Sarakatsanoi in traditional costumes
I come from a kind of bilingual family. Why do I say “a kind of”? My dad belongs to a minority in Bulgaria called Sarakatsani. (“Каракачани” in Bulgarian and “Σαρακατσάνοι” in Greek). Their mother tongue is the Sarakatsani Greek dialect. My mom speaks only Bulgarian language, which was also the prevailing language at home. We were mainly speaking Bulgarian, unless my father’s parents were around. They, as most people of age from the minority, knew very little Bulgarian and were speaking mainly the dialect. So, on one hand, I was speaking Bulgarian with my parents, friends and other people, watching Bulgarian TV, reading Bulgarian books. There were no books for bilingual children at that time, not to mention that there was no internet, nor blogs which help parents raise their bilingual kids. On the other hand, I was using the Sarakatsani dialect with my grandparents and all other relatives from my father’s side. And believe me, they were (and still are) a lot! A typical Sarakatsani family is usually much bigger than a Bulgarian one. This means that I have lots of aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives who speak the dialect.
What did knowing a Greek dialect help me with?
Switching Fast Between Languages
(which also means interpreting for my mom in many cases)
As I mentioned above, my mom speaks only Bulgarian language. She understood almost nothing of what was being said when my father was speaking with his relatives (including his parents, brother and sister). I believe various family gatherings such as engagements, weddings and other events where everyone was using the dialect, were tiring for my mother. In such cases I was “interpreting” for her, telling her who said what.
Getting Acquainted With Sounds Not Existing In Bulgarian Language
There are couple of phonemes in Greek (and its dialects) which do not exist in Bulgarian language: [γ] (this is how it is pronounced) , [θ] which is “th” as you “thank you” and [δ] which is “th” as in “them”. These sounds could be quite difficult for most Bulgarians to pronounce. As the Sarakatsani dialect was native to me, I don’t remember facing any difficulties with the pronunciation of the above. What’s more important, later on, when I started studying English, I’ve never found it difficult to articulate the English phonemes “th”, as they are almost the same as the Greek ones.
Studying Greek Language at University
You may ask why I studied Greek at University, if I had already known a Greek dialect. Well, what I had known until then was a form of the language which is colloquial and has a limited vocabulary. Moreover, none of us, the native speakers of the Sarakatsani dialect, knew how to write Greek (only later classes of official Greek language were introduced as a selective subject in primary schools in cities where our minority was mainly living in). In order to understand how different the Sarakatsani dialect and official Greek language are, I need to tell you that I did not understand almost anything when trying to watch a Greek TV channel, for example. So, I was studied Modern Greek Philology in University and knowing our Greek dialect helped me a lot. It gave me an invaluable advantage in comparison to my fellow students. They had to start from scratch and get acquainted with pronunciation, rhythm of language, grammar structures. I knew more or less all these.
Developing an Interest For Other Dialects
Sarakatsani dialect is not the only dialect of Greek language. There are many other dialects, such as Pontic Greek, Cypriot Greek, Tsakonian, just to name a few. Knowing one of them, make you develop an interest for the rest, or this is at least what happened with me. Very often, when I hear people speaking Pontic Greek, I start comparing it with Sarakatsani and try to find similarities or common patterns. The same is valid for Cypriot Greek, which I have closer relationship with now.
Understanding Other Cultures
We all know that a second language opens new doors for us. It unveils traditions, beliefs and cultures not known to us previously. It makes us more open to other people and unfamiliar life styles.
You can always visit another country and try to communicate in English. In some countries (like Cyprus for example, where most people speak English) this is easy. In other countries, especially in smaller cities few people know foreign languages and tourists may find it difficult to interact with the local population. It is quite different when you know the local language (or even one of its dialects). The first time I visited Greece, I was 7. I knew no English at that time. If I hadn’t spoken the Sarakatsani dialect, I wouldn’t have been able to speak to other children, to buy ice cream, to ask a waiter for extra cheese in order to feed a stray cat, mewing next to me in a small tavern. 🙂
Finally, I have an old post in Greek language where I describe my experience with the Sarakatsani dialect: Τα σαρακατσάνικα και εγώ