Athens, Greece: Whenever Marilena returns to Crete, it only takes a short spell with friends before her native island dialect kicks back in.
But the 44-year-old mother of two knows that her young son and baby daughter will likely never fully learn the distinctive oral tradition of her ancestors that dates back centuries.
“I lived in Crete until the age of 18, while they will grow up in Athens. They won’t have the opportunity to learn as we did,” she says with a tinge of sadness.
With the use of dialects on the wane in Greece according to linguists, a new card game called Dopiolalia (meaning patois in Greek) now aims to boost interest in dialects, both living and extinct.
“Languages are disappearing… our aim was to rescue them,” the game’s creator Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos said.
Thousands of Greeks — the exact number is unknown — in several parts of the country can speak or understand a local dialect, especially in islands or remote regions.
Cretan is one of the three most widely used but there are many other smaller-scale idioms and local variations too.
With origins as far back as the early Iron Age, the dialects are partly influenced by the languages of later conquerors and settlers, including Franks, Slavs, Turks, and Venetians.
But researchers note that traces of ancient Greek still survive within them.
For instance, the Cretan word for snail — hohlios — comes from the ancient Greek “cochlias”, notes Christoforos Charalambakis, a linguistics professor at the National University of Athens.
Similarly, the ancient Greek word “oon” for the egg is close to “ovon” in Pontic, the language of the Black Sea Greeks of Pontus whose origins can be traced to the 8th century BC.
A flourishing community of hundreds of thousands, they were forced to flee after World War I to escape persecution and killings in Turkey. Many settled in northern Greece.
Another dialect with ancient roots is Tsakonian in the southeastern Peloponnese, deemed by some researchers to be descended from Laconian, the language of the ancient warrior society, Sparta.
‘Magic’ of oral tradition
“This is the magic of the Greek language — a 4,000-year-old oral tradition,” Charalambakis told an online lecture on dialects last week.
In a pre-Brexit report in 2019, the European Union’s Eurydice education portal said that an estimated 40 to 50 million people spoke around 60 regional and minority languages in the bloc.
In Wales, the devolved government aims for there to be a million Welsh speakers by 2050, while the Italian state funds regional or minority language projects, and France has also encouraged regional language teaching since 2017.
But in Greece, dialect speakers faced “tremendous cultural racism” when moving to cities in the 1950s and are still mocked today, Panagiotopoulos said.
On TV and in film, dialect-speaking characters have often been portrayed as poorly-educated simpletons.
In a country that became independent in 1830 and took its present form only after World War II, national cohesion was long a delicate issue, making governments keen on assimilation and a uniform Greek language.
“There has never been an official census on the number of dialect speakers in Greece, but it is certain that they have significantly receded over the last 50 years,” Angela Ralli, an emeritus linguistics professor at the University of Patras, said.
“Day by day, dialects dwindle. As a result, an important part of linguistic wealth and cultural heritage is gradually lost,” she told AFP.
Among local variants no longer in use is Koudaritika, a secret guild language once spoken by stonemasons in the northwestern region of Epirus.
The Academy of Athens, Greece’s leading research institution, possesses an archive with over 1,500 documents on dialects, in addition to oral recordings.
But most dialect glossaries are the work of amateur researchers, and teaching is mainly done by private cultural associations.
However, in 2018 Democritus University in the northeastern Thrace region began offering Pontic Greek classes, and the University of Crete followed suit in Cretan last year.
Gamers to the rescue
Released last month, Dopiolalia covers Cretan, Pontic Greek, Epirote, and the slang of street toughs in 19th-century Athens, Koutsavakika, in separate card packs.
Upcoming releases will feature sailor talk, Greek Aegean island dialects, and Kaliarda, a coded cant created by Greek homosexuals in the 1940s.
Panagiotopoulos, who runs the project alongside his job as co-owner and CEO of a cultural promotion company, says his team has compiled thousands of words for the games, gathered through researching written sources and from interviews with elderly speakers.
And the response to the games has been enthusiastic around Greece and from diaspora Greeks, he said.
“We did not expect such a positive reaction so quickly. People are saying ‘where have you been all this time?'” he said, laughing.