How a headmaster is trying to save an ancient language

In Greece’s Peloponnesus, Panagiotis Tsagouris has involved schoolchildren in his effort to preserve the Tsakonian language, considered the only descendant of Doric Greek.

Alexis Xydias
Panagiotis Tsagouris took an interest in preserving Tsakonian when he started working at the public primary school in Leonidio, Greece.

At the beginning of this year, a few dozen eager primary-school students ascended the mountains near Leonidio, in Greece’s Peloponnesus, tape recorders in hand, to visit cliffside hamlets accessible only by narrow and impossibly steep roads. Their task: to record conversations with residents old enough to be their great-grandparents – the last few fluent speakers of Tsakonian.

Linguists may have extra reason to be excited about the children’s mountain trek. Tsakonian is considered the only descendant of Doric Greek, a classical Hellenic language last spoken more than 2,000 years ago around the military city-state of Sparta. Tsakonian managed to survive in this corner of southern Greece, whose hilly and rocky paths discouraged foreign occupiers and hindered contact with other regions. UNESCO has labeled Tsakonian a “critically endangered” language spoken by about 300 people.

Now, Panagiotis Tsagouris, headmaster of Leonidio’s public primary school, has taken on the task of, if not making Tsakonian widely spoken, at least preserving it in the computer era. He has launched a project that will expand and update a 90-year-old Tsakonian dictionary. The words, pronunciation, and usage that his students record will make up the body of a digital lexicon.

“The kids were extremely happy with the project, and so were we,” Mr. Tsagouris says from his office in the imposing yellow and red neoclassical school building. “We helped the kids connect with the language, but also with the older generation through a shared valuable asset.”

Tsagouris’s project – known as Our Language Is Tsakonian – has no public funding. If anything, invitations for foreign language researchers to come to Leonidio were interrupted last year as the Greek state cut costs in the face of economic turmoil. Instead, in 2015 Tsagouris secured a €3,000 ($3,300) private donation from Greece’s billionaire Latsis family. Part of that money went to buy the tape recorders.

“Panagiotis has always believed that children should participate in the project, to both increase their interest in the dialect and local traditions and to secure the success of the project itself,” says Maxim Kisilier, an associate professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek and director of the Hellenic Institute at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. “He is the living illustration of creating a real wonder from almost nothing, despite all difficulties.”

Doric and its dialects ruled the Peloponnesus in ancient times, and its variants stretched from Sicily in Italy to Anatolia in Turkey. The decline of Sparta and the unification of Greece under Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC brought about the wane of Doric and the rise of Attic Greek from Athens, the precursor of Modern Greek.

Tsakonian and Greek are mutually unintelligible, even to the most attentive listener. Unaware Greeks are startled when they hear it, with its distinctive phonetics and verb conjugations.

While Tsakonian survived centuries of Greek contact with Franks, Turks, and others, it may not live through the challenges posed by globalization, electronic communications, and a state that may be indifferent to, or unable to finance, minority culture education.

“People come to this region to excavate and uncover ancient ruins,” says Tsagouris, who counts 34 years as an educator. “I always think, Are they waiting for our language to be buried so they can excavate it, too? Let’s protect this treasure now.”

His dictionary currently has 4,650 words, translated into Greek, many of them accompanied by an audio clip with the corresponding pronunciation. The lexicon builds on the work done in 1923 by German philologist Michael Deffner and later by Thanasis Costakis, a researcher born near Leonidio who died in 2009.

Speaking Tsakonian growing up

Tsagouris was born about 25 miles away from Leonidio in the village of Prastos. He spoke Tsakonian at least part of the time growing up. “We used to talk Tsakonian at home, mostly with my parents, but also at my father’s tavern with the clients,” he says.

He started to have an interest in preserving the language when he became a teacher, working at Leonidio’s primary school. “It was there where I realized that just a few young people knew and spoke the language,” he says.

At present he teaches Tsakonian for two hours a week to fourth- and fifth-graders – lessons born out of his own time and money, since the state doesn’t endorse these as official courses.

Tsagouris hopes his electronic dictionary will create a growing linguistic corpus that can form the basis for educational software and other computer-based applications. He says that once his job is done, an academic researcher should take on the job of performing linguistic analysis.

That task is likely to fall to Professor Kisilier at St. Petersburg State University. The Russian has an out-of-the-ordinary aptitude for languages: He humbly acknowledges speaking “eight to 10.” He has taken a thorough interest in Tsakonian since 2010, traveling to the region at least 20 times.

Kisilier, only the second known foreigner to speak Tsakonian, may bring a different view to the language – one not burdened by nationalism or an emotional attachment to the language of forebears.

“It is not the goal of linguistics to save languages,” he says, but rather to study, understand, and teach languages. By doing so, he notes, “a linguist may indirectly make the language more respected within the community.”

Currently, Tsakonian uses Greek letters with special diacritics, or accents and other marks, that are not recognized by computers and mobile phones. That should change, Kisilier says, to a Tsakonian alphabet in which distinct phonetics are written with a combination of existing Greek letters.

Kisilier, who has visited most of the area’s 12 towns, calculates the number of Tsakonian-speakers to be between 1,500 and 2,000, much higher than UNESCO’s figure. That compares with an estimated 200,000 speakers in the 19th century.

A ‘shepherds’ language’?

Still, it’s hard to feel that the language is alive when walking through these quaint villages. Traditionally, Tsakonian has been spoken at home, with Greek dominant in the public realm. While it is easy to attribute that to Greek being the country’s official language, it is also a question of status. Some people here refer to Tsakonian as a “shepherds’ language.”

“People are embarrassed to speak Tsakonian,” says Eleni Manou, a young mother and language activist in Leonidio who has self-published two children’s books in the language and sells them at fairs. “I once organized speaking groups in cafes to promote Tsakonian. No one showed up.”

This could change with the coming opening of a cultural center in a run-down stone manor in Leonidio that will house the Tsakonian Archives, a decades-old effort to preserve local history and traditions. Tsagouris is secretary-general of the archives, an organization that like other things here seems to run on no budget.

Managing much of the on-site plan is Ioannis Christodoulou, a web designer who has teamed up with Tsagouris before, providing the technical support for the building and running the dictionary portal. The archives have started offering language lessons and plan to provide more courses once the building is fixed.

“We want this to become a place of meeting,” Mr. Christodoulou says. “Our goal is that people live and breathe Tsakonian culture through various activities.”

“Panagiotis is behind all the projects,” he adds. “He is the brain behind everything we do.”

Kisilier says the prospect of Tsakonian dying out may be premature. He’s met young adults in the mountains who speak it. And even many children can understand it, more so now thanks to the work at Leonidio’s primary school. They may become the protectors of this ancient language for at least a couple of generations more.

It’s here where Tsagouris’s work, helping children grasp the importance of languages, may prove vital. “I didn’t think much of [Tsakonian] until I became an adult,” Tsagouris says. “Then I understood the merits of it. It’s part of our history, and of our lives.”

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