How much do Cypriots value their mother-tongue? Seminar Sonia Cristofi, 23-10-2014

Written by: Christopher Houtkamp

On the 23th of October 2014, the Humanities faculty of the University of Amsterdam had the pleasure to invite prospective PhD-candidate Sonia Cristofi. Sonia hails from Cyprus, where she studied French language and culture. After having finalised her studies at the University of Montpellier, Sonia worked as a translator for several years and taught ‘French as a second language (FLE)’ at the Alliance Française on Cyprus. However, a combination of keen academic interest and a genuine motivation to ‘save’ her mother-tongue ‘Kypriaka’ from extinction, called her back to academia. Right now, she is trying to obtain a PhD-position under supervision of prof. dr. Federico Gobbo, professor by special appointment of Interlinguistics and Esperanto.

Sonia is thus, as already hinted, writing a PhD-proposal on the role of Kypriaka on Cyprus. As most readers probably already know, Cyprus is de facto divided in two parts. Since the island’s independence in 1960 (Cyprus is a former British colony), some Greek-Cypriots expressed the desire to unify with Greece. Turkish-Cypriots however did not find the prospect of living in Greece appealing.  After a coup by the Greek military Junta in 1974, Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus to prevent its unification with Greece. Ever since, Cyprus has only been a unified country in name, a situation which persists until this very day. Despite being very small (approximately 1.2 million inhabitants in 2011), Cyprus can be considered a centre of geopolitical conflict.

Kypriaka (or ‘cypriot-greek’) is the dialect that is spoken by the Cypriot-Greeks, whilst the Cypriot-Turks speak Kıbrıs Türkçesi (Cypriot-Turkish). The island’s official languages are Greek (in the south) and Turkish (in the north), whilst it recognises Armenian and Cypriot-Arabic as minority languages. Cypriot-Greeks represent the vast majority of Cyprus’ population (70%). However, despite the fact that Kypriaka speakers have a numerical advantage on the island itself, their language seems under threat of extinction. We have to emphasise ‘seems’ here, since data on the active use of Kypriaka is scarce. Sonia’s research aims to change this. She wishes to conduct quantitative and qualitative field-work on Cyprus in order to investigate when and how often Cypriots speak Kypriaka. In order words, she wishes to analyse the linguistic reality of Cyprus and determine how much Greek-Cypriots value their mother-tongue. Sonia then wishes to translate her findings into practical policy solutions for the Cypriot-government, hoping that the revival of the dialect will bring the unity of Cyprus a step closer.

The audience expressed a great interest in Sonia’s research-plans and the situation on Cyprus, and proceeded to ask her questions on both topics. After a fruitful discussion, some ideas to improve her plans were suggested. For example, maybe Sonia could not only focus on the usage of Kypriaka on Cyprus itself, but also look at the linguistic reality of diaspora communities. Analysing the differences between these two groups could yield interesting results. Furthermore, she was advised to handle the sensitive geopolitical situation with great care, especially when presenting her policy solutions. Language-policy is almost always connected to power and geopolitics, especially in a country that is currently being torn apart by two bigger states. This political reality makes Cyprus a tricky, but at the same time extremely interesting case-study for linguistic scholars. It will be interesting to see how Sonia’s research will develop and what kind of impact it will have on the political situation.