Harvard Graduate of Greek Descent on Endangered Languages in Greece

(L-R):  Theodoros Dukas, Efrosini Kritikos, Nikos Papageorgiou --- Efrosini Kritikos, Lambros Sakis


Published in The National Herald, December 5-11, 2015 Issue
Authored by Theodore Kalmoukos


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BOSTON, MA - Efrosini Kritikos, a first generation Greek-American and a graduate of Harvard University, where she studied linguistics.  For the last 20 years she has been living in Greece in the small town of Monemvasia in Southern Laconia with her husband and four chilodren, ages 5 to 12.  She has been researching languages spoken in Greece that are endangered.  Currently, she is particularly occupied with Arvantic and Tsakonian.

Kritikos was in the United States for a few days for the routine medical checkup of her five-year-old-son, Odysseas who was diagnosed with cancer at age one.  The child was brought to Boston in 2012 in order to continue his treatment; his life was saved.

Kritikos visited Harvard to do some research at the library where she experienced the threat of a bomb attack on campus: "everything was closed off in the area," she told TNH.

Her family is from the town of Zarakas in Laconia.  Her parents emigrated to Haverhill, MA in the late 1960s.  "Back then, there were a lot of Greek immigrants in Haverhill who worked mainly in the shoe factories in the area," she told TNH.

Kritikos completed her undergraduate studies at Merrimack College in Andover, MA before continuing her studies at Harvard.

When asked what drew her to linguistics, she said that "it had always interested me because as a child of immigrants I was introduced to bilingualism at a young age and was fascinated by the language acquisition process.  We spoke mainly Greek at home and up until the age of six I knew very little English, a situation which was corrected within six months from the moment I entered school."

After having earned a master's degree at Harvard, Kritikos returned to Greece where she married Emmaniuel Tsavalas, shoe manufacturer in Molaoi, Laconia and continued to run her private foreign language institute.

While life continued normally and carefree, they were soon to find out that their lives would never be the same again.  She said "our life changed all of a sudden with the birth of our fourth son, Odysseas, who was diagnosed with cancer at age one.  We are very lucky in Greece to have an excellent pediatric cancer hospital ELPIDA (Hope) founded by Marianna Vardinoyannis, where we stayed for almost a year, but we had to continue his treatment in Boston at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children's Hospital."

The whole family moved back to the States in 2012 for a whole year.  She said "Odysseas is doing really well now and with God's help we can say that it was a miracle he is alive, and for this reason when the whole family returned to Greece a year later in 2013, I promised to dedicate my time to giving something back to the community in return for all of God's blessings.

Their lives changes insofar as "I placed many things under question, things I did, things I believed which I reanalyzed, and I started to look at life more seriously, not with the belief that God has given us life for an important purpose and we must not waste it foolishly."  She said that some of these changes on her outlook on life were "personal and professional.  I placed new priorities and from a religious view I simply reinforced my faith in God, which I inherited from my parents.  My greatest inheritance is my faith, this is what helped us get through this difficulty and this is the strength you feel when you know God loves you."

She said her interest in endangered languages began "when I started looking for my family's origins and discovered that we had roots from Souli on the Tsavalas' side of the family, related to Telly Savalas, and this fact led me to discover that in my village of Lerakas in Laconia they used to also speak Arvanitic, and a little further north they still speak Tsakonian - something that I never knew.  I did some research and found that there are still speakers of Arvanitic in the area of Zarakas and thus started the documentation towards its preservation.

"I found only five speakers of Arvanitic, almost all over 90 years old, with whom I have already done a lot of work.  Now, we are getting ready to begin the documentation with speakers of Tsakonian in the area of Leonidio where there are about 200 speakers.

"We get the people together and we collect a digital record of the language, that is audio and video files, which there is a lack of in general,: she elaborated.

There were previous studies on this, but not sufficient, Kritikos says.  "Most of the studies were conducted about a century ago, but as we know development in technology and media has evolved and there has been no recent documentation within a modern documentary linguistics framework."

She also explained that "Arvanitic is spoken by about 50,000 people in Greece, mainly in about 300 'terminal' villages, and for this reason they were able to preserve the language for so many years.  These villages are mainly situated around Athens, Viotia, Thiva, and in some parts of the Peloponnese.  In Zarakas, where we are, there are only five speakers left.  Arvanitic is one of the many endangered languages of Greece.  It is a combination of Greek and Albanian, and this language has existed in Greece for at least a thousand years as far as we know, but there are others that claim that it has existed even longer.  The language has had a different course than that spoken in Albania and its population is of Greek ethnicity and of Greek Orthodox faith".

Why have they preserved Arvanitic?  "Because they inherited it, we don't know exactly when the first Arvanites came to Greece, from where, how many and for what reason, it isn't documented, more research needs to be done."

As for Tsakonian, "it is an Ancient Greek dialect, it is Doric, and it was spoken by the Ancient Spartans.  It is an indigenous language spoken today by about 200-300 people in South Kynouria, mainly in villages around Leonidio.  It is of great interest and has been well studied by many Greek and foreign linguists.  we are simply trying to add to its documentation with a more modern scientific framework."

There are approximately ten endangered languages in Greece, Kritikos said, such as Aromanian, Cappadocian, Pontic, (Romeyka in Turkey), among others, and she emphasized the importance and urgency of their documentation.

Apart from the languages' intrinsic value, there is the danger of disappearance of the wealth of traditional knowledge these populations hold which is based on their close relationship to the land.


  1. Such a fascinating article! Efrosini is doing a most important work. I hope her research is recognized and appreciated.


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