld. But it is so lively and lithe, especially as it is spoken by lost souls with wit and impudence, that as soon as you hear one word if it, you will never, ever forget it. […]

Words are images or symbols of thoughts or things, as we know, but in Rubinistika that is not always the case. Often words express concepts which don’t exist in the spoken [mainstream] language, or that have been twisted, or that have some allegorical characteristic. There are things that have no name in our everyday speech, or that have an unspecified and inexact name, and which Rubinistika nonetheless render with wondrous panache.

In other words, it is a poor vocabulary when it comes to expressing intellectual matters, but rich and very lively when it speaks of prostitution or drunkenness, and such like. Of course one should not go looking for syntax in Rubinistika. It is not a language in the literal sense. But nor can one call it a dialect. It is rather a metaphorical means of expression, and allegory plays the main role within it. With that idiom crass expressions are formulated with a wittiness that makes them tolerable.

Most importantly, Rubinistika are rich and witty when they speak about matters relating to the daily life of common women. That is why the words most used are those meaning customer (balaˈmos), mother (puˈri), money (parniˈes), 5 drachma coin (tuˈla), 25 drachma note (5 tuˈla), 50 drachma note (10 tuˈla), lover (tekˈno), hospital (xums), gendarme (papaˈruna), etc.

But isn’t that their life—maybe even all there is to their life? If you know that much, you know everything there is to know. If you’ve spoken about that much, you’ve said all that needs to be said. That’s all there is to the topic, you might say.

(Ar–es Planitis [= Aris Hatzidakis]. Excerpted from Ο γύρος του Κάστρου [A tour of Iraklio], Part Four: «Η χώρα των κλαυθμών» (Σπιναλόγκα) [The Land of Tears: Spinalonga]. Ελευθέρα Σκέψις, 1928–11–15.)

The first thing for me to say is thank you to Spatholouro for making me aware of Hatzidakis. All I knew about the intellectual life of Modern Crete before now was that Nikos Kazantzakis and Galatea Alexiou got married because they were just about the only intellectuals in Iraklio in 1910. (The Alexiou sisters would certainly have been the only marriageable female intellectuals in town.) Giannis Zaimakis’ book is about a whole generation of Cretan intellectuals a generation later; and to my astonishment, not only did Hatzidakis show an astounding maturity and open-mindedness (at least on the linguistic side) for his time and place; he did so at the age of nineteen.

(Assuming it’s the same Aris Hatzidakis that is described here as writing a play on the leper colony of Spinalonga in 1940—which is also the place this newspaper article was ostensibly about; and who Wikipedia mentions as a poet, playwright and journalist born in 1909. And really, even with Hatzidakis being the Cretan equivalent of Smith, how many of those could there have been at the time?)

There is a lot going on in Hatzidakis’ article; and I keep being astonished by it. It has specifics about the social context of Lubinistika in Athens (with details about what bar Lubinistika lessons were being given in); it has good linguistic insights about the language play and wit at work (when professional linguists like Triantafyllidis, who were well equipped to do so, avoided it); and it deals with subject matter and people that scholars and journalists then tended to avoid (although as Spatholouro has found, they avoided less than I’d feared). That an article like this should have been written at all in 1928 is astounding; and Spatholouro said as much: “It’s no small thing that someone in 1928 would dedicate an entire article analysing Lubinistika, contributing one more link to the historical course of the idiom up to our days.”

That it should have been written by a 19-year-old provincial simply beggars belief. Had the kid even been to Athens? It’s astounding enough that I have a small doubt as to whether I’ve got the right Aris Hatzidakis.

There’s two remarks that I am tempted to chalk up to immaturity. The first is the snide final remark that the entire content of the world of sex workers is fucking, money, and booze (or drugs, which I assume is what “such like” refers to). But there were plenty of 60-year-olds at the time (and at this time) capable of thoughts just as blinkered. And of course, sex workers, being as human as any bourgeois, have always had a lot more to talk about than fucking, money, and booze; but critically, they did not need a secrecy language to talk about them in.

The second is not so much a matter of youth, either, as of lack of training. “One should not go looking for syntax” and “No etymology and no derivation” is the kind of thing a non-linguist would say; and this was 1928, when syntax as we now understand it was still vestigial as a discipline—by “syntax” Hatzidakis actually meant “complicated periodic Thucydidean clauses characteristic of written language.” (It’s a point Danguitsis’ dictionary of slang still felt compelled to make four decades later.)

As for “no etymology and no derivation”: of course, there is a lot of onomatopoeia to Kaliarda, which does resist conventional etymology. But as we have seen, there is a substantial amount of conventional etymological work to be done in Kaliarda too: it’s just that not a lot of Greek intellectuals know enough Romani to do it right (and I include myself in that number). There is even more derivation in Kaliarda, and the derivation of Kaliarda is in fact prodigious—though it may have been less prodigious in its earlier variants, which were closer to para-Romani.

As I said, I don’t know whether sex worker Lubinistika had the full gamut of cynical fun that the Kaliarda Petropoulos recorded did. I’d like to think so, and Hatzidakis hints that it did; but if sex worker Lubinistika and bottom Kaliarda had diverged, he may not have been aware of it.

It is hard to tell from our minimal information how close the two variants were, and Hatzidakis’ is the first evidence of a direct connection between the two: he says that bottoms taught new female prostitutes Lubinistika. That suggests several things:

  • Montoliu believes that male Rom prostitutes was the origin of Kaliarda. The police sources believe that female Rom prostitutes was the origin of Kaliarda (though that could have been their own blinkered focus). Obviously both could be true, and given the secure cultural niche of the ibne in Ottoman society, I would not make the default Western assumption that there were more cis female sex workers than ibne sex workers.
  • But it is possible that Kaliarda originated in cis female brothels, rather than among male sex workers. Because gays worked in cis female brothels as support staff, they had ample opportunity to learn Kaliarda, and make it their own. We know that Kaliarda stopped being a para-Romani and a Rom language; that leap happened when it stopped being the language of Rom sex workers, and the transition could have been when it was taken up by the broader community of Greek gays.
  • I rejected as naive (though illuminatingly naive) Blacky’s speculation in Gkartzonika’s thesis that Kaliarda started as trans, and was taken up by gays. But if the foregoing happened, it’s something similar: it started as a Rom sex worker para-Romani (certainly cis female, possibly ibne as well), and was then taken up by a broader community of ibne (which at the time included both cis male gays and trans women).
  • What’s interesting is that by the 20th century, non-sex worker gays were teaching new sex workers Kaliarda; the reverse must have have been the case in the 19th century. That’s partly because gays were support staff anyway, and teaching Kaliarda would have been part of their job. But it may well also indicate that gays had become the custodians of Kaliarda, and inhabited the cant more fully, as an affirmed identity, than sex workers did. Maybe.
  • Which reminds me of the discomfort I felt with Croft’s argument that polyglot cants are acts of negative identity, applied to Kaliarda. The argument in isolation is sound: a language variant that is based on obfuscation does not affirm an insider identity, it blocks outsider identities, by definition. That’s all that Pig Latin does; that’s all that backward slangs do. But the sheer razzle-dazzle of the language play of Kaliarda, which Hatzidakis picked up on so early, is surely carrying an affirmation of something.

Spatholouro and Sarantakos were both sure that Rubinistika is a mishearing of Lubinistika; and what Hatzidakis recorded as aveˈlem ˈena dabaˈkaki, eraˈkli is, as Petropoulos recorded Kaliarda, ˈaveˈle mu ˈena tabaˈkaki, iraˈkli “give me a little cigarette, girl”. We could conclude that Hatzidakis had a tin ear; and his knowledge of Kaliarda could well have been second-hand, especially if he hadn’t set foot in Athens, and if neither gays nor prostitutes spoke Kaliarda in Iraklio (which is at least possible).

But it’s not completely impossible that the forms were used. As a cant, there would have been some variability in how it was articulated, especially as “Lubinistika” seems no longer to have been much of a secret as a word. The deleted vowel of ˈaveˈle m[u] looks out of place—it’s characteristic of Northern Greek; but cf. ti na ˈkan‘s < ti na kanis “what can you do?”, which Petropoulos recorded.

Although the examples are few and far between, Hatzidakis says that Lubinistika partakes of the mechanisms of word distortion which other cants (“street language”) shared, and which Christodoulou documented so exhaustively. The thing is, of course, Christodoulou kept finding Kaliarda as Petropoulos documented it was at a remove from other cants; those mechanisms are there, but they are much less commonplace. The Lubinistika of sex workers had more in common with underworld slang than later Kaliarda, and that may well be what Hatzidakis was reflecting on.

The other Kaliarda words Hatzidakis records, we have already seen, although the glosses are oriented to sex workers rather than gays (“client” generically, mother [= madam]” rather than “old woman”.)

  • The word parnies for money, which turned up in 1904, is still used in 1928. I now think Montoliu is wrong in deriving the surviving Kaliarda berdes from Romani parne. Zahos’ and Danguitsis’ mainstream slang dictionaries mention berdes as “money” without further comment—whereas Zahos explicitly says tula is from Kaliarda; I believe that the metaphorical berdes “curtain” > “money” came to Kaliarda from underworld slang, which loved metaphor so dearly. (And money was a natural area for the Lubinistika of sex workers and the underworld slang of pimps to intersect.)
  • We have also already seen paparuna “poppy” for “policeman”, which had been truncated by Petropoulos’ time to runa.
  • Making a basic unit of the 5 drachma coin (the taliro < Thaler—a cognate, as it happens, of dollar) is economical, as we’d expect of a schematic language like Kaliarda. That’s not what the cops documented: they found a set of distinct denominations, though it may derive from the underworld slang of pimps.
  • We have seen that “lover” for sex workers was a euphemism for “pimp”, via “boyfriend”. The Kaliarda tekno < Romani tikno “small”, which meant “child” or “twink” to gays and now means “toyboy” to straight women, looks out of place as “pimp”. The connection is presumably “young lover” = “boyfriend” > “‘protective’ male presence”, as opposed to a client, who is a boss (balamo), and older. I still wonder whether the gay meaning of tekno came before the sex worker meaning.
  • The one word we have not seen is xums “hospital”. In Petropoulos, xums and ˈxumsi are “prison”, and he derives them from Turkish hapis (borrowed into Greek independently as ˈxapsi); there’s a rich assortment of derived terms to corroborate it. I suspect this was the primary meaning of xums all along, and “hospital”, if it is accurate at all, may have been an overly schematic generalisation of “prison” that an impoverished para-Romani would reach at, lacking derivational tools. Petropoulos’ Kaliarda lacked no such tools, and its word for “general hospital” is baˈraðiko “sick shop” (although we have seen that its word for illness, < Romani pharo “heavy”, is overly schematic).

To end with something indirectly related to the foregoing, here’s four words based on xums from Petropoulos:

  • xums-reˈvi “prison revue” (< French revue): police inspection
  • xumsoˈkuti “prison box”: prison cell
  • xumsokaiˈmu “prison sorrow chick”: the baglamas, the small bouzouki so beloved of rebetiko players, especially because it was so easy to smuggle into prison—where they would indeed use it to sing their prison blues
  • xumsoˈvivi ðanˈtela “prison life binding”: life imprisonment. An ingenious calque of learnèd iˈsovia ðesˈma “ibid.”, lit. “equal-to-life bonds”. The other two words are Kaliarda viva “life”, as a conflation of Italian viva! “long life”, vivere “to live” and vita “life”, and Greek ðanˈtela “lace” < French dentelle—lace being formed of knots, which are a means of binding.


  • rozele says:

    i’ve been very much appreciating this series – and i’m just catching up on the last few rounds now…

    (i’m going to use «ibne» here, in preference to any of the kaliarda/lubinistika or english possibilities, to get a little useful distance on the core community of speakers of the cant – to everyone but turkish-speakers, to whom i apologize, anyway)

    why not just take Blacky & Hatzidakis as reliable witnesses?

    a ibne-centered cant created by ibne sex workers would spread easily to non-sex-worker ibneler, and then to other folks migrating into ‘gay’ or ‘trans’ social worlds anchored by ibneler. this is clear from the entire history of english-language gay slang/cant, which has always been (and is to this day) driven by molly/quean/nance/fairy/trans sex workers’ language.
    most of these kaliarda/lubinistika accounts imply that ibne sex workers were not working in houses, but were bar-/street-/etc-based. that’s the context where a secrecy language is most necessary and useful. the cis women speakers who’ve been mentioned seem to be largely working in houses, where there isn’t any such pressing need for a cant.
    non-sex-worker jobs in the sex trades are (and this is not a new development) often held by former workers – that’s who’s trustworthy, and in need of paid work. if ibneler were the support staff in houses in greece, it’s a good bet most of them were former or current sex workers themselves. and it’s not surprising that those support workers would teach their cant to cis women sex workers. the utility would be obvious (even without the necessity), and playing with language in the ways that the cant encourages is a great way to fill the kinds of extensive downtime that happen in those working environments.
    the ways that kaliarda/lubinistiki does not fit the para-romani model of a greek cant makes the idea that it originated among romani speakers look a bit dubious. and assuming that romani speakers were the original core users of the cant seems like the only reason to think it originated among cis women sex workers. the romani vocabulary that’s so deeply rooted in it could have come from the general european use of romani words in cants/argots/slangs, or (more likely) from rom ibne sex workers, within a mainly gadje context. the fact that there were a disproportionate number of rom among cis women sex workers doesn’t seem to me to be a basis to conclude very much. they would certainly have served as a reinforcing factor for the romani component in the cant, but i don’t see much reason to assume more than that…

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