I am a second generation Greek Cypriot born in London in 1956 , who speaks English, standard Greek and Greek Cypriot dialect.
My early direct experiences of discrimination were institutional. Despite the fact that bilingualism was discouraged by the education system in the 60s, my parents defied the of views of my teachers and sent me to Greek evening classes at the local church. Despite all obstacles and the possibility of being mildly dyslexic, I still managed to get a good enough education that included a degree in history and sociology. My bilingualism has also shaped who I am, in terms of not accepting the values of a monolithic culture as the gospel truth.
Along with the institutional racism, came the derogatory language from the white community of Camden Town in the 60s. Shouting terms like “bubble bubble Greeks are trouble” in front of us was common practice.
I sometimes confuse my Cypriot dialect/accent (spoken at home) with my standard Greek (learnt at Greek school). Although I loved my holidays in Greece during my youth, I was often patronized and laughed at for speaking like a peasant. I stress that did not just happen when I mistakenly used a Cypriot dialect term. When I said the correct words and grammar in standard Greek, I still had a touch of a Cypriot accent, which was still laughed at. This caused a barrier in terms of me embracing my Greek identity. Half of Greece seemed to love me for being from the sister country, whilst the other half made me a laughing stock. My first trip to Greece was when I was 17 in August 1974. At the time Turkey invaded Cyprus, after a Greek military junta in Cyprus. Athenians got heated with me as they thought I was expecting Greece to fight a war for us. I’d get equally heated about the injustices of the Greek military junta that triggered the Turkish invasion. I associated Greek identity with the fascist movements wanting union with Greece. The prejudices I experienced around accent and dialect were therefore connected to this broader sociopolitical context that alienated me from a Greek identity.
In the UK we Greekify some words and call this Gringlish. Bus becomes ‘buso’, market becomes ‘marketa’ etc. Inevitably, I have also been accused of being the village idiot in Cyprus for speaking Gringlish. I feel that prejudice in language was connected to prejudice of the ‘other’, of anything deviating from the norm of traditional Cypriot society. It wasn’t just my language, but the fact that I looked a bit like a hippy and wore an earring in the 70s (which was unheard of for a man in Cyprus), created a whole package for targeted prejudice against me.
The other form of prejudice was within the UK London Cypriot community. Although my parents spoke to us in a Cypriot dialect, it was considered a soft dialect (especially that of my mother who came from Nicosia, the capital). For example, it was looked down upon to use the heavier words ‘εγωνι’ as opposed to ‘εγώ’ for ‘I’. These rules were not written down, but they were informally ingrained in the social hierarchy. (Thinking about it, the prejudices got ingrained in my psyche too and i would also look down upon people who used the heavier Cypriot terms like εγιωνι).
The combination of prejudice amongst UK institutions, indigenous British people, Greeks in Greece, Greeks in Cyprus and Greek Cypriots in London inevitably made me perceive my Greek heritage negatively. The fact that I also perceived Greek culture as narrow minded, misogynistic, racist, homophobic etc also contributed to my negative perceptions.
It was therefore an upward struggle for me to find a Greek identity through a cultural sphere (eg enjoying Greek music, food, hospitality, meeting more open minded Greeks in more recent years). Code switching between English, Greek Cypriot dialect, standard Greek and all the accents deliberately using the terms with irony amongst my Cypriot peers in London, also helped towards creating a specifically London based Cypriot identity. We would use code switching as both an affectionate tribute to the positive aspects of the Greek culture, whilst satirising the negatives. (All this was beautifully embraced by the great comic duo of the 80s Donna and Kebab.) In effect we kind of created a culture that defied the accentism and other prejudices we experienced.