The Griko and Arberesh Communities of Southern Italy

By: Stephen Pepe

Introduction

While Italy has a robust culture of its own, it is not always thought out as being culturally diverse. And while it may be a bit homogeneous compared to countries like the U.S. and U.K, many cultural and linguistic minorities have been historically present and are currently present in Italy. These minorities contribute to the many languages and dialects heard through Italy and contribute to the identity of the country as a whole. Specifically, this paper will give light to two, often-forgotten linguistic minorities in the southern regions of Italy: the Arbereshe and Griko.

The Arbereshe

The Arbereshe are an ethnolinguistic group of Christian Albanians who have had roots in southern Italy for hundreds of years. There are estimated to be roughly 50 settlements left of Arbereshe Albanians scattered throughout mountainous areas in the southern Italian regions of Abruzzi, Molise, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily. 

A look into an Arbereshe village in Calabria

The Arbereshe came in several waves of migration. The community began to take shape in the early 13th century when Albanians were used as mercenaries in wars fought on Italian soil and settled afterwards. One of the bigger influxes came in the 15th century when Gjeorgj Skanderberg, an Albanian chieftain who unified Albanian tribes against Ottoman invasion, reached an agreement with the Pope that his people may reside in Italy upon further beratement from the Ottomans. Their first settlements were in Puglia. They resembled colonies in the sense that villages were all Albanian and their customs and language remained entirely Albanian for some time. The community was then cut in half in the early 1900s, when Arbereshe immigrated to the United States in high numbers. But this loss was largely cancelled out a century later when Albanians began immigrating to Arbereshe communities in 1990, after the fall of communism in their homeland. Today, there are estimated to be approximately 100,000 Arbereshe Albanians residing in these 50 communities. 

The Arbereshe community’s relationship with the Italian government hasn’t always been perfect. During feudal times, certain communities would rise up against the systems in place, but these did not amount to anything. Additionally during Italian unification attempts in the 1850s, all linguistic minorities were subject to laws pushing a common language and religion. But these laws had little effect on linguistic minorities in Italy. So, all things considered, it seems Italy has been a kind home to the Arberesh through the centuries. The community has largely been free to speak their language, practice their religion, and embrace their traditions since their settlement. 

An example of Arberisht

The Arbereshe speak Arberisht as their language, but almost all living in Italy are fluent in Italian. The language is a derivation of the Tosk dialect of Southern Albania, though it has become somewhat unrecognizable from that as the language has evolved through the years. It uses the same alphabet as modern Albanian, but experts say that the language is more archaic. An Albanian listening to Arberisht would resemble an English speaker listening to Shakespeare. It’s an almost medieval form of the language. The language is, however, at a crossroads. While historians and Arbereshe both want the preservation of the language, the simple fact is that it is much easier for Arbereshe people to speak mostly Italian while living there. The villages of Arbereshe are also spread apart which limits the development of the language. There are, however, efforts to keep the language alive in Arbereshe communities through implementation of language courses in the school curriculum.

An Arbereshe man speaks on the importance of keeping the language alive

As for the way of life in Arbereshe communities, they are not all two different from standard Italian villages in the same area. The locals refer to the neighborhoods in these communities as gjitonia and most are built with buildings facing out diagonally toward a square. The cuisine is a unique mixture of Italian and Albanian. For example, a traditional dish is Strangujët, which is essentially a simple gnocchi and tomato sauce, while another dish, Verdhët, resembles a shepherd’s pie,  much more likely to be found in Albania. Religiously, Arbereshe people are typically part of the Italo-Albanian Church, a sub-sect of Eastern Christianity. 

The Griko

A band playing traditional Griko music

The Griko people, sometimes referred to as Grecanici in Italy, are an ethnic Greek community found in the southern regions of Italy. While the Arbereshe were spread out throughout the south, the Griko are concentrated mainly in villages in the regions of Puglia and Calabria. Also unlike the Arbereshe, Griko people are formally recognized by the Italian government as an ethnic and linguistic minority. There are about 80,000 total Griko left in Italy.

A cultural overview of Griko communities

The Griko people came to Italy in separate waves of migration, some dating back to prehistoric times with ancestors in the ancient Greek empire. Others came during the Gothic War of the Middle Ages, escaping violence in their native lands as the Byzantine Empire ruled over Italy. In fact, towards the end of the middle ages, migration had become so prominent that regions like Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily had Greek as their main language. Though it is important to keep in mind that Italy obviously did not exist in a unified state during that period. Up until the 16th century, one could argue that these regions were dominated by Griko people. However, it was at this time that measures were brought in place that limited their influence. Namely, Italy saw a process of Catholicization and Latinization take off. This largely diminished the language and religion of the Griko people. After this transformation in Italy, the Grikos were reduced to their current locations in Puglia and Calabria and often ostracized as being backwards when they spoke their dialect. Though even through this tough time, Griko people kept their traditions and culture alive. 

The Griko language is a Greek dialect known as Katoitaliotika. In Greek, this quite literally translates to Southern Italian. Different forms of Katoitaliotika are spoken by Grikos in Puglia and Calabria. Katoitaliotika shares many common aspects with ancient Greek. It is similar in sound and grammar. Katoitaliotika is endangered, however. The language has dwindled down to being spoken by just 20,000 people in these regions of Italy. Most of these speakers are elderly. And while Griko culture is being preserved to an extent, it seems as though the language is not being successfully passed down to younger generations at the moment. There is no outlet for the teaching of the language through school or church. Therefore, the preservation of the language has come down entirely to parents passing it on to their children. And despite Italy’s recognition of Griko as a linguistic minority, this designation is largely for show and does nothing to further the actual preservation of the language.

A Griko man speaking Katoitaliotika dialect

Griko people also have rich traditions in music, literature, and art. Every year in Melpignano, the famous Notte della Taranta, a musical festival where Pizzica and Griko music is played, is held and thousands come out to enjoy. Griko cuisine does not differ greatly from local cuisine; however, local cuisine in Puglia and Calabria have many Greek influences introduced by the Griko people. Furthermore, the Griko people are mostly Catholic, which is quite different than the Greek mainland, where most follow some form of Chirsitan orthodoxy. But while the Griko have assimilated religiously, they still hold traditions in clothing, donning traditional greek attire. 

Conclusion

The Arbereshe and Griko people add to the already rich cultural heritage of Italy as a nation. Both groups have roots in the country that date centuries back. In terms of Italian identity, they are “as Italian” as anyone and have helped build Italy along with the nation’s many other ethnic groups. But while both groups embrace the Italian way of life, it is important that the government do the same for them and support both groups in efforts to keep their cultural and linguistic identities alive.

References:

“Albanians.” Minority Rights Group, 6 Sept. 2018, minorityrights.org/minorities/albanians-2/. 

Christo, Van, and Van Christo. The Frosina Information Network, 7 Dec. 2008, http://www.frosina.org/the-arberesh-the-christian-albanian-emigration-to-italy/. 

Clark Lucia. “On the Brink: Griko; A Language of Resistance and Celebration.” Cultural Survival, 1 June 2001, http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/brink-griko-language-resistance-and-celebration. 

Cotsis, Billy. “Calimera from Magna Graecia and the Griko People of Apulia.” NEOS KOSMOS, 7 Jan. 2020, neoskosmos.com/en/155595/calimera-from-magna-graecia-and-the-griko-people-of-apulia/. 

“Greek-Speakers.” Minority Rights Group, 6 Sept. 2018, minorityrights.org/minorities/greek-speakers/. 

Prato, Giuliana  B. “Chapter 5: Minorities in Italy: The Case of the Arberesh and Albanian Migrations.” Beyong Multiculturalism: Views from Anthropology, Routledge, Taylor, And Francis Group , 2009, pp. 79–88. 

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