Cypriots getting into bilingualism
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon May 16 15:53:13 UTC 2005
Cypriots start to bridge mutual language gulf
Thu May 12, 2005 08:13 AM ET Reuters
By Gill Tudor
APOSTOLOS ANDREAS MONASTERY, Cyprus (Reuters) - When it comes to
communicating, Murat Akin has a head start over most people on the divided
island of Cyprus. He can talk to the other side. By a historical quirk of
fate he speaks Greek as well as his native Turkish, giving him the edge in
selling trinkets to the busloads of Greek Cypriots who visit the Orthodox
monastery of Apostolos Andreas in the Turkish-speaking north of the
"I get a lot of work out of this. I can do business with the Greek
Cypriots," the 21-year-old said. Akin grew up near the monastery on the
isolated Karpaz peninsula, where some Greek Cypriots stayed on after the
effective partition of Cyprus in 1974. The son of immigrants from Turkey,
he learned Greek from his childhood friends. He is a rarity on an island
where most people have been sealed for decades in their own monolingual
bubble, with little immediate need or inclination to learn each other's
But despite numerous failed attempts at reunification, the Greek Cypriots'
entry into the European Union and Turkey's own EU hopes have kept peace
moves on the international agenda. And with the opening of the
U.N.-policed cease-fire line two years ago, a growing trickle of people
from both sides has started trying to bridge the language gap.
Historically, Greek and Turkish Cypriots used to live cheek by jowl.
Greek-speakers have always been far more numerous, but many villages and
towns were mixed and members of one community often knew at least a
smattering of the other's language. Over the years the island's Turkish
and Greek dialects developed a substantial shared vocabulary and even a
similar accent -- to the untutored ear they can sound strangely alike.
But inter-communal violence in the 1960s drove a wedge between the two
groups and brought physical segregation. "After 1963 Nicosia was
completely divided -- I never had any chance to meet Greek Cypriots and I
can't speak any Greek at all," said Bulent Kanol of the Management Center,
a Turkish Cypriot non-profit body that promotes cross-border ties.
The de facto partition in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a brief
Greek Cypriot coup aimed at union with Greece, sealed the separation.
Nearly all Greek Cypriots ended up in the South, and Turkish Cypriots in
the North. Nowadays hardly anyone in the North speaks any Greek, nor
southerners any Turkish. Those who do are mostly elderly. English, the
former colonial tongue, is still technically one of three official
languages, but for most Cypriots it is far from being a viable lingua
Kanol said the scale of the communication gap became clear when the
cease-fire line was opened in April 2003, allowing each side to visit the
other for the first time in 29 years. "One of the basic difficulties in
Cyprus for proper dialogue between the two communities is the language
problem," he said. That's when demand for language lessons started rising,
and several organizations on both sides took up the cue.
Kanol said some 150 people had enrolled for his center's Greek classes,
and there were more applicants than places. "Some people want it for
day-to-day relations with Greek Cypriots, but it's mostly for business and
job prospects," he said, noting that many students were hoping for the
chance to work in federal institutions in a future united Cyprus.
Most people agree more Turkish Cypriots are studying Greek than the other
way around, for practical reasons: They are in the minority and at a stark
economic disadvantage after years of international sanctions against their
breakaway territory. But interest has risen in the South too, although
enthusiasm abated slightly after an initial rush.
"The way they structure their sentences made it quite hard, but there are
a lot of words and expressions that we use," said 35-year-old office
worker Maria Neophytou. Niyazi Kizilyurek, head of Turkish Studies at the
University of Cyprus in south Nicosia, said the department had expanded
its intake this year by about one-quarter. The university will soon offer
Turkish as an elective course for those studying other subjects, and lay
on extra-mural classes for non-students.
"It's a mixture of curiosity, interest and job security," he said.
"Cypriots are just starting to get into bilingualism." Back in the North,
students taking beginners' Greek at the Management Center said they were
spurred by intellectual interest and a simple desire to communicate with
"My generation thinks about peace more," said sociologist Ayca Kurnaz, 24.
"We want to have friends on the other side." (Additional reporting by
Michele Kambas in Nicosia)
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