Cyprus Mail
Life & Style Profile

The treasures of language

Cypriot Greek reflects the invaders that have passed through the island. One man has dedicated much of his life to compiling a thesaurus of the dialect. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man dedicated to the island’s past


A profile of Dr Constantinos Yiangoullis faces two significant stumbling blocks. The first is specific to this particular profile – because the Sunday Mail is an English-language paper, and much of what we talk about has to do with the cadences and hidden byways of the Cypriot dialect. How, for instance, can an English speaker really appreciate the many meanings of the verb ‘syrno’ – which means ‘to throw’ but can also be used in the context of drawing water from a well (syrno nero), being insane (syrno petres, a phrase literally translating as ‘throwing rocks’) or even, in the old village parlance, introducing one’s donkey to another beast for the purpose of mating?

The second stumbling block has to do with Constantinos himself. If I say anything that sounds like self-promotion, he implores, or anything that makes me sound bitter, please leave it out – and I’d love to comply, but then how do we talk about the thesaurus? This is the Thesaurus of the Cypriot Dialect, an 800-page behemoth that catalogues 30,000 words in its latest edition – not his only book, by any means, but perhaps his magnum opus. It’s not self-promotion (he’s relentlessly self-effacing) but he’s justifiably proud of this achievement; and he’s not exactly bitter (“I don’t regret it,” he says more than once) but… well, he knows what it’s cost him.

The word ‘thesaurus’ also means ‘treasure’ in Greek – and the book is indeed like a treasure chest, designed to stick your hand in and pull out this or that glittering ruby. A comprehensive overview of our local vernacular, with its etymology and history, is one of those projects that’s been on the cards since independence; various governments spent (or wasted) thousands of pounds, bringing in experts from Greece and forming sub-committees to discuss how best to proceed – but Constantinos actually did it and did it on his own, boasting neither sponsors nor assistants. It’s even more remarkable in that he did it as a kind of hobby – or labour of love, or unhealthy obsession – alongside his career in the Ministry of Education, where he rose up the ranks from teacher to school inspector to stints as Head of the Pedagogical Institute and director of tertiary education.

How did he do it? By devoting his life to it. “My children are very unhappy with me,” he admits without prompting (he has two children, a son and a daughter), “because they missed me. They missed me, I was never there. These are things I feel guilty about”. When the kids had a problem, they went to their mother. Even when he was home, recalls Constantinos, he was often “distant” – his mind presumably on the daily research that took him from village to village, all over Cyprus, searching for new words and phrases.

His main quarry were the so-called ‘poiitarides’ (from ‘poiitis’, or poet), wandering minstrels who roamed the village coffeeshops, writing down the week’s news and reciting it in the form of poetry which they then handed out in leaflets and handbills. Constantinos recalls them from his own childhood in the now-occupied village of Yerolakos, back in the late 1940s (he’s now 71) when newspapers were scarce and expensive; the poets arrived every Sunday, singing out the latest stories in 15-syllable verse, then sold their leaflets – the same leaflets, prime examples of old Cypriot dialect, which he spent years trying to track down in adulthood, amassing over 3,000 in his personal archive. Needless to say, people didn’t part with them easily. Once, in Derynia, he found £60 worth of leaflets, but his teacher’s salary was only £60 at the time – so he made a deal, took possession of the treasure in front of witnesses, then handed over his cheque at the end of the month.

Money’s one thing – but where did he find the time? It should be noted that it’s not just the thesaurus; the number of books he’s written (while working a full-time job and doing all the research himself, let’s not forget) runs to three figures. “I’m not the type for coffeeshops,” he shrugs. “Or going out, and eating and drinking. I’m the office type, I like to work… I don’t go out. I work 15 or 16 hours a day.”

Does he mean now, in retirement, or was he always like that?

“Always, always. That’s how I was, that’s how I liked it. I’ve never been on holiday. Never. I’d send my wife and kids on holiday, but I never went with them.”

Didn’t he miss out on a lot of things?

“I did. I did miss out. But OK, I don’t regret it.”

Work was always his watchword. They were nine siblings, growing up in Yerolakos, their father a builder. Constantinos worked as a builder too – even at the age of 12, trying to make money for secondary school, carrying sacks and mixing cement by hand – as well as a shepherd on weekends, looking after the animals on the shepherd’s day off. Later, having won a scholarship to go and study in Thessaloniki, he shovelled manure to make money for the boat ticket. Later still, working as a teacher, already thinking of his thesaurus, he’d come home at 2 and immediately go out again, hunting down samples of Cypriot dialect till late at night. Nowadays, he muses, “I might sit up [working] till 10 or 12, or sometimes I’ll sit at the computer until long past midnight. Because I can’t sleep at night, I get ideas and so on, and because I’m getting old I might forget them. So either I’ll make a note and revise my manuscript in the morning, or I’ll get up – if I have so much on my mind that I can’t sleep – and sit at the computer till 7 or 8 in the morning, then go and rest for a while.”

It suddenly strikes me that first impressions are misleading. I recall driving up to his house, in the side streets of Strovolos: a single-storey white house surrounded by other neat houses, an olive tree and a small tangerine tree on the pavement outside, the buzz of cicadas on a hot August morning. A nice quiet house, so I thought, for a nice elderly gentleman – but in fact the neighbourhood isn’t as idyllic as it seems (the house is alarmed, to guard against burglars) and Constantinos Yiangoullis too is pricklier and more fiery than you’d think, a man with a burning core of consuming passion.

He’s tall and square-faced, with impressive jowls and glasses that make his eyes look enormous. Once he starts talking he talks fast, sitting up in his chair and folding or clapping his hands for emphasis. He tends to get carried away; his wife brings a cup of coffee at the start of our interview – but he doesn’t even notice till an hour later, by which time it’s stone-cold. Unsurprisingly, he knows all there is to know about life in the old days, telling me of vendettas and donkey markets, the 19th century town fairs where revellers were physically tied up during the night (to deter goat thieves) or the Nicosia ‘portaris’, the gatekeeper whose title is now local dialect – no-one says the Greek ‘termatofylakas’ – for a goalie in football.

Two details strike me as significant. The first is that he used to be a marathon runner in his youth – actually Cyprus champion, and the first high-school pupil to take part in a senior marathon – a testament both to his tough childhood and the physical stamina that’s allowed him to work such taxing hours. The second is that he admires the old folk songs of Cyprus and pointedly insists that a true folk composer, like a true folk storyteller, is anonymous – and he also craves anonymity, his stated wish to remain in the shadows vying, I suspect, for a wish to promote his great project, and defend it where necessary.

Not everyone agrees with the need for such a project. The thesaurus won a State Award for Literature in 2010 – but Constantinos was also called a traitor (some years ago, admittedly) by a fellow academic, charged with “trying to elevate the Cypriot dialect into a national language”, a charge he vehemently denies. “My mother tongue is Greek,” he insists. “But the Cypriot dialect isn’t Turkish, as some people claim – because it has many Turkish words – nor is it Frankish, nor Italian, nor English. It’s a Greek dialect”.

Indeed, he goes on, our dialect is “the way we resisted all the various invaders” and defended our Greek-ness, especially against the English who wanted to make English the dominant tongue. This leads to a passionate debunking of some common myths about English-sounding words in local dialect – no, he says firmly, the grape variety known as ‘veriko’ has nothing to do with ‘very good’ (it’s named after the Italian region whence it came in the 1840s), nor does ‘anbalatos’ (slang for someone who’s deranged) have any connection to ‘unbalanced’ – which in turn leads to a tirade against the lack of seriousness in Cyprus culture, a reminder that Constantinos often sounds exactly like the school inspector he used to be.

Cypriots always “pretend to be experts,” he fulminates – and it only ever leads to disaster. Last year, around the time of the haircut, anyone following developments “would’ve thought that one third of Cypriots were economists, with degrees from Paris or Cambridge – yet in fact they were all clueless! Everyone pretends to be an expert, carrying others along with him, and this disorder, this lack of organisation, ends up causing tragedy. We’re always ready to deliver grand celebratory speeches at someone’s coffin, or someone’s statue – when in fact we could’ve prevented that person’s death.”

His aim is to be “a serious scientist,” he adds with feeling, “not just empty talk like they do with the economy – like they’re doing now with foreclosures, and everyone’s an expert and no-one is an expert, and they’re all serving vested interests – so I decided to be serious in my profession. And I did my research, and a dictionary of the Cypriot dialect emerged, 800 pages long. And so did 100 books about folk poets. And so did my book on the Cypriot karagkiozis [shadow theatre]. And my book about Cypriot folk customs, and my book about the folk songs of Cyprus, and books about Cypriot fairytales…”

Are we edging into self-promotion again? Possibly. Dr Constantinos Yiangoullis might not be very happy with this profile, then again he might not be happy with any profile. I suspect he’s torn between a sense of dignity – his wish to remain a faithful servant to the great intellectual cause he’s served for the past 40 years – and the knowledge of his own solid work in a culture that’s too often shallow and half-baked.

When it comes to Cypriot dialect, he has the proprietorial air of a music fan talking of his favourite band. Isn’t he happy about its recent TV renaissance, notably in the CyBC game-show Paizoume Kypriaka? In a way, he admits – but there are so many anachronisms, he adds rather grumpily, and they get so many things wrong. Well, but isn’t it true (and hopefully changing) that Cypriots are often insecure about speaking dialect, believing that it makes them sound uneducated? He nods gloomily, and mutters about “brainwashing”. Don’t these people realise how poetic their vernacular is?

Maybe not – but Constantinos doesn’t really care. In the end, “I did it because I wanted to,” he says of his decades of research. Even now, in retirement, he’s embarked on a new project, spending hours on the phone (he can’t roam like he used to, because of health problems) as he delves into the history of his home village of Yerolakos. Will the results find an audience? He quotes one Walter Puchner, a drama professor at Athens University, who once said the following (the context is unclear): “Yiangoullis’ work isn’t appreciated now. Someday, with time, it will be appreciated – but maybe when it’s too late”. Hopefully not.

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