How music is keeping one southern Italian dialect alive

Italy's Griko dialects are classed as endangered by the European Union and Unesco. But could folk music be the secret to keeping them alive? Greece-born Italian student Constantinos Orphanos investigates the languages' past and perilous future.

How music is keeping one southern Italian dialect alive
The PaleaRiza Festival in Calabria. Photo: piervincenzocanale/Flickr

The historic dialect of Southern Italy, spoken by the Griko people, is on the verge of extinction.

However, it's still alive – largely thanks to the music associated with it. 

Also known as Salentino-Calabrian Greek, Griko or Italiot Greek is an umbrella-term for two distinctive dialects: Griko, spoken in Salento, and Calabrian Greek, still present in Southern Calabria. Both dialects are usually referred to simply as 'Griko'.

Partially intelligible with Modern Greek, its exact origins are unclear even to academics with expertise in the area.

Historians and linguists have put forward several hypotheses, linking the dialects with Ancient Greece and Magna Grecia or with the Byzantine Empire, but none of these theories has been proven.

But wherever its Greek-ness came from, Griko has also been heavily influenced by the Italian Language, and speakers use both the Greek and Latin alphabets.

For instance, the Griko word for family ('famija') sounds nothing like the Modern Greek word 'oikogeneia/οικογένεια' but bears a resemblance to the Italian 'famiglia'.

The number of Griko speakers, largely confined to Salento's ethnic Greek community, has been continuously declining. Its use is limited to the Lecce Province in southern Apulia and a few small villages near Reggio di Calabria – in the toe and heel of Italy's boot – most of which have a Griko name as well as an Italian one.

What's more, most active speakers are aged over 50, with the younger generation relying on Italian. Barely any children are thought to speak or even understand Griko. In total, fewer than 20,000 people are thought to speak the dialects.

Both dialects were included in the list of endangered languages published by UNESCO and were classified as “severely endangered”, and recently, the European Union granted them 'endangered language' status.

In 1999, the Griko communities of Calabria and Salento were recognized by the Italian parliament as a Greek ethnic and linguistic minority that is protected by the Republic. 

Serious efforts have been made in recent years by several local associations (such as Enosi Griko and the Griko Milume Association to raise awareness and preserve its existence, for example sharing vocabulary lists and grammar lessons online and organizing Griko courses in collaboration with schools.


But with so few speakers and limited subsidies from the government, the future of the dialects seems inescapably bleak.

The main hope for its future can be found in its music.

Unlike Griko itself, Griko folk music continues to be remarkably popular in Greece, whereas in Italy it has received limited attention and, apart from Salento and parts of Calabria, most Italians are not even aware of its existence.

Roberto Licci founded the musical group Ghetonia, one of Salento's best-known folk music groups, in 1992. He told The Local: “Griko is still surviving and there is greater awareness, but people do not use it in their daily lives. The economic situation of local authorities in Salento is not that good, so there are not enough funds to support those activities.”

“Even in Bari or Northern Lecce , people are not necessarily familiar with Griko or Griko music” says Licci.

However, plenty of artists are enthusiastic about promoting Griko music and the culture it represents, and once you know where to look, it's not hard to find one of the festivals celebrating Griko folk traditions.

La Notte della Taranta is one of the most popular folk music festivals in the region, held each summer. Since 1998, it has featured a lineup of different local artists, including Ghetonia and other Griko bands.

Another well-known festival is PaleaRiza Festival, held in Bova Marina, Calabria. Found in 1997, the festival aims at uniting the the local Griko culture with the rest of the Mediterranean and promoting Griko music in general.

A Griko song, The word Kalinifta means good night in Griko

So Griko,a dialect that has fallen victim to the Italianization, owes its survival to its rich musical culture.

Could music rescue the dialect from extinction? It remains to be seen, but let’s hope that the 'goodnight' message of Kalinifta, which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written in Griko, is not an omen of the dialect’s future.

Born and raised in Greece, Constantinos Orphanos is currently living and studying French & Italian Law in Paris, France. He started learning Italian in primary school and has been a huge admirer of Italian culture and politics ever since. 

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.