Learning “Greek” in Ohio: the curious story of how immigration keeps old dialects alive

As a child, I thought I spoke Greek—until people from Greece told me I sound like their grandmother. It turns out my situation is far from unique

January 15, 2018
It's all Greek to me! Isolated communities can develop language forms that are distinct from their parent dialects.
It's all Greek to me! Isolated communities can develop language forms that are distinct from their parent dialects.

Like most children of immigrants, I grew up speaking a half-and-half combination of languages. My Dad was the only immigrant in his family to become fluent in English; aside from him, I had an entirely and only Greek-speaking side. The other side of my family, my mother’s, spoke entirely and only American English.

I, and the other children in my community, spoke these languages interchangeably until we spoke in full sentences, teething our way towards speaking English. I would occasionally accidentally use Greek words with American school friends, not realising I was using a different language.

Another thing I did not realise, in fact only realized in the last 5 years, is what exactly is the kind of Greek I speak. My mother, the American, and my sister and I all adopted the language that we spoke not just with my grandparents and relatives in Greece, but the bizarrely large Greek-immigrant community also nestled in southwestern Ohio.

Until I left my little Greek community, I had been under the impression that I was, of course, speaking modern Greek. Sure, I’ve never been fully fluent and, yeah, I’m a bit rusty since I stopped spending every other day with two native speakers, but I figured that if I turned up in Greece, or spoke to someone who was from there, I’d be able to pass as an actual Greek person—even if I didn’t look it, or get much beyond a basic conversation.

Yet my mother, sister and I have all been met with the same response from Greeks since leaving the midwestern United States. “You sound like my yiayia,” they all say. You sound like my grandmother.

Unbeknownst to my non-native-Greek side of the family, we hadn’t been speaking the eloquent, modern Greek language of the young adults who live in Greece today. We’d been speaking with the flow, diction, and tone of Greece’s most overbearing old ladies.

This admittedly humiliating experience is not just a personal one. Speaking an “old” version of a language is actually a common global phenomenon, happening in immigrant communities in countries all over the world. In places where there was, but no longer is, a wave of immigration from a certain country—or even just a region—there begins a process of preservation.

The insulation of a new country and the relatively strict cut-off date from when the last immigrants arrived helps not to cultivate a new language, but to retain a way of speaking lost to time moving on. These slightly outdated forms of formal languages are being preserved in all parts of the world, with some immigrant communities becoming the only lifeline for dialects about to become extinct in their countries of origin.

***  Sometimes, the dialects are familiar. You don’t need to go back thousands of years or even hundreds, but merely just a few decades past—a half century or so—and think about how people spoke. Enter a community unchanged since that time, and it would sound strange, but it would be understandable and familiar. It wouldn’t be impossible to communicate—it would just feel like you were dropped into a film from the 1930s.

In other places, dialects have been preserved longer. The best example of this is Ciociaro, a distinct, several-centuries-old dialect of formal Italian, borne out of the rural region of Ciociaria in central Italy.

Similarly to other dialects spoken only in detached rural communities, over the past several decades Ciociaro has been spoken by fewer and fewer people in Ciociaria. Access to education now reaches well beyond urban and suburban areas, and the new generations of Ciociarians are learning to speak using the nationally-recognised language first and foremost.

Following on from this widened access to education, the Ciociario, which had been spoken by thousands of people over hundreds of years, has become in danger of extinction with few people left choosing to speak it, or even being able to speak it, in Ciociaria and across Italy.

On the opposite side of the world, however, Ciociaro is being preserved in a community of immigrants who speak it almost exclusively. That community is an Italian community in Sarnia, Ontario, a city in the southeast corner of Canada, just north of the US-Canadian border. Despite being thousands of miles away from Ciociaria itself, a mass influx of Italian immigration into Canada following the Second World War brought two and a half thousand Italian immigrants into Sarnia.

With laws at the time allowing immigrants to sponsor friends and relatives from back home to join them in their new country, this meant that not only could more immigrants come in a small span of time, but they were able to hail from the same regions.

This resulted in almost half of the Italians in Sarnia coming from the tiny Ciociaria region. And because there were so many Ciociaro speakers in Sarnia when they arrived, not only did the Ciociarians not have to learn to speak English, but they didn’t even have to traditional Italian. Which is why, 70 years later, Sarnia has a community of Ciociarians preserving this dying dialect in the face of its extinction.

*** It is true that this kind of language distillation is rare. More often than not, immigrant communities who hang on to their mother tongue create entirely new dialects that wouldn’t be familiar to speakers of either of the two languages that created it. These new dialectics of formal base languages are created all the time. It’s how we get hybrid languages and common, terribly-named things like “Spanglish.”

Just across other parts of Southeast Asia alone, for instance, there are ten different recognised varietals of Chinese language, largely diverging from Cantonese, with many countries accounting for more than one different kind of dialect variation of Chinese. “Overseas Chinese,” as it’s known, is rare not just for how widespread it is, but also for how well it’s recorded. When looking across the Pacific to different parts of North America, for examples, the dialectal divergences are so niche that it can vary even from city to city—much like my own Greek community in Ohio.

This brings us to the major problem in understanding how many of these new and preserved dialects actually exist in the world: tracking them all is near impossible. As of now, there is no country maintaining formal statistics on immigrant dialects, beyond formally tracking how many speakers they have of an already recognised language from particular immigrant groups’ home countries.

This is not out of a lack of want, but because the concrete marking of differences between languages is fraught with controversy. Linguists have been debating for centuries what should be called slang, what should be called its own language, and what diverges enough from those two ends of the spectrum to become merely a dialect. To come up with a metric to draw those theoretical lines, then set out to find these dialects—when many of them can exist in groups as small as a couple hundred people—makes for a challenging task.

 *** It’s also worth noting that much dialect formation doesn’t all come from happy-go-lucky, positive American Dream-style immigration stories—adding another reason as to why some dialect formations haven’t been tracked. Another well-documented dialect, with origins from non-native speakers, helps illustrate this. Caribbean Hindustani is a language predominantly developed out of South Asian slave trade to the Caribbean islands. The dialect is influenced by a huge number of languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Braj Bhasha, Dutch, Tamil, and French—to name a few.

The language, as you might have guessed, developed from the incredibly diverse number of languages and cultures swimming around the Caribbean islands at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th thanks to slave trade and colonisation. That influx of diverse languages all pushed together in such a highly-packed, small space made way for new ways of speaking with no one or two origins, but hybrids of tens of languages, dialects, and forms of slang from across the world. And—rare for this kind of language—Caribbean Hindustani has actually been recorded as recently as the late nineties, with Suriname boasting 150,000 Caribbean Hindustani speakers and Trinidad and Tobago boasting 15,600.

Dialect formation and preservation usually sounds like something out of a sci-fi film or a bad Hollywood adventure. We know this to be far from the reality, with new and old languages being created and maintained in communities every day and in likely every country in the world.

Yet how long this phenomenon will last is up for debate. With the increase of globalisation, formalised teaching of language, and increasing national and international identities, languages and dialects have become increasingly homogenous; dialects have become increasingly homogenous, with data from as recently as May 2016 showing that British dialects from the North East and the West Country being lost to southern English accents.

Those dialects that have been clinging on in immigrant communities are set up to fail as future generations ditch their the older generations’ abnormal tongues for mainstream ones of their own. With wider access to standardised education that introduces specific ways of speaking and wider access to the internet that exposes young people to a whole host of slang, terminology, and dialects that are not specific to particular regions (or even to particular languages), it's easy to see how these dialects may eventually be lost to globalisation.

But, for the time being, dialects continue to be formed and old languages continue to be insulated and preserved. And, in the name of that preservation, I’ll not force myself to learn modern Greek, but continue to speak to my fellow 20-somethings as though I’m their grandmother.