Aspromonte Region - Calabria, Italy
By: John Kazaklis
Italian as we know it today was not always spoken throughout Italy. The Italian language did not become the staple language until well into the end of the 19th Century during the process of Italian unification, or the Risorgimento. Until then, the Italian peninsula was made up of Italo-Romance dialects and smaller minority languages that were differentiated by region and historical influences. Once unification was complete, the Tuscan dialect was ushered into power as the official language of the Italian nation. This became the beginning of the modern end of the Greek language in Calabria, or what it is known today as Greko.
WHY SHOULD IT MATTER?
There exists today a tiny enclave of Greek-speaking people in the Aspromonte Mountain region of Reggio Calabria that seem to have survived millennia…perhaps since the Ancient Greeks began colonizing Southern Italy in the 8th and 7th Centuries BC. Their language is called Greko. They survived empires, invasions, ecclesial schisms, dictators, nationalistic-inspired assimilation, and much more. Greko is a variety of the Greek language that has been separated from the rest of the Hellenic world for many centuries. There are various population estimates circulating, but after I visited the region in April 2017 and sat down with several community leaders, the clearest estimate of remaining Greko speakers seems to be between 200-300 and numbers continue to decrease.
To help bring more perspective, Greek was the dominant language and ethnic element all throughout what we know today as Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, and Eastern Sicily until the 14th Century. Since then, the spread of Italo-Romance languages, along with geographical isolation from other Greek-speaking regions in Italy, caused the language to evolve on its own in Calabria. This resulted in a separate and unique variety of Greek that is different from what is spoken today in Puglia.
When I traveled to Calabria, I was honored to connect with the Squillaci family. Based out of Bova Marina, this Greko family has fought hard to keep their language and identity alive within their family and community. I spent most of my time with Olimpia Squillaci and her father, Tito Squillaci, who have been active over the years educating locals and outsiders about their language and roots. With pride, they enlightened me on the history and current status of their people and language. We had the opportunity to visit several homes and families that are still clinging to their dying language and culture.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The struggle for the survival of Hellenism after antiquity is typically associated with Ottoman occupation in the Eastern Mediterranean, not the Italian peninsula. Few history books I read growing up ever mentioned any type of Greek history or presence in Italy after the glorious era of Magna Graecia. But to dig a little deeper means that we must look at what happened to this ethno-linguistic group after antiquity.
There are many theories or schools of thought regarding the origin of the Greko community in Calabria. Are they descendants of the Ancient Greeks who colonized Southern Italy? Are they remnants of the Byzantine presence in Southern Italy? Did their ancestors come in the 15th-16th Centuries from the Greek communities in the Aegean fleeing Ottoman invasion? The best answers to all of those questions are yes, yes, and yes. This means that history has shown a continuous Greek presence in Calabria since antiquity. Even though different empires, governments, and invasions occurred in the region, the Greek language and identity seemed to have never ceased. Once the glorious days of Magna Graecia were over, there is evidence that shows that Greek continued to be spoken in Southern Italy during the Roman Empire. Once the Roman Empire split into East (Byzantine) and West, Calabria saw Byzantine rule begin in the 5th Century. This lasted well into the 11th Century and reinforced the Greek language and identity in the region as well as an affinity to Eastern Christianity.
Today, there is more evidence of a Byzantine legacy rather than an Ancient Greek or Modern Greek footprint.
“The last contact we had with Greek culture that we know of was from the Byzantine Empire. Our region mostly shares the same history as Eastern Sicily and not Puglia,” said Olimpia.
What’s even more fascinating is that Calabria was apparently a Byzantine monastic hub of sorts. “There were over 1,500 Byzantine monasteries in Calabria and people today still remember and adore those saints,” explained Tito. Even though Byzantine rule ended in Calabria in the 11th Century, the Greek language continued to be spoken while gradually declining in the region with the spread of Latin and a process of Catholicization. The modern-day commune of Bova may give some insight into the history of the language in the region. In subsequent centuries after Byzantine rule, Bova became the heart of Greek culture in Calabria as well as the seat of the Greek church in the region. It is important to note that the liturgical language of the region was Greek until 1572 when Bova was the last in the region to transition to Latin.
Not much is known of what took place between the end of the 16th Century and the Italian Risorgimento in the 19th Century, but there are a couple of details to mention. First, due to multiple invasions and piracy, much of Calabria’s coastal population moved into the mountainous interior. According to Olimpia, the isolation and geography of the Greko communities in Calabria definitely worked to the advantage of preserving the language over centuries. We can also possibly conclude that occasional migrations of Greeks to Calabria from the Aegean could have taken place in the 16th and 17th Centuries in response to the Ottoman invasion. And according to Tito, there is even evidence that a 17th Century mayor of Bova wrote poems in Greko.
Even though the Greek language had already been in great decline since the departure of the Byzantine Empire in Southern Italy and the spread of Catholicism with Latin liturgy, the language seemed to have quietly survived several centuries in the mountains of Calabria.
Once the Risorgimento finally took place, the modern Italian language finally arrived in Calabria at the end of the 19th Century. Like I mentioned before, the Italian language that arrived was essentially the Tuscan dialect that was chosen as the national language. “The Italian language has only been spoken in Calabria for around 100 years,” explained Tito.
Due to the complexities of the Risorgimento and the new multifaceted Italian state (Northern Italy vs. Southern Italy), there was a new wave of mindsets that was ushered into Calabria and surrounding Southern Italian regions. This deeply affected the Greko community and language.
“The shame and embarrassment of speaking Greko began in the 20th Century and it intensified during the Fascist movement. The mentality of ‘we must be Italians’ affected the way the Greko community raised their children,” explained Olimpia.
It became greatly frowned upon to speak Greko during that time. The nickname paddeki, meaning stupid, was commonly given to Greko speakers for speaking their mother tongue. Assimilation into Italian culture and the rejection of the Greko language seemed like the best option for many Greko speakers, especially for Greko parents wanting to give their children a promising future.
In the above video, Olimpia Squillaci is speaking in Greko from 00:00-00:39. From 00:40-01:09, Olimpia is speaking in Italian.
To get a solid grasp on the current status of the Greko language in Calabria, Olimpia and I visited the homes of some local Greko families in Bova Marina, Condofuri Marina, Galliciano, and Bova. With only 200-300 Greko speakers remaining today, the vast majority of them are elderly. We were able to sit down with Salvatore Siviglia (Roghudi Nuovo), Domenico Nucera Milinari (Condofuri Marina), Mimmo Nucera (Gallicianò), and Pietro Romeo (Bova). Hearing the stories and experiences from each of these individuals gave me a good backdrop of what life was like for the Greko community in Calabria, especially before the 1960s. Many of them did claim that only the older generations continue to speak Greko today and that seemed to be quite evident during my trip.
We sat down with Salvatore Siviglia in his current home in Roghudi Nuovo and he explained to us what life was like in his hometown of Roghudi (Side Note: Salvatore, along with all of the residents of Roghudi, were forced to relocate to Roghudi Nuovo in the 1980s due to severe flooding).
“Until the 1960s, there were no roads, electricity, or plumbing to most of the Greko villages. When the schools arrived, Italian was the taught language and Greko was learned at home. There was no government assistance back then for the Greko language. People in Rome (referring to the Italian government) did not care about our language.”
This beckoned me to ask about the lack of government assistance or effort to preserve the Greko language in the region, and Olimpia helped bring more perspective on this issue. Unlike other minority languages in Northern Italy, the Greko community was not located in a border region. Why is this important to note? “The Italian government did not pay much attention to the Greko language or did not help preserve it because its speakers did not pose a threat of secession or independence much like the Northern Italian minorities or the Basques and Catalans of Spain,” claimed Olimpia.
ASSISTANCE FROM GREECE
In the last 20-30 years, there have been efforts made in conjunction with the Greek government to bring education and revitalization to the Greko language and culture in Calabria. This activity has definitely brought more cultural awareness to locals but unfortunately has not had a positive effect on the language. “Greece sent teachers and it did not help. Modern Greek is not part of the community or culture. The foundations that were established began creating events, cultural events, celebrations...but at the end of the day, no one knew the Greko language,” explained Olimpia.
Unlike Modern Greek, the Greko language is written with Latin script. This in itself creates a clear barrier between the local Greko population of Calabria and the incoming teachers from Greece who brought the modern Greek language using the Greek alphabet. Perhaps the efforts from the Greek government and Greek organizations were intended to connect the Greko community of Calabria to a variety of Greek (Modern Greek) that was more sustainable in the 21st Century.
LOOKING WITHIN THE COMMUNITY
There are many factors that have led to the current status of the Greko language as it remains in severe decline and near extinction. But towards the end of my trip, I wanted to hear from both Tito and Olimpia on what they thought the solutions could be to revitalize the language.
“The problem is within ourselves in the community. Outsiders can’t do much. People are stopping to speak Greko because they don’t need Greko for practical reasons. They need it for internal reasons. They speak about Greko, but do not KNOW Greko,” said Tito.
This deeply moved me to hear because this turns the responsibility back onto the people. Although only a few hundred speakers remain, there seems to be thousands in the region that have a Greko ethnic identity but have no knowledge of the language. Olimpia also had similar sentiments. “The people here don’t know the language. People here don’t really feel connected to it and if they don’t feel connected to it, they won’t learn it or make the effort.” I then sat down with Olimpia one last time and I asked her what she wanted the world to know.
“If I abandon my language, my culture stays the same. We still keep our world. Greko is stamped all over the culture even if the language is lost. The Calabrian dialect of Italian is even spoken and structured with heavy Greek influences.”
Sitting in a local dessert shop in Bova Marina, I witnessed a sense of deflation in her demeanor when she was saying this, but she then exclaimed with an underlying passion for her culture and identity, “Learn Greko. This is the solution! Greko needs to be revitalized here in its area.” Despite the lack of need or connection from the local community to learn the language, the only solution is to make the effort and learn Greko. The cultural awareness is evident and already present.
After spending time with the Squillaci family, I observed how passionate and hardworking they were in regards to the survival of their dying language. It was deeply moving and encouraging. With perhaps only one generation remaining of Greko speakers, Tito and Olimpia seem to be going full force with doing what they can to teach Greko and build awareness. In essence, they are guardians of Hellenism in this small region tucked away in the toe of the Italian peninsula. Although history and governments played a role in the decay of the language, culture, and identity of the Greko people in Calabria, Tito and Olimpia rightfully hold their people co-responsible for its status today. They need to want to learn Greko, even if it is not needed for practical reasons. The resources and tools are there. What will they do about it for the current generation and for generations to come?
STATUS & STATISTICS OF GREKO IN CALABRIA
Below are a list of the current population centers today that have Greko-speaking residents as well as settlements that at one time had Greko speakers in the past 100 years. Keep in mind that several settlements in the mountainous interior experienced population shifts in the last several decades. I have attempted to give background details about each settlement listed.
Greko-Speaking Settlements Today:
- Galliciano: The only remaining original Greko-speaking settlement in the mountains. Locals have not been forced to move or resettle on the coast like other surrounding mountain settlements.
- Roghudi Nuovo: Established in 1980s after the original settlement of Roghudi in the mountainous interior was threatened by severe flooding. All of its residents were consequently relocated to Roghudi Nuovo, meaning New Roghudi.
- Bova Marina: Bova Marina is the coastal settlement of its corresponding mountainous settlement, Bova (sometimes called Bova Superiore). Many of Bova’s residents have relocated to Bova Marina over the last decades in search of better economic opportunities and exposure to commerce on the coast.
- Melito di Porto Salvo
- Reggio di Calabria: The largest city in Calabria, Reggio has a few neighborhoods where Greko-speaking people have moved to over the decades.
Former Settlements or Former Greko-Speaking Settlements in Last 100 Years:
Roghudi: Nestled in the Aspromonte Mountains, Roghudi’s residents were forced to relocate closer to the coast after severe flooding took place in the 1980s. The new settlement would be named Roghudi Nuovo.
- Roccaforte del Greco
- Bova: Once the epicenter of Greek culture and religion in the region, Bova has no indigenous Greko speakers remaining today. Many of its former Greko-speaking inhabitants have moved to its coastal settlement of Bova Marina in the last 30-40 years for economic opportunity.
A native of Bova Marina with roots in Roccaforte del Greco and Eastern Sicily, Olimpia is very passionate about her cultural heritage and language. Many in the Greko community of Calabria have claimed that Olimpia and her two sisters are the youngest active Greko speakers remaining. This devotion to Greko originated from the home she was raised in where her father, Tito Squillaci, was adamant about speaking Greko in the home.
Olimpia's passion has led her to study at the University of Cambridge where she is a PhD student at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages. "At Cambridge, I am currently investigating on unique linguistic phenomena which have emerged out of the deep and intense contact between Greko and the Romance dialect spoken in the Hellenophone area of Calabria." You can read more about Olimpia's research and work at Cambridge here. During the summer months, Olimpia stays busy teaching Greko language classes in the Greko-Calabrian region to students that have either forgotten Greko or never had the opportunity to learn the language in their childhood homes.
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE:
- Greko vs. Griko: Don’t confuse the two. The variation of Greek that is spoken in Calabria (Greko) is different from the variety of Greek spoken in Puglia, known as Griko.