Greek in the UK

Cypriot Greek in the UK

The Greek Cypriot παροικία [pariˈcia] ‘expatriate community’ is one of the over 200 ethnolinguistic minorities that compose the UK’s diverse population. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 300,000 people living in the UK have a Cypriot background in terms of either being born in Cyprus or being born in the UK to parents born in Cyprus. The number is difficult to confirm, but the large size of the community becomes clear when one considers the entire population of the Republic of Cyprus (838,897 individuals; 2011 census).

The greatest number of the UK’s Greek Cypriots are found in London with smaller communities in other major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. Data from the 2008 Annual School Census on the distribution of different languages spoken by London’s schoolchildren show that the boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey, and Islington in the north of the capital’s metropolitan area have the highest concentration of Greek speakers.

Early Greek Cypriot migrants were largely monolingual and monodialectal in Cypriot Greek, with only rudimentary knowledge of Standard Greek and English. Today, the linguistic repertoire of the UK’s Greek Cypriot diaspora includes three languages:

  • Cypriot Greek, which is used with family members, friends and other members of the community both in and outside the home
  • Standard Greek, which is used in all formal aspects of community life such as in complementary schools, community media and the church
  • English, the majority language of the UK, which is used in all interactions with speakers from outside the community but also among Greek Cypriots, especially among the second and third generations.

First-generation speakers
For first-generation speakers (born in Cyprus and who migrated to the UK as late adolescents or adults), English is a second language, which they learned after the end of childhood.

Second and third-generation speakers
Second-generation speakers (born in the UK to Cyprus-born parents), and third-generation speakers (born in the UK to UK-born parents and Cyprus-born grandparents) are both dominant in English, having acquired it either from birth at home at the same time as Cypriot Greek (simultaneous bilinguals) or when they started attending mainstream British schools, having first acquired Cypriot Greek (sequential bilinguals).

Standard Greek
Knowledge of Standard Greek is gained through formal education, participation in the public life of the community, and exposure to media from Cyprus and Greece. Depending on the type and amount of schooling they received in Cyprus before migrating, first-generation speakers will have been exposed to Standard Greek either from the onset of their schooling or, if they did not attend school in Cyprus, from their late adolescent and adult years.

For second- and third-generation speakers, exposure to the standard language normally starts when they begin attending one of the Greek complementary schools that operate in the UK, teaching Greek language, history, geography and folk tradition (mainly song and dance) to children with a Greek Cypriot background.

Cypriot Greek
Cypriot Greek as it is spoken in the UK presents a very interesting combination of linguistic features:

  • Words and sounds that originate in the traditional Cypriot Greek varieties and were brought over to the UK by the first generation of immigrants. These have been or are currently being levelled out in Cyprus in favour either of more common and frequent forms or of standard variants. For example, in the UK we find words such as μαβλούκα ‘pillow’, μαχαλλάς ‘neighbourhood’ or ποάττε ‘from here’ still being used while in Cyprus people now tend to use the words μαξιλάριν, γειτονιά and πο(δ)ά or που δαμαί. We also find accent features such as χέλω ‘I want’ or αφφυμούμαι ‘I remember’ alongside the more common θέλω and αθθυμούμαι.
  • New words and structures that have been borrowed into Cypriot Greek from English. These include Grenglish words such as the ones we are collecting in this project and ways of structuring sentences that copy English. For example, Μ’ αρέσει οι παραξεννιές του κόσμου ‘I like people’s peculiarities’ instead of Μ’ αρέσουν or Αρέσκουν μου. Or, Αν εν το είσιες, έπρεπες να μείνεις ‘If you didn’t have it, you had to stay’ instead of έπρεπε να μείνεις.
  • A considerable amount of codeswitching, the use of English, Cypriot Greek and Standard Greek in the same sentence, as in the following example: Συγγενείς του άντρα μου όμως που βρέθουμεν παραπάνω, the older ones, oι θείοι και οι θείες μες στες εξήντα εβδομήντα χρονών, εννά τους μιλήσω Ελληνικά διότι εν τζείνον που καταλάβουν so no, δεν το μιλούμεν, δεν το μιλούμεν a lot to be honest and I shift a lot.

As early as 1990, Natia Anaxagorou identified a “process of abandonment that is underway among the second generation”, which in her view “leaves no space for optimism about the maintenance of the Cypriot dialect in the third and fourth generations”. The quantitative evidence that Andreas Papapavlou and Pavlos Pavlou provided ten years later confirmed Anaxagorou’s observation.

Papapavlou and Pavlou found that UK-born adolescents speak Cypriot Greek mainly with their grandparents, most probably as a matter of necessity as they are very likely to have little or even no knowledge of English. When communicating with younger members of their family who were either born in the UK and are therefore dominant, if not monolingual, in English or who were born in Cyprus and migrated to the UK for employment and can be assumed to be competent users of the language, the same speakers reported using English predominantly and, in certain cases such as with siblings and friends, almost categorically:

Percentages of use of Cypriot Greek and English by 12–18 year olds (second and third-generations) in London with respect to different family members and friends. Data from Papapavlou and Pavlou (2001).

Given that the majority context of the UK is unlikely to change, it is only through coordinated and thoughtful efforts to change the position and value Cypriot Greek has within the diasporic community itself that the apparent decline in its use could be halted and possibly also reversed.