It is the mountain town of Pera Melana in the south of the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. The speakers are the linguistic descendants of ancient Sparta. Today only a few, mainly older people, speak the old language. The ancient Spartan language spoken by 2,000 people.
Greek is the official language of the region. But tsakonio is widely spoken at home and occasionally in public. However, the future remains uncertain. “We lose tsakonium without authentic teachers,” says Thomais Kounia, a villager. “I’ve tried to keep it for the past 40 years. It is my duty to do so. Tsakonio is not only important for the identity and culture of these Greeks. Rather, it is the only legacy of the ancient Spartans that remains. AND the oldest living language in Greece. It is based on the Doric language of the ancient Spartans. It has more phonetic symbols and differs in structure and pronunciation.
A famous phrase in Tsakonic was coined by Leonidas I, King of the Spartans. It was at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Persians asked him to surrender all weapons or to die. Leonidas replied laconically: “Come and take it!”
Laconian was the Doric dialect spoken in the Spartan state of Laconia. In the Middle Ages it was known as Tsakonio or Tsakonika.
After the Visigoths sacked Sparta in AD 396. C. the city was abandoned. The remaining Spartans fled and settled in these mountainous areas. Over the centuries, tsakonio was preserved in these isolated farming communities. They passed the language on from generation to generation. “Building roads and ports gave people a way out of the villages and towns,” says Kounia. “Many residents never returned.”
But fewer and fewer people speak the language. Modern Greek became the national language in 1976. So external teachers came to Tsakonia to teach it. In addition, Tsakonian has been stigmatized as a “peasant language”. There are currently almost no schools in these aging cities as there are very few children. The ancient Spartan language, spoken by 2,000 people, has been classified by UNESCO as “Critically Endangered”.
Today teachers, philologists and politicians are trying to revive the language. Historically, Tsakonian was an oral language. Due to their strict and simple lifestyle, the Dorians only used the language out of necessity and did not write anything. Indeed, the word “laconic” comes from Laconia. Its inhabitants were known for their verbal brevity and concise sentences.
As a result, there are relatively few words in this language: an estimated 8,000 to 10,000, compared to 5 million in modern Greek.
The best effort so far is a three volume dictionary published by Kounia’s uncle in 1986. In the hearts of the Tsakonians, their language will survive, but it will be an uphill battle. Modern digital dictionaries can store the last words of the ancient Spartans. But it will only be worth it if residents use them. As Leonidas would say, “Come and take it!”