Greece, the home of one the oldest civilizations on the globe, is blessed with thousands of priceless monuments, from the Parthenon, the temple at Sounion and the site of Delphi, just to name a few. But perhaps no physical structure anywhere is as important than the living monument of a spoken language which originates directly from the ancient world.
One such language still survives today, despite the ravages of time and the many reversals of fortune that Greece has known, in Leonidio, a living remnant of the language of ancient Sparta, the warrior state which became the byword for an extraordinarily strict and regimented society.
Despite being banished to the hills and mountains 55-100 km (34-62 miles) far away from the city state after it was attacked and conquered by the Visigoths almost 2,400 years ago, the people who spoke the language somehow kept it alive even after their original city lay abandoned for centuries afterward.
Two thousand people in and around Leonidio still speak Tsakonika, which is recognized as the oldest living language in a country that is itself one of the oldest continuous civilizations on the face of the earth.
Tsakonika, which language experts say is based on the western Doric dialect of the Hellenic languages, even predates Greek by 3,100 years. Greek is from Ionic and Attic, eastern branches of the same language family.
Differing in pronunciation, and even with some different letters and phonetic symbols, Tsakonika actually resembles Ancient Greek more than the modern Greek spoken today, according to philologists.
The mountainous village of Pera Melana in Greece’s southern Peloponnesian peninsula is predominantly where the rich cultural heritage of Tsakonian still flourishes today. The Doric dialect called “Laconian” is what the language was called in ancient days, before it began to be called “Tsakonian” in the Middle Ages.
The language spoken by the descendants of the proud Spartans marks their identity as a distinct population subgroup and has endowed them with the knowledge that they are part of what has been referred to as the oldest continuous legacy of the ancient Spartans.
Unfortunately, primarily because the language was looked down on for some time as being a rural dialect spoken only in the hinterlands, only about 2,000 of the 10,000 people who belong to the Tsakonian population subgroup still speak Tsakonika at all.
Amazingly, however, the BBC recently reported that the language is still spoken in thirteen towns, villages and tiny hamlets around Pera Melana. Tsakonika is often the tongue spoken at home and it is still heard in public there as well. Yet it is primarily elders who speak it fluently — and that situation must be reversed if this priceless connection to the past is to continue into the future.
Thomais Kounia, who is referred to as “The Empress of Tsalonika” for her perfect mastery of the language, told interviewers from the BBC “We are losing Tsakonika without authentic teachers. I have been trying to preserve it for the last 40 years. It is my duty to do so.”
Eleni Manou, a Tsakonika teacher and author from the nearby town of Leonidio, the center of Tsakonian culture, agrees. “If we lose our language, we cannot claim to be Tsakonian,” she declares.
Laconian was, of course, the dialect spoken by the ancient Spartans, who have gone down in history as the brave warriors who faced every enemy with equanimity, never giving up even when vastly outnumbered. The quote “Molon Labe,” or “Come and get them!” uttered by King Leonidas in the Battle of Thermopylae after his warriors had been challenged by Persian King Xerxes to surrender and give up their weapons, has gone down in history as perhaps the most pithy quote on a battlefield.
Indeed, it has been used in similar situations in the course of many other battles throughout history, even including the American Revolution, at Fort Morris in Georgia. It was uttered again during the Texas Revolution, when it became the motto on the flag used by the Texas separatists, who won their freedom from Mexico, declaring themselves a separate republic before being absorbed into the United States.
Language is living proof of Spartan connection
“Tsakonika is the main proof of our Spartan connection,” Manou explains. “And in terms of the heart, we are direct descendants. For me and many other Tsakonians, when we go to Sparta, it feels like home.”
It was the very fact that the Visigoths sacked and destroyed much of ancient Sparta in the year 396 AD, scattering the population to the hills and mountains, which allowed the language to stay alive — unlike other languages and dialects which have undoubtedly vanished off the face of the earth after their speakers lost battles and wars and their numbers were decimated.
The mountain communities where the language was still spoken remained for the most part cut off from the world around them until after the Greek War of Independence, which was won in 1829, when the populace began to be formally educated and new roads and schools were built around the country.
Kounia explains in the BBC report “The building of roads and ports gave people a way out of villages. Many residents never returned.”
As time went on, as was true around the world, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the moving of populations to larger towns and cities, those who spoke the local dialect became fewer and fewer.
The advent of electricity came to the area in the 1950s, and radio broadcasts began to be heard, introducing modern spoken Greek into their small world.
UNESCO lists Tsakonika as “Critically endangered language”
At the same time, many people across the country left for greener pastures abroad, including Panos Maneris, who upped stakes and left for the Untied States. He is now a teacher of Tsakonika as well as a poet and songwriter who uses his original home language in order to keep it alive for another generation. He also hosts a language website, called Tsakonika.
“Up to 1970, when I left for the United States, Tyros and other villages in the area where I grew up spoke 100% Tsakonika,” he explains. “But each year I returned to visit, more and more people weren’t speaking it and that bothered me. The road from Astros to Leonidio was built in 1958. Twenty years later, people stopped speaking Tsakonika.”
Now listed as a “critically endangered” language by UNESCO, Maneris and his fellow teachers are part of a modern army, much like the ancient Spartans, who refuse to take no for an answer and insist that their ancient language will continue to be spoken into the future.
The view that the language was only spoken by rough country people is thankfully now a thing of the past, when many people around the world have cultivated a newfound appreciation for history and the endangered cultures from their past.
“In the 1960s-70s, there was an attitude change about Tsakonika as something to treasure rather than hide,” Manou says. “In fact, a lot of young Tsakonians were angry with their parents and grandparents for not speaking Tsakonika to them. I was begging my father to speak it to my children, but he refused. Now it’s fashionable with the younger generation.”
Even street signs are now in both Tsakonian and Greek, and the language is featured in museums and archives, including the Tsakonian Archives, which was established in 1954 as a way to preserve written Tsakonian.
There is even a festival in the area in the summers, called Melitzazz, which helps keep the language tradition alive.
A dictionary in three volumes was even published by Kounia’s uncle back in 1986 and there are efforts to make it available online. Tsakonika lessons are also available online now, taught by Manou.
And a new dictionary, penned by Tsakanika author Sotiris Steniotis, is also in the works.
“What is not written fades away. In this era of information with the internet, we should not lose a language. Every Tsakonian village should have a Tsakonika centre for its residents and Tsakonika classes should be offered in Sparta and Athens.”