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THE VLACHS

General data on the language

Vlachs are those whose mother tongue is Vlachika (name in Greek -ÂëÜ÷éêá- for both Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian)/ Arminesti (name in the Aromanian language) -we lack information on how Megleno-Romanians call their language in their language-; most linguists use the terms Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian for these two languages. Both languages belong to the linguistic family of East Romance languages, and, within it, to the linguistic group of Balkan Romance: the latter includes the Northern dialects Daco-Romanian (the base of modern Romanian) and Istro-Romanian; and the Southern dialects Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian. ‘Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian are linguistically considerably different from standard Romanian: mutual intelligibility is not always simple’ (Trudgill, 1994:12).

There are two Vlach languages in Greece: Megleno-Romanian spoken by a population (calling itself Vlasi in their language) concentrated in an area in the North of Greece and across the border in Macedonia and Bulgaria; and Aromanian (spoken by people calling themselves Armini in their language) with many dialects spoken by Vlachs throughout Northern Greece but also in Albania and Macedonia. One such dialect is very influenced by Albanian: its speakers are known as Arvanitovlachoi (in Greek) or Farseriots. Otherwise Aromanian has a great dialectical variety, mainly according to the geographical area where it is spoken. Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian have evolved from the neo-Latin or Proto-Romance dialects spoken in the Balkans, mentioned since at least the VI century (Wace-Thompson, 1989:2; Katsanis et al., 1990:17-8). Along with Arvanites, Macedonians, and Roma, Vlachs argue whether they should write their language (‘today all Kutzovlachs know their language is not written’ -Katsanis, 1989:2), which does not have a rich written tradition; if written, they argue whether they should use the Greek or the Latin alphabet. Before the development of the Latin-based Romanian alphabet, the few Aromanian texts used the Greek alphabet, just as the Romanian texts used the Cyrillic one. Afterwards and through today, the large majority of texts that are available in Vlach use the Latin alphabet.

Megleno-Romanians have traditionally lived in the Kilkis and Pella departments near the border with Macedonia and Bulgaria, and in the adjacent areas of these latter countries. Aromanians have traditionally lived throughout Northern Greece, in most departments of Macedonia, Thessaly and Epirus, as well as in the Etolia and Akarnania and the Fthiotida departments of Central Greece. The largest concentration of Vlach population has been in the Pindos mountain that separates Epirus from Thessaly and Macedonia. Aromanians have traditionally also lived in Albania and in (former Yugoslav) Macedonia, while some moved to Romania in the XX century, which has a -recognized- Aromanian minority. Like the rest of the population, since the 1950s, Vlachs have been emigrating from their villages to the cities and especially the capital, Athens. Many Vlachs return to the villages during the summer. It appears that urbanization has been leading to the loss of the use of the language, which has been surviving more in the traditional villages. Traditionally Vlachs had been shepherds and wood-workers.

There have not been any official statistics on this as well as on any other minority group in Greece since 1951. Today, the best estimate for the people who speak the language and/or have a Vlach consciousness is that they number around 200,000. Hill 1990:135) estimates them at 150,000-200,000 and Dahmen (1994:3) at 200,000-300,000. Other estimates of people with some relation to the community range from 50,000-1,200,000, the higher figures coming from members of the community. The very nationalistic daily newspaper Eleftheros Typos, in presenting the 1994 Vlach festival, estimated the size of this ‘very genuine part of Hellenism’ at 500,000 (8 July 1994). The high figures may correspond to all Greeks who have some Vlach ancestry, but certainly not to the current speakers and those with a similar consciousness. As with all other minority languages except Turkish, Vlachika has no legal status in Greece and is not taught at any level of the educational system (except the study of the language in a course on neo-Latin languages at the University of Salonica). However, after the Balkan Wars, Greece officially recognized the Vlachs as a minority: certainly an ethnic, if not a national one. The recognition took the form of a formal exchange of letters between the Greek and the Romanian Prime Ministers, that were subsequently attached to the Treaty of Bucarest (1913). Greece had then committed itself to grant autonomy to the ‘Kutzovlach’ schools and churches and to allow the establishment of a special diocese for them; at the same time, it recognized the right of the Romanian government to subsidize the Vlach institutions (Averoff, 1992:66). In fact, only the functioning of the ‘Romanian’ schools was allowed in the interwar period. Nevertheless, in that period, the Greek Foreign Ministry considered the Vlachs without Greek consciousness as a non-Greek ethnic (‘áëëïåèíÞ’) minority, along with other such minorities; and so did the dictator Metaxas himself, when he wrote of ‘foreign elements’ that need be ‘Hellenized’ (Divani, 1995:107 &117-8). Through 1951, too, Vlach was acknowledged in Greek census statistics, but the figures vastly underestimated the number of speakers: they tended to reflect the number of minority speakers with a strong non-Greek identity (for the figures on Vlachs see Averoff, 1992:19-20). Since the 1950s, there is no official policy towards the language, except the discouraging of its use by many means.

Moreover, there are no media in Vlachika, but only some Vlach songs and folk stories sometimes aired by radio stations. Vlachs are Orthodox Christians; their church services are nowadays all held in Greek. Their main cultural activity is an annual ‘reunion’ (áíôÜìùìá) cultural festival since 1984, organized by the Panhellenic Union of Vlach Cultural Associations, with 29 regional associations. Moreover, local festivals and some congresses have been organized.

 

History of the community and the language

Although some have claimed that Vlachs have moved to what is today Greek territory from as far north as the Danube, or that they are the descendants of Roman settlers (views surveyed by Lazarou, 1986:135-148), most authors agree today that Vlachs are Latinized indigenous populations: the disagreement that persists concerns whether the Latinized populations were Greek or -perhaps and most likely-, as most authors argue, non-Greek (Lazarou, 1986:87; Wace & Thompson, 1989:272-6; Berard, 1987:292-295; Bickford-Smith, 1993:48; Padioti, 1991:vii; Katsanis et al., 1990:18; Nakratzas, 1988:69; Banac, 1992:42).

The earlier known references to the Vlach language date from the VI century (Wace & Thomson, 1989:2). In the Middle Ages, Vlachs established their own states in Great Vallachia (in Thessaly and Southern Macedonia) and Little Vallachia (in Etolia-Akarnania and Southern Epirus), in the XI and XII centuries (Dahmen, 1994:3; Berard, 1987:296); later on, they formed the basis of and provided the rulers to the ‘Second Bulgarian Kingdom’ or ‘Kingdom of Vlachs and Bulgarians’ (1185-1260), which at one point incorporated Great Vallachia. The latter survived the kingdom’s collapse as an autonomous area through the XIV century; then, and for some four centuries, little is known about the Vlachs who, as Orthodox Christians, belonged to the Greek-dominated Orthodox millet (= nationality) in the Ottoman Empire. Modern Vlachs are sometimes called Kutzovlachs (= Vlachs from Little Vallachia) or Burtzovlachs (= Vlachs from Great Vallachia), terms which have acquired demeaning connotations (Papathanasiou, 1991:25; Lazarou, 1986:62).

The above mainly refer to the Aromanians. Very little has been written about the Megleno-Romanians, who are supposed to be descendants of the Turkic Pechenegs (Nakratzas, 1988:85-6; Lazarou, 1986:133; Winnifrith, 1987:23); today, they are the only Vlachs who call themselves Vlasi in their own language.

In the XIX century, Vlachs first rose against Turks, participating in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828) and provided many of its leaders. Subsequently, the Greek state benefited from very generous donations of prominent Vlachs who had made fortunes in Europe. Until then, Vlachs were thought of as Vlachophone Greeks: when the first textbooks of Aromanian using the Latin alphabet appeared in early XIX century, they were practically ignored by Vlachs (Lazarou, 1986:200-3). Following the emergence of Romanian nationalism in the mid-XIX century, however, there was an effort to create a Romanian, or at least a distinct, non-Greek, national consciousness among Vlachs in the Southern Balkans. The movement started in the Pindos area in the 1860s, but was quickly recuperated by (then still autonomous) Romania. A multitude of Aromanian textbooks using the Latin alphabet were published (Lazarou, 1986:204-206). Romanian schools were created in the Vlach areas of the Ottoman Empire, but the most prosperous Vlach families continued to favor a Greek education and a Graecophile attitude, even despising those who did not follow their line; nevertheless, a considerable number of Vlachs, mostly among the transhumant shepherds, acquired a separate, if not Romanian, identity thanks to these efforts (Dahmen, 1994:8; Wace & Thompson, 1989:8; Averoff 1992:30 & 67; Poulton, 1995:61). Thessaly’s annexation by Greece in 1881 led to a serious crisis in many Vlach families which were henceforth prevented from freely crossing the new border, a move necessary for those of them who were shepherds.

In the first years of the XX century, the Ottomans recognized the Vlachs as a separate millet (1905), allowing them to officially have their own churches which they had already created in the preceding twenty years. The conflict over the allegiance of the Vlachs became one aspect of the general ‘Macedonian struggle’ of the 1900’s. The irregular Greek military units in Macedonia and Epirus had orders to treat as hostile the Romanian schools and villages, just like the Bulgarian ones: schools were burned down, Romanophile Vlachs were murdered, and the strength of the Romanian influence among Vlachs was weakened as a result, as it was also clear that Romania had no chance of ever annexing Macedonian territories (Wace & Thompson, 1989:9; Averoff 1992:59-61 & 184-189; Dahmen, 1994:4; MRG, 1990:131).

After the Balkan Wars, the Vlachs, like Macedonian Slavs and Pomaks, found themselves divided in four different states (Albania, Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria): an effort to create an autonomous Vlach state in the Italian-held Korce area of Albania was stillborn in 1918. Nevertheless, Greece recognized officially the Vlachs as a minority, by an exchange of letters between the Greek and the Romanian Prime Ministers which were appended to the Treaty of Bucarest (1913). On the basis of that Treaty, schools with Romanian subsidies operated in Greece through the end of World War II, when communist Romania lost its interest in the Vlachs. Nevertheless, very few Vlachs sent their children to these schools (a few hundreds -Averoff, 1992:70-1), because such choices were perceived as an indication of anti-Greek attitude by both the state (which subsequently banished many of their graduates during the World War II) and the leading Vlachs who consistently maintained a Graecophile posture and sometimes used even physical violence against the Romanophiles (Averoff, 1992:70-1, 79-81, & 185). In general, Balkan Vlachs have tended to be assimilated by the dominant national group in each country they lived in: most of those who resisted assimilation emigrated to Romania or other non-Balkan countries (MRG, 1990:130-1). Despite that, during the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1941), the measures of mandatory attendance of Greek language night schools even by the elderly non-Greek native speakers, and of the banning of the public use of the language applied to all Vlachs as well, creating resentment as well as fertile ground for a conflict between ‘Romanian-leaning’ and ‘Greek-leaning’ Vlachs (Divani, 1995:116-8).

During the Axis occupation of Greece, in World War II, some Vlachs with non-Greek identity attempted to create a Vlach principality in the Pindos Mountains, Thessaly and Epirus, with the tolerance of the Italian occupying forces and the opposition of other Graecophile Vlachs (Averoff, 1992; MRG, 1990:131).

In the post-war era, Vlachs felt they had to be extremely careful, as the two secessionist attempts (in the turn of the century and in the 1940s) made Greece suspicious of a distinct Vlach ethnic identity: hence, Vlach assimilation was extensive and usually ‘voluntary’, i.e. helped by the Vlach leadership. As a result, Vlachs today, with few exceptions, insist on their being ‘the most genuine, the best Greeks’ (Lazarou, 1986:158; Katsanis, 1989:xvii; Kahrimanis, 1994; Moutsopoulos, 1991:11-5; Papastergiou, 1994; Papathanasiou, 1991:18). Moreover, many prefer the use of the term Vlachophone Greeks to Vlachs: the latter is perceived as indicating a separate identity, hence the opposition by some to the creation of Vlach cultural associations in the 1980s, thought of as efforts to ‘de-Hellenize’ the Vlachs. Besides, the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL)’ contacts with the Vlachs are also strongly criticized; finally, it is claimed that the EEC-sponsored report on Greece’s minority languages (Siguan, 1990) was amended by the Greek authorities before its publication to be more consistent with the official Greek view on this community (Lazarou et al., 1993:192).

Trudgill (1994) has shown that, in Greece, as minority languages are all alien (Abstand) to Greek, the use of different names for them (Arvanite rather than Albanian, Vlach rather than Romanian, Slav rather than Macedonian) has contributed to denying their heteronomy (their dependence on the corresponding standard language) and increasing their autonomy (by assigning them the status of autonomous languages). As a result, the minority language’s vulnerability grew significantly, as well as the dissociation of the speakers’ ethnic (Arvanite, Vlach, Slavophone) identities from the corresponding national identities (Albanian, Romanian, Macedonian) which have developed in the respective modern nation-states. Today, Vlach ethnic identity is perceived by many members of the community as distinct from that of the other Greeks who have Greek as their mother tongue (called ‘Grecos’ in Aromanian) but as fully compatible with Greek national identity (likewise for many Arvanites and Macedonians). A similar phenomenon has helped weaken the links between Pomaks in Greece (speaking a Bulgarian-based language) and Bulgarians and the consequent Pomaks’ assimilation into the Turkish ethnic and, by now, national identity in Western Thrace, an assimilation here detrimental to Greece’s homogenization and anti-minority policies. In another Balkan context, such attitude helped distance the literary Macedonian language standardized by Yugoslav authorities in the late 1940s from Bulgarian to which the previously spoken dialects in Yugoslav Macedonia were heteronomous.

If Hellenization was a significant factor for the weakening of the use of Vlach languages, urbanization was another. Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian had survived until recently in many homogeneous villages where most people had been using the language regularly. Those, though, who moved to the cities soon abandoned the use of the language as it was unintelligible to most other city dwellers and was even perceived as a sign of backwardness, while, on the other hand, the children had no way of learning the language as neither was it taught at school nor was it used regularly by family members -often grand parents- at home.

 

Current situation of the community and the language

Almost all Vlach speakers are today bilingual, i.e. they also speak Greek, usually fluently for the younger and middle-aged generations. It is widely agreed that Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian, having for centuries evolved in a different environment from Daco-Romanian have acquired separate (Ausbau) status from standard Romanian, in fact with dialectical richness for Aromanian; nevertheless, at least partial mutual intelligibility between Vlach and Romanian exists, partly enhanced by the Romanian schools in the Vlach areas in the end of the XIX and the first half of the XX centuries.

On the other hand, Vlach languages are threatened with extinction. There has been a rather widespread indifference among Vlachs, as well as Arvanite and Macedonian community members about the fate of their mother tongues, along with self-deprecation: they have been led by dominant unilingual Greek culture to -usually sincerely- believe that these languages are deficient, lack proper grammatical structure, and have a poor vocabulary (Trudgill, 1994:14; Tsitsipis, 1994:4). So, gradually, Vlachs have switched from bilingualism to a subordination of Aromanian or Megleno-Romanian to Greek. It is probably a correct estimate, although no detailed studies exist, that the language is used today by middle aged people (interchanged with Greek) and by elderly people (in most contexts) and much less by younger generations (usually when addressing older people).

Since the 1980s, though, an interesting ‘Vlach revival’ has been noticed. An annual festival, with an increasing participation of Vlach cultural associations is regularly taking place in Northern Greece; these associations have created a national Panhellenic Union of Vlach Cultural Associations, numbering 29 members in 1994. In the latter year, too, people close to the associations launched a monthly newspaper, albeit only in Greek, Armanika Chronika. Records and cassettes with Vlach songs are now available, and books about them are being published. Aromanian is even a research subject at the University of Salonica. It should be noted, though, that most of the people involved in this revival are still hostile to a possible teaching of Vlach at schools -for example, Minister of Education George Papandreou mentioned, to an International Helsinki Federation delegation, such a negative attitude by the Metsovo mayor when he asked him the question in mid-May 1995. Such attitude is explained by the fact that this matter automatically reminds them of the Romanian schools of the past and, therefore, creates suspicions about the motivation behind such educational programs: Vlachs, having suffered so much by Romanian propaganda and Italian- and Romanian-inspired attempts to create a Vlach entity in Greece during the Axis occupation, cannot yet understand that such programs are henceforth standard in European countries and unrelated to irredentisms.

One additional reason for such a slow and careful public reaffirmation of Vlach culture is the apparent hostility of the Greek state to such ‘revivals’ among Arvanites, Vlachs, and Macedonians, which is indicated by police disruption of festivals (in Macedonia), harassment of musicians who play and sing songs in minority languages; as well as by the tolerance by the state and particularly its judiciary of public calls, printed in the press, to use violence against those musicians; likewise, human and minority rights activists have been the object of similar threats (Stohos, 20/7/1994 and in previous issues, where even the Euromosaic project to prepare a new report on linguistic minorities in the European Union was attacked). Such hostile environment makes even the scholars’ work look suspicious: for example, Vlachs react with incredulity and suspicion to assertions that their language can be written. Moreover, EBLUL’s interest in the community has been strongly criticized even by Vlach linguists for having ‘created difficulties rather than helped promote the language’ and ‘divided the Vlachs, break their unity with, as a result, the shrinking of the language and the weakening of their wish to keep the language and their customs’ (Katsanis, 1994). It has also been violently attacked in state-sponsored publications (Lazarou, 1993:191-193) and strongly criticized by the President of the Panhellenic Union of Vlach Cultural Associations in his address to the 1994 ‘reunion’. Moreover, in the summer 1995 reunion, one Vlach activist, Sotiris Bletsas, who distributed copies of the EBLUL’s map with the EU’s lesser spoken languages (including the Vlach language) was harassed by bystanders, including the deputy of New Democracy (ND) Eugene Haitidis, who even had the local police officers take the activist into custody in order to bring charges against him: only when forced to state that he would reject any inaccuracies of the map was the activist allowed to walk free. In September 1995, Mr. Haitidis, in a television program, attacked our spokesperson Panayote Elias Dimitras for having ‘ordered’ Mr. Bletsas’ actions, who had allegedly admitted that he had been deceived by Mr. Dimitras, a statement that Mr. Bletsas denied ever having made. When ND leader Miltiadis Evert was asked to disavow his deputy’s actions (as the deputy is in charge of human rights issues in the party), he declined.

Likewise, the Vlach languages have never been included in the educational curricula of the modern Greek state. On the contrary, their use has been strongly discouraged at schools (and in the army) through physical punishment, humiliation, or, in recent years, simple incitation of the Vlach users. Such attitudes have led many Vlach (as well as Arvanite, and Macedonian) parents to discourage their children from learning their mother tongue so as to avoid similar discrimination and suffering.

As mentioned above, there has been an annual Vlach reunion festival since 1984, in which Vlach songs and dances are performed. There is a, certainly limited, production of cassettes and records with Vlach songs, as well as a CD with traditional Thessaly Aromanian songs assorted with an annotated study showing that Aromanian songs have a number of common traits with Romanian songs (Baud-Body, 1990). A partly EU-funded project, MAPECH (Multimedia Application for the Preservation of Epirus’ Cultural Heritage), of the Egnatia Foundation, aims in part at collecting Vlach songs and tales and will use the Latin alphabet for that purpose.

All Vlach speakers are fluent in Greek; in fact, the use of Vlach is being subordinated to the use of Greek especially among the younger generations. The reasons have already been mentioned above: the monolingual policy of the Greek state along with the resulting self-deprecation of the language; modernization; influence of education; easier access to the major cities and to the electronic media where only Greek is used: so, the decrease of the isolation of the Vlach communities has severely affected language use. In fact, sometimes, young people discourage their parents from speaking the language (especially in public).

Although there are no studies similar to the ones for the Arvanitika, one could say that, at least in the Vlach villages, in the 1990s, most people over 50 are fluent speakers, but most people under 50 and especially under 25 are at best terminal or passive speakers, with limited knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. So, young people today, when they know the language, they use it only in strict family context usually in conversations with the elderly people; sometimes, too, to make fun of non-speakers. Nevertheless, there are many variations of this age differential as reported in a traveler’s careful study (Winnifrith, 1987:9-25).

Experts, therefore, agree that Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian in Greece are threatened with extinction, perhaps more than in the other Balkan countries which, after the collapse of communism, have tended to grant official recognition to Vlachs (Winnifrith, 1987:25; Trudgill, 1994:14-15).

In fact, some argue that the gradual disappearance of Vlach languages is inevitable, because the historical role of the Vlachs ends with the conclusion of the XX century, as the social conditions which helped Vlach survive for centuries have been eclipsed: special working habits and social structure, geographical isolation; they in fact oppose all efforts to help Vlach languages survive into the next century or, even more, recognize it as a minority language as it has been done by European institutions (Katsanis et al., 1990:9 & 1989:xvii; Kilipiris, 1994).

Finally, we should add a few words about the Vlachs’ transnational exchanges. There are few ties with Romania today, as this country carefully avoids raising any claims on Vlachs in the 1990s. On the contrary, after the collapse of the communist regimes in the Balkans, links were established between Vlachs of Greece and Vlachs of Albania, especially those among the latter who claim a Greek identity: they are invited by Vlachs of Greece in their festivals, and receive help from them to rebuild churches or in the form of other necessary assistance to Vlach villages in Albania. On the contrary, no links exist with the Vlachs of Macedonia, as there do not appear to be many who claim the Greek identity there.

 

[published in "Greek Monitor of Human & Minority Rights" Vol. 1 No. 3 December 1995 (May-June 1994)]

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