Monday, March 9, 2020

Two Languages in a Divided Country: The Linguistic Diversity of Cyprus

by Dorothea Christophorou

Dorothea Christophorou is a senior in Political Science and communication at The University of Illinois. Dorothea’s future plans include working in Chicago with non-governmental organizations. Dorothea wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in spring 2019.

Situated in the far eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Cyprus has a unique geopolitical position at the crossroads of three continents (Europe, Africa, Asia) and at the meeting point of great civilizations. A small island which became an independent country only in 1960, it has had a long and turbulent history.

Throughout its history, Cyprus has been conquered by Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Arabs, the Venetians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Ottoman Turks and the British. They all left their historical, architectural, cultural and linguistic influences on the island, some of which remain to this day. Among all its conquerors, the Greeks, the Ottoman Turks and the British have left their mark the most, impacting and shaping the island’s demographics. When Cyprus gained its independence from the British in 1960, it had a population of 572,000 people, consisting of 77% Greek Cypriots, 18% Turkish Cypriots and 5% Maronites, Armenians, Latins, British and others. Both Greece and Turkey had a long-established status as the “mother countries” in relation to their respective Cypriot communities, and Great Britain was Cyprus’ last conqueror. Consequently, the constitution stipulated that Greek and Turkish were the official languages of the island, while the English language was widely used and spoken as a “third” language. Furthermore, the small Armenian community maintained its own language (Armenian), while also using the Greek language to communicate with the Greek-speaking population. It is interesting to note that both the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities spoke (and still speak) a unique dialect of their respective languages. Even though the written Greek language is identical for the Cypriots and mainland Greece Greeks alike (the same holds true for the Turkish language for the Turkish Cypriots and the mainland Turks), the spoken varieties can be characterized as different dialects that add some unique elements to Cyprus’ linguistic wealth.

Between 1960-1974 the two main communities coexisted peacefully, overall, despite periods of intense and violent bi-communal conflicts. Regardless of the existence of two distinct main languages (Greek and Turkish) spoken exclusively within their respective communities, they also shared common pronunciation patterns and words. These commonalities aided in the communication on the island, particularly in small villages and towns, where both communities co-habited. Older generations found ways to interact and exchange words, despite their differences, and tried to communicate in each other’s languages. For example, the word “bag” in Greek is “τσάντα”, while in Turkish it is “canta” pronounced the same way. This allowed for language functionality and provided a way to facilitate a sense of commonality between Greek and Turkish Cypriots despite their differences.

After 1974, the new political realities prevailing on the island caused a permanent change in the demographic and ethnic characteristics of Cyprus, including the language interaction between the two communities. The Turkish Cypriots who used to reside in the south part of the island (now the Greek-Cypriot government-controlled area) moved to the Turkish-controlled northern part of the island. The Greek Cypriot residents of the invaded part of Cyprus fled to the south part during the invasion to save their lives. The result was a country divided and two communities isolated from each other.

Nicosia, the capital (pictured above), is now a divided city separating the two communities. This division has had several effects. The multilingualism that existed on the island disappeared, with monolingual language policies being implemented by the Greek-Cypriot government. With no political recognition from the international community given to the Turkish-occupied north side of the island, the Cyprus government has now proceeded to implement policies that focus on Greek-Cypriot and almost none that focus on the Turkish-Cypriot. Even though many government documents are available in Turkish-Cypriot to this day, it is uncommon for anyone living in the south to request them. 

Source: Flickr Creative Commons 
The language initiatives in Cyprus have been mostly left to non-governmental organizations and to some activists who attempt to foster some of the communication that used to exist on the island before the war. In 2003, one of the dual secondary schools in Nicosia, the English School, began re-admitting Turkish-Cypriot students. In the mid-2000s, the Ministry of Education and Culture in Cyprus began recognizing the necessity of language diversity and inclusion. Training Centers all over the country are now open to Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots alike to learn about the language and culture, community and society (Ministry of Education and Culture). The fact that more policies have been implemented shows that the language policies in Cyprus have begun to shift. Albeit slow, these changes might lead to some increased mutual feelings on the island amongst the two communities that harbor 45 years’ worth of painful (?) separation.

Works Cited

Xenia Hadjioannou, Stavroula Tsiplakou & with a contribution by Matthias Kappler (2011) Language policy and language planning in Cyprus, Current Issues in Language Planning, 12:4, 503-569, DOI: 10.1080/14664208.2011.629113

Ministry of Education and Culture, A guide to education in Cyprus


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