The Quest to Save the Dying Cypriot Arabic Language

How an overlooked community kept an unusual tongue alive and why it matters that it’s disappearing

The Quest to Save the Dying Cypriot Arabic Language
Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi visits the church of Agia Marina in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on Dec. 4, 2021. (Christina Assi/AFP via Getty Images)

They call themselves “the stranded.”

Geographically, the 300 or so residents of the village of Kormakitis (pronounced “core-ma-jitis”) are sequestered in the northwestern corner of the island of Cyprus. Politically, they are isolated: They were some of the only non-Turkish Cypriots to remain in the occupied north after Turkey invaded the island in 1974.

More than anything else, though, the village and its inhabitants are stranded in time — both culturally and linguistically.

Kormakitis, with its hemmed-in houses, seems to guard the secrets of an earlier, simpler era. The bulbous clay ovens and peeling stucco walls of the village give way to fields of carob trees, biding their time before the summer harvest. Men sit idly in the town’s cafenea and play backgammon as the morning turns to afternoon. On the weekends, children and grandchildren come to visit, doubling the village’s population for two busy days every week.

The villagers, like the narrow streets of Kormakitis, are steeped in another era. Mostly septuagenarians and older, they are the guardians of a dying language.

“I love this village. I want to stay here and die here. I don’t want to leave this village,” Ketoula, a 78-year-old resident of Kormakitis, said in Cypriot-Maronite Arabic.

Ketoula and the other residents of the village are Cypriot-Maronite Christians, a religious minority in Cyprus believed to have immigrated from the Lebanese village of Kour over 1,000 years ago.

They are also some of the world’s last native speakers of Cypriot-Maronite Arabic, a unique language indigenous to Kormakitis.

Linguists say that Cypriot Arabic, a little-known tongue that has survived for centuries only as an oral tradition, is severely endangered. According to them, if nothing changes, it will cease to exist within the next 50 years.

There are fewer than 1,000 people who can speak the language proficiently, with no native speakers under the age of 40. Linguists and activists are racing to save, or at least document, the language before it disappears. Their efforts have been complicated by the division of Cyprus, following Turkey’s 1974 invasion and installation of a Turkish-backed government in the north, recognized by no country except Turkey.

Cypriot Arabic is what is called a “peripheral Arabic dialect,” a dialect separated from an Arabic-speaking context and developed alongside a non-Semitic language. Maltese is another example, though it is not in danger of disappearing like Cypriot Arabic.

Cypriot Arabic reflects the history of Kormakitis and its Maronite inhabitants. Some of the words, like “bokhib,” “amoot” and “ahrub” (“I love,” “I die” and “I leave”), are easily identifiable as Arabic, even if their pronunciation and conjugation have undergone some mutation after a millennium of isolation. Other words are loaned from Cypriot Greek, a product of continual exposure to Greek-Cypriot communities.

Other distinguishing features of Cypriot Arabic are the dropping of certain letters found in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), such as the pharyngeal “h,” the hard “qaf” and all emphatic consonants like “daad.” There is also no differentiation between long and short vowels, a feature found in MSA and other Arabic dialects.

The language relies heavily on Cypriot Greek for certain vocabulary. The numeral system mirrors MSA up to 10, after which it switches to Greek. More modern concepts are described in Cypriot Greek. All professions, with the exception of traditional occupations like farming and teaching, borrow their Cypriot Greek equivalents.

Because Cypriot Arabic is spoken within small communities, or more often within family units, certain terminology has not kept up with the pace of innovation in modern life.

“Cypriot Arabic [remains] restricted to familiar and ordinary areas of interaction and never developed a vocabulary to refer to new concepts,” co-authors Spyros Armostis and Marilena Karyolemou, linguists at the University of Cyprus, recently wrote in an article titled, “Contact-induced Change in an Endangered Language: The Case of Cypriot Arabic.” Given that all speakers of Cypriot Arabic are also native speakers of Cypriot Greek, they simply default to Greek to fill in the lexical gaps of Cypriot Arabic.

Scholarship on Cypriot Arabic is relatively young, and linguists are still struggling to understand the language. The first in-depth fieldwork on the language was undertaken in the 1970s.

Linguists’ understanding of the language and its evolution is hampered by the fact that it was entirely oral until 2007. Prior to the proposal of a mostly Romanized alphabet in 2007, Cypriot Arabic had no writing system. There are no historical works of Cypriot Arabic literature to study, and the oldest written resource is a scholar’s transcription of spoken short stories in 1985.

As a result, linguists are unable to trace the historical evolution of Cypriot Arabic. The understanding of the language is thus dynamic and its status is still a topic of hot debate.

Is Cypriot Arabic truly a Semitic language that has merely borrowed Cypriot Greek words and forced them to conform to its grammar? Or is it rather some sort of blend between old Lebanese Arabic and Cypriot Greek? Is the substantial presence of Cypriot Greek words within Cypriot Arabic a form of code-switching for the small, beleaguered community or is it a sign of linguistic decay?

While confusing for scholars, this ambiguity gives space to speakers to innovate, because the language has very few formal rules.

In 2014, for example, Cypriot Arabic speakers decided that they no longer wanted to rely on Greek for their counting system. Instead, they decided to create their own numbers by looking at other Arabic dialects and devised a new system accordingly.

Ketoula and the other residents of Kormakitis have one foot in Cyprus and another in Lebanon, which they consider to be their spiritual and ancestral homeland. Pictures of Saint Charbel, one of the most important figures in Lebanese Christianity, are hung in people’s homes throughout the village.

“We feel close to Lebanon, it feels like my home. What helps connect us with Kour and with Lebanon is the language,” Ketoula said, noting with some pride that she has visited Saint Charbel Church in Lebanon, where the saint’s body is entombed, three times.

The name of Kormakitis itself is believed to derive from a sense of nostalgia for home in Lebanon. Folklore says those first waves of migrants from Kour would longingly repeat “nahna ijina wa Kour majit” (“we came, but Kour didn’t come [with us]).”

Church services in the village are conducted half in Arabic and half in Greek, and the Maronite archbishop of Cyprus usually hails from Lebanon. As its emblem, the local football club has chosen the same green cedar that adorns Lebanon’s flag.

While the connection to Lebanon and the Lebanese Maronite church remains strong even among the younger generations, the language itself has failed to take root.

“My son and daughter forgot the language because they were separated from the village,” Ketoula said. “The next generation should learn, but they don’t have time.”

Ketoula said that she feels some pressure as one of the last custodians of Cypriot Arabic. She was unable to teach her children their mother tongue because of the Turkish invasion.

“The language is going to die, which makes me sad,” she said.

When Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 under the pretext of protecting the island’s Turkish-Cypriot ethnic minority, most of the residents of Kormakitis were forcibly displaced. Those who did stay were separated from their children, some of whom were already in the south during the invasion, while others were taken to safety afterward beyond the Green Line, officially known as the United Nations Buffer Zone, which separates the Turkish region from the rest of Cyprus.

The displaced children of Kormakitis were housed in shelters across Cyprus, sponsored by the Maronite Church. Others, particularly girls, were taken in by schools run by Franciscan nuns, which provided education for children displaced by the Turkish invasion.

“All of the children were baptized and were born in the village, but after primary school they went to Nicosia for education prior to the invasion. After the invasion, they could not come back,” said Ioanna Kasapi, a resident of Kormakitis now in her late 80s.

Kasapi recalled how, for the first year and a half after the invasion, she could only meet her children at the Green Line, where they were able to see one another but not physically embrace. Later, as a religious minority, Cypriot Maronites could visit the village by applying for special permission from the northern Cypriot authorities, but they were not allowed to stay for extended periods of time, making their displacement permanent.

This dislocation extended to the current generation of Maronites, some of whom have never known a life in Kormakitis.

Still, despite the restrictions placed by the Turkish occupation on visiting the village, some residents did all they could to ensure their children had a bond with Kormakitis.

Jovanna Yiouselli spent her childhood summers visiting her grandparents in Kormakitis. Every summer, she and her cousins would descend upon the village at once and spend a month with her grandparents, far away from the city life of Nicosia.

“Kormakitis felt like a safe zone. Our parents and grandparents made it feel like heaven,” said Yiouselli, a 31-year-old economic diplomacy officer with the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and an activist in the Cypriot Maronite community.

“But now that I’m an adult, I’m like ‘Oh, my God,’ it must have been so scary for my parents,” she said, laughing.

To get to Kormakitis as a child, Yiouselli and her parents would have to pass through four different Turkish military checkpoints, each one requesting a different set of documents and issuing a different set of stamps. Her parents would spend the weeks prior applying for special permits for their summer visits. Once, her father was arrested by Turkish soldiers on his way back to Nicosia after a flat tire made his departure later than usual.

But Yiouselli has few memories of the checkpoints and the Turkish military. Her parents would spend the car ride to Kormakitis distracting the children, doing their best to establish a sense of normalcy.

Yiouselli describes spending time in the village as “a sleepover every day.” During the day, she and her cousins would go to the beach or visit other relatives, sometimes helping them with the harvest. It was here where she could connect with her Maronite identity and listen to her grandparents speak the language.

Once back in the south, she would have to reacclimate to life outside the village. She would have to remember to act like a Greek Cypriot and “behave like an Orthodox,” attending Orthodox church services at school and participating in lessons about a culture that was not her own. Otherwise, she would risk standing out to her peers.

Now that Cypriots are able to freely cross the Green Line, Yiouselli no longer faces a mountain of bureaucracy to visit Kormakitis. Yet the occupation still creates barriers to the preservation of Cypriot Arabic.

In particular, it has made the Cypriot government hesitant to set up programs to protect the language.

“The real problem is symbolic. If anything is financed officially by the Cyprus government, it would mean a kind of recognition of the occupying authorities,” Karyolemou explained.

Though Cyprus did recognize Cypriot Arabic as a minority language in 2008, it did so with the caveat that it was not obligated to perform activities that ceded its sovereignty. In effect, the government will not institute programs to protect the language as long as Kormakitis is under Turkish occupation.

Community leaders have taken preservation efforts upon themselves, organizing a weeklong summer camp for children and teens that runs in August in Kormakitis. The camp, called “Xki Fi Sanna” or “Speak in Our Language” (equivalent to “hki fi lisanna” in modern Lebanese Arabic), has been held every year since 2007, except during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organizers of the camp collaborated with the nomadic Sami community in Finland, which experienced its own language revival in the 20th century, to learn tips on how to resurrect Cypriot Arabic. The organizers also receive some indirect funding from the Cypriot government.

“It was 30 to 40 children, and we would have a day school with fun activities to get the children to learn to love the dialect. The basic stuff,” said Yiouselli. “The summer camp was mainly focused on the traditions of the village through the language.”

The provision of educational materials is progressing, and the first Cypriot-Arabic textbook has recently been published. An oral history project documenting the language and life stories of the people of Kormakitis is also in the works. So far, the creators have over 200 hours of material.

To promote Cypriot-Arabic literacy, a few pages of the Maronite Press, a community digest, began to be written in Cypriot Arabic, using a prototype of the alphabet proposed in 2007. The Cypriot Arabic section of the digest continued until 2013, but was stopped after the author’s retirement.

Outside the summer camp, Yiouselli has teamed up with other ethnic minorities in Cyprus, including Armenians and Latin Catholics, to advocate for minority rights. By creating educational programs that are more inclusive of their heritage and documenting their histories, she hopes that their cultural and linguistic traditions can be preserved.

Still, Karyolemou said that these efforts alone are not enough to slow the decline of the language. To save it, Cypriot Maronites must go back to its source: in Kormakitis.

“It’s very difficult for a small language, which has no prospect of being an official language somewhere, to survive. My only hope is that young people or young families with small children will go back to the village … and they will get to use the language,” she said.

In 2017, the Turkish-Cypriot government called for Maronites and certain other displaced Cypriots to return to the north following the collapse of talks to unify the island. A few individuals and even one family have taken up the offer and have reestablished roots in Kormakitis.

There is now talk of setting up a Maronite school in the village, in the hope that a new generation could grow up in the community and breathe life back into the dying language.

But, by and large, Maronites have not heeded the call to return. Whether they have set up their own lives outside of Kormakitis or object to living in the country’s occupied north, the prospect of repopulating the village is remote.

And, outside the village walls, the chances for Cypriot Arabic’s survival are slim.

“By losing this [language], you lose part of history, which you could have preserved. Our goal is to at least maintain our history,” said Yiouselli. “If we don’t care, if we don’t claim what’s ours, who will do it for us?”

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