Dialect death and Sior Nionio

By: | Post date: June 11, 2023 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture, Greece, Language

I’m going to conclude with something silly. Except it isn’t.

Like many Greeks of my age, I was brought up with the televised shadow puppetry of Karagiozis, as performed (for colour TV!) by Evgenios Spatharis; in fact, one of the few Greek recordings of anything my parents had in Tasmania was a recording of Karagiozis.

Karagiozis featured stock heroes from a couple of parts of Greece. Which means that I got exposed to Sior Nionio (= Signor Dionysis): the stock figure of a Westernised Zante nobleman, fallen on hard times.

Vaudeville dialect accents have a kernel of truth to them. The Turks in Karagiozis, after all, have the back /a/ that Turks (and Istanbul Greeks) do use speaking Greek.

But even at this advanced stage of dialect death, I’m pretty confident Zantiots don’t speak in this singsong an intonation.

What little I’ve heard is like in Corfu: only faintly singsong, and with a lot of falling tones. This example will serve, though long: it’s a performance of an omilia, a folk play, St Gryphon’s Underpants (starts at 2:30).

Dialect handbooks will tell you that Ancient Greek /ia, ea/ went to [ja] consistently in the vernacular; when they don’t, that’s a giveaway that the word is not vernacular to begin with. Archaic dialects like Pontic keep the two syllables; but in mainstream Greek, the only exceptions are Mani, and Zante: μηλέα “apple-tree”, not μηλιά.
(And dialectologists will tell you those aren’t the only exceptions in mainstream Greek, but let me not complicate the story further.)
Well, Zante *was* an exception. Nikos Liosis related to me that he went on a linguistic mission to Zante 20 years ago, and recorded two little old ladies still doing it in Keri, southernmost tip of Zante (where the tourists go to explore caves and turtles, not people.) Which means that exception is now gone here too.
In fact, it’s been retreating for a fair while, as Liosis informs me. Vayacacos in 1967 had reported the archaic pronunciation was restricted to the south of the island. In the early 20th century, Giannoutsos reports that it was being preempted by palatalisation, in contexts that allowed it: fili.a > fiʎa.
But you can still hear an arekia or two at Varkarola taverna. Even if there’s repertoire they refuse to do there because there’s only two of them and not four. Even if they switch to Volare when there’s critical mass of Italian tourists in attendance. And when they’re relaxed, you will still hear them use the dialectal form of the definite article, tsi and tsu.
And of course, a lot of this past Greece I am not finding any more was only in my head to begin with. Just like Sior Nionio’s intonation was likely all in puppeteer Spatharis’ head.
My trip to Zante comes to the same conclusion as my trip to Sitia, really. So much has been lost in this country. Some of it was never truly here.
And it’s my business to cherish what’s left.

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