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 uniqueby Sarah Manavis / January 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
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.