Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Greek is spoken in Puglia and Calabria by approximately 12,000 people of Italian nationality.
The Greek language spoken in Italy is known by the names Grico, Griko, Greco-Bovese Or Greco-Calabro. It is written in Roman characters and is a highly corrupted form of modern Greek. Grico is not a unitary language since it is spoken in two geographically and linguistically distinct enclaves, one in the area known as Bovesia near Reggio di Calabria and the other near Lecce, in the area known by the name of Grecia Salentina.
The Greek-speaking territory of Bovesia lies in very mountainous terrain and is not easily accessible. In recent times, many descendants of the early inhabitants of the area have left the mountains to set up home by the coast. The Grico-speakers of Calabria live in the villages of Bova Superiore, Bova Marina, Roccaforte del Greco, Condofuri, Bagaladi, Polizzi, Gallicianò and Mélito di Porto Salvo.
In Grecia Salentina, the Grico-speakers are to be found in the villages of Calimera, Martignano, Martano, Sternatia, Zollino, Corigliano d’Otranto, Soleto, Melpignano and Castrignano dei Greci, although Grico seems to be disappearing from Martignano, Soleto and Melpignano.
In Bovesia close to a third of the population are employed in agriculture, another third in the construction industry and service sector (including tourism), and a substantial percentage in forestry and related occupations. Bovesia also has a very high unemployment rate. In Grecia Salentina agriculture and tourism are also major sources of employment. In both regions there has been a growth in new service industries following the influx of people in retirement and establishing second homes.
Magna Graecia was the settlement of southern Italy by Greeks from the eighth century BCE. From the tenth century CE mainland Greeks were fleeing from the Ottomans. In the eleventh century Normans settled in southern Italy and latinized religion. The Greek clergy also adopted Latin for the mass. The prestige of the Greek language and culture waned in the thirteenth century as the Byzantine Empire declined. From the fifteenth century the Greek communities were increasingly influenced by other nationalities, and the language increasingly romanized. In remote towns and villages Grico survived as an oral language of the peasantry and the uneducated, but even here bilingualism increased from the seventeenth century. There were only about 12 villages where Grico was still in common use at the start of the nineteenth century, and only seven in Calabria, with a total population of 8,000 people, in the first general census conducted after Italian unification in 1861. However, interest in folklore increased in the nineteenth century and Griko songs were collected and published.
In 1901 the Italian government set up an Emigration Commission with funds to help people emigrate. This led to mass emigration from southern Italy to escape poverty, with the peak year in 1911. When the Fascists gained power in 1922, they discouraged emigration. They also persecuted the Greek-speakers. However, until the agrarian reforms of 1950–1, Grico-speaking peasants were virtually self-sufficient on the huge landed estates (masserie) and were able to keep their language intact.
Universal schooling in Italian after World War II, compulsory military service and the depopulation of the countryside with migration to the cities undermined this self-sufficiency. Initiatives to promote the language were launched in the late 1950s, spearheaded by middle-class intellectuals in Reggio di Calabria and Bova Marina, and by foreign researchers such as Rohlfs from Germany. A group of university students from Bovesia published a pamphlet entitled La Ionica.
In 1970 the group set up La Ionica Cultural Circle, and the pamphlet became a periodical with poetry and prose in Italian and Greek. La Ionica Cultural Circle and Greek-speakers of Grecia Salentina set up the UGIM (Unione dei Greci dell’Italia Meridionale). UGIM unsuccessfully petitioned the Regional Tourist Office for the introduction of bilingual road signs and five minutes’ broadcasting time on Radio Cosenza. The private radio stations Radio Bova, Radio Mélito and Radio San Paolo in Reggio di Calabria agreed to broadcast some programmes in Greek.
The Greek government, through the International Association of Greek-speakers (SFEE), established close links with La Ionica and invited Grico children from Calabria to attend annual summer camps in Greece.
Article 6 of the 1947 Constitution accords protection to minorities but the Greeks are not mentioned specifically. They are mentioned in the 1999 Italian law setting out the means of protection. The regional autonomy statute of Calabria gives recognition to the historical cultural heritage of the ethnic Albanian and Greek populations and makes provision for the promotion of instruction in both languages in the places where they are spoken. In 1993 the Calabrian regional authorities also set up the Istituto Regionale Superiore di Studi Ellenofoni in Bova Marina. A regional law of 1980 allows Greek-speaking school teachers or university lecturers to offer courses in the regions where the language is spoken.
Because of the lack of teachers with sufficient knowledge of the language to teach it, at the end of the 1980s the Jalò tu Vúa group formed a committee to establish methodological standards for teaching Greek in each community and to draw up a Calabrian Greek grammar book for the schools of the region. The municipal administration in Bova published a Calabrian Greek grammar in 1979 and an informative pamphlet, La Glossa di Bova, some time later.
Italian Greek is included in UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages. There is increased interest in Grico as a pure version of Greek, which has endured several hundred years of isolation. This has made the language more attractive to young people as a focus of study, but their interest in it as a means of modern communication is still in decline. The language and culture are under threat from modern ways of life which reach ever more remote areas.
The communities are currently being studied by medical geneticists because of their centuries-old genealogical isolation and the prospect of finding new medical cures.
Greek is not used in public administration or in law courts. There are some bilingual road signs.
In Puglia Greek is not used in nursery schools, despite the fact that current regulations allow parents to request the use of the language at this educational level. At primary school the situation varies from one community to the other. In Calabria Greek is used in some nursery schools, usually on the initiative of the children’s parents. At primary school the language is taught as a subject three hours per week. At secondary level the language is occasionally taught as a subject. Adult courses in Greek are organized for residents who do not know the language. The municipal authorities of Bova Marina provide some funding for the efforts of the cultural group Jalò tu Vúa, which organizes Greek courses for adults and teacher training in Calabrian Greek, funded by the European Community. Other cultural groups provide extra-curricular Greek courses for secondary and technical school students. Regional and religious authorities provide some funding for the teaching of Greek in nursery and primary school.
Some private local radio stations broadcast in Greek from time to time. There are no television broadcasts in the language. There are a couple of periodicals in Grico: I Riza, which is trilingual (Grico, Greek and Italian) and is published by Jalò tu Vúa; CUMELCA is published irregularly by the organization of the same name. The regional authorities award small grants to the Grico cultural groups to enable them to publish these periodicals. In Puglia various Italian-language newspapers occasionally carry articles in Greek. Literary output is very restricted and is limited to some anthologies of poetry, books about the history of the region and a trilingual calendar in Italian, Grico and Greek. The Greek-speaking communities of Salento have several educational books for very young children.
The musical tradition in Greek is reasonably widespread. Various theatrical groups perform in the Greek language. There is a local traditional music group within the Jalò tu Vúa organization which sings at local festivities. Grico is not used in theatre productions, with the exception of two plays performed some years ago by an amateur company, La Clessidra.
There are many cultural groups which have organized various different activities to promote the language: conferences on the Calabrian Greek language, poetry prizes in the 1990s, cultural exhibitions and twinning with Greek towns.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in