Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sfakian Dialect

Much fanciful nonsense has been written suggesting that the distinctiveness of the Sfakian dialect of Greek is due to the preservation in the region of 'pure' Dorian Greek as this was brought to Crete 3000 years ago. It is certainly true that the dialect of the Sfakia region is in a number of ways different from the other dialects of Crete. But the reality is that its distinctiveness is due to the relative isolation of the area in much more recent times.

The best known of all Cretan dialect features is that the consonants k, g, x (ch) and gh are pronounced like English ch, j, sh and zh before the vowels i and e. For example, ke 'and' is che, anagi 'need' is anaji, maxeri 'knife' is masheri, and Giorgho is Zhorgho. You may well hear these pronunciations in Chora Sfakion, but it is a feature which is absent from many of the villages of the Sfakia region.

The most recognisable Sfakian feature, however, concerns the pronunciation of L. Before the vowels i and e this is pronounced more or less as in other varieties of Greek. Before the vowels a, o, and u, however, a very different sound occurs which is very similar indeed to the pronunciation of r in American English, so that kalá 'well' sounds like 'kará'. Interestingly, in the village of Chora Sfakion, this feature is now almost entirely confined to the speech of men.

Visitors to Sfakia who know some Greek may notice a number of words which are typical of the southern islands generally, or of Crete, or of western Crete, or of Sfakia itself. These include:
Sfakian English Greek
inda? = what? = ti?
jada? = why? = jatí?
etsá = thus = étsi
edhá = now = tóra
epá = here = edhó
ekiá = over there = ekí péra
práma = nothing = típota
kopéli = boy = aghóri
kopélia = boys
kopeliá = girl = korítsi
kopeliés = girls
trozós = crazy = trellós
opsés = yesterday = xtes
ghlakó = I run = tréxo
katéo = I know = kséro
thoró = I see = vlépo

A number of words have a rather different pronunciation from those you might have learned in phrase books:
oi = no = óxi
áne = if = án
oúla = everything = óla
ókso = outside = ékso
mikiós = small = mikrós
pothéno = I die = pethéno
símero = today = símera

There are some grammatical differences also. Past tense verb forms tend to have the e- prefix in all forms:
edhoúlepsa = I worked = dhoúlepsa

And it is possible to place a pronoun object after the verb rather than before it:
thoró se = I see you = se vlépo

All the Sfakia people who come into contact with tourists can switch very easily between Sfakian dialect and Standard Greek, as well as English and maybe German and French too. They remain, however, very proud of their local dialect.

An article written exclusively for
Prof. Peter Trudgill
Chair of English Linguistics
University of Fribourg