The Italian South is also known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) for good reason; it and Greece have formed part of the same cultural space since at least 700 BCE. It was at that point when the first settlers from Greece arrived on the Italian shores, establishing colonies and creating trading posts that brought them closer to the indigenous civilizations, such as the Etruscans.
That region was also a stronghold of the Orthodox Christian church for a long time (in some cases until the 17th Century) and so through traditions, faith and trade the two regions were always very close to each other and people moved across the rather narrow Straits with ease.
It is within this context that one should view the existence of two communities that speak two linguistic idioms that are similar to each other and to Greek. Griko, the language spoken in Salento (Puglia region), and Grecanico, the one spoken in Calabria are so close as to allow people from both to understand each other without particular problems, even though the communities of Salento and Calabria have almost no contact between them.
It is taken for granted that their speakers are descendants of Greeks who arrived in the region in the past. There is a big ongoing discussion about the period when those ancestors arrived from Greece. Some people consider that time to be the one of the original colonizers of Ancient Greece (ca. 700 BCE) and others a later wave that left during the late Middle Ages (ca. 1400). It is thought that people arrived on both occasions, but it is debated if by the Middle Ages the use of Greek had completely died out or not. Due to the existence of many Ancient Greek words in those two languages though, it must be considered that the former opinion is more correct.
As in many other cases, the twentieth century was a period of rapid assimilation of the indigenous cultures, either through brute force (from the period between 1922-1943) or through deserting the region through the immigration of the people from the Italian South to the industrialized North and abroad (ca. 1950-1970).
By the early Seventies, the situation was desperate, with most of the old native speakers having died, the language not being spoken by the young in an attempt to integrate the community in the social life of the mainstream Italian culture and a lack of official recognition. Even the Greek State had no knowledge of that community.
Then, during the seventies, indigenous cultures all over Europe faced something of a renaissance, in regions as diverse as Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, the Basque Region, Corsica and Sardegna. This was happening in Italy as well, a country where local traditions and local linguistic idioms are very strong and where the South was beginning to assert itself against the traditional power center of the North. This movement was evident in the Grico community, with young people showing a greater desire to learn the language and use it, and by a new wave of ethnomusicologists who came to record the old ways. People, and later private institutions and the Greek State, also got interested in those "long-forgotten brethren."
The two communities have recently been recognized as official linguistic minorities by the Italian State, granting them some rights, such as use of their language in signs, in elementary education and in radio. There are also many ongoing projects financed by the European Union that facilitate the economic recovery of the region. There is a lot to be done and the survival of the two languages is still in a perilous state, as the native old speakers have almost disappeared. There are, however, strong indications that the worst is over and that Greća and, to a lesser extent, the Grecano region, are following the general trend of other regions in Europe, such as Brittany and Catalonia, creating sustainable development through cultural diversity.
It is also worth noting, in this age of civil wars and ethnic conflicts, that the relationship between the Grico minority and the Romance (Latin idiom-speaking) majority has always been quite good. There are many cases where bands from the two communities will cover songs of the other (such as Ghetonìa and Arakne Mediterranea) and there is a strong desire for co-operation rather than local cultural assertion.
Grecìa Salentina consists today of nine villages with a total population of around 40,000 people, of which about 25,000 are Griko speakers. In Calabria about 9,000 people populate the nine villages that constitute the Grecano region.
The differences between the fruitful Salento valley and the arid mountainous Calabria are very big and probably that is the reason for Salento having recently taken the initiative in the protection of its culture. Calabria on the other hand is still in a vicious cycle of immigration and poverty, although there are positive signs coming from that land as well.
Article by Nondas Kitsos
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