As many of you may have guessed by now, I have an unquenched curiosity for history and minority languages. Whilst on my travels, I had the august pleasure of visiting the city of Lecce in southern Italy and driving around the surrounding area (namely the pennisula of Salento) and the easterly parts of the province of Puglia. What strikes one about this area is its glorious natural beauty, breathtaking in a very literal sense; its delectable food and wine; and exquisitely rich culture.
Salento is a hidden gem for a number of reasons. Santa Maria di Leuca, the picturesque little town at the tip of the pennisula, witnesses the meeting of two seas: the Adriatic and the Ionian and, in a sense, symbolises the history and heritage of Salento. The Adriatic has always been equated with the Romans, the Italians and their respective cultures whereas the Ionian with the Greeks and their culture. Salento is a meeting of these two cultures.
The southern part of Italy, including Salento, had been colonised by the Greeks since the 8th century BCE, although some sources claim that there was a Greek presence in Italy as early as the 7th century BCE. Southern Italy was a part of the Byzantine Empire for several centuries and, as such, experienced a large influx of Greek speakers. The Catepanate of Italy, as it was called, then witnessed the formation of a distinct Greek community.
Although Salento is now thoroughly Italian, traces of its former Greek culture permeate to the surface. In several villages that lie between the city of Lecce and the town of Maglie, a dialect of Greek is still spoken today nearly a thousand years after the end of the reign of the last Italian Catepan, Mabrikias, in 1069. The Griko language centres around nine towns (united together in the Unione dei Comuni della Grecìa Salentina) in which some of their inhabitants speak Griko.
Minoranze Grike dell’Etnia Griko-Salentina
As always, numbers vary but there are said to be between 10,000 and 15,000 speakers of Griko (this includes Grecìa Salentina and Grecìa Calabra, in Calabria). Grecìa Salentina comprises the towns of Martano, Calimera, Corigliano d’Otranto, Soleto, Castrignano de’ Greci, Sternatia, Melpignano, Zollino and Martignano (in order of size) whereas there seem to be very few, if any, native speakers of Griko in Grecìa Calabra (around 2,000 speak the language here).
Fortunately, the EU seems to be supporting the language and the Italian parliament even recognises people of Griko-Salentinian ethnicity, which seems to be a rather quirky little construct. However, the future for Griko seems precarious. Grecìa Calabra is a lost linguistic community to all intents and purposes. Grecìa Salentina will, in effect, be the place where Griko makes its last stand. With a decreasing young population it could be difficult but the hope is that with EU support Griko might still live to fight another day.