Sfakian Dialect

an article written exclusively for this site by Prof. Emeritus Peter Trudgill

Much fanciful nonsense has been written suggesting that the distinctiveness of the Sfakian dialect of Greek is due to the preservation in the region of 'pure' Dorian Greek as this was brought to Crete 3000 years ago. It is certainly true that the dialect of the Sfakia region is in a number of ways different from the other dialects of Crete. But the reality is that its distinctiveness is due to the relative isolation of the area in much more recent times.

The best known of all Cretan dialect features is that the consonants k, g, x (ch) and gh are pronounced like English ch, j, sh and zh before the vowels i and e. For example, ke 'and' is che, anagi 'need' is anaji, maxeri 'knife' is masheri, and Giorgho is Zhorgho. You may well hear these pronunciations in Chora Sfakion, but it is a feature which is absent from many of the villages of the Sfakia region.

The most recognisable Sfakian feature, however, concerns the pronunciation of L. Before the vowels i and e this is pronounced more or less as in other varieties of Greek. Before the vowels a, o, and u, however, a very different sound occurs which is very similar indeed to the pronunciation of r in American English, so that kalá 'well' sounds like 'kará'. Interestingly, in the village of Chora Sfakion, this feature is now almost entirely confined to the speech of men.

Visitors to Sfakia who know some Greek may notice a number of words which are typical of the southern islands generally, or of Crete, or of western Crete, or of Sfakia itself. These include:

Compare typical words
Sfakian English Greek
inda? what? = ti?
jada? why? = jatí?
etsá thus = étsi
edhá now = tóra
epá here = edhó
ekiá over there = ekí péra
práma nothing =típota
kopéli boy = aghóri
kopélia boys  
kopeliá girl = korítsi
kopeliés girls  
trozós crazy = trellós
opsés yesterday = xtes
ghlakó I run = tréxo
katéo I know = kséro
thoró I see = vlépo

A number of words have a rather different pronunciation from those you might have learned in phrase books:

Words with a rather different pronunciation
Sfakian English Greek
oi no = óxi
áne if = án
oúla everything = óla
ókso outside = ékso
mikiós small = mikrós
pothéno I die = pethéno
símero today = símera

There are some grammatical differences also. Past tense verb forms tend to have the e- prefix in all forms:

Grammatical differences
Sfakian English Greek
edhoúlepsa I worked = dhoúlepsa

And it is possible to place a pronoun object after the verb rather than before it:

To place a pronoun object after the verb
Sfakian English Greek
thoró se I see you = se vlépo

All the Sfakia people who come into contact with tourists can switch very easily between Sfakian dialect and Standard Greek, as well as English and maybe German and French too. They remain, however, very proud of their local dialect.

Peter Trudgill

Peter Trudgill is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He is the author of several books on dialect and on language and society.

Special interests: Dialectology

Besides he is a long time visitor of the region of Sfakia/ Crete and of Chora Sfakion in particular. "If you want to mention I have been to Sfakia more than 450 times, that's OK! I wish ....................."

A small part of his bibliography:

  • • Sociolinguistics: an introduction. 1974
  • • Accent, Dialect and the School. 1975
  • • Dialects in Contact. 1986
  • • Bad Language, with Lars Andersson. 1990
  • • The Dialects of England. 1990
  • • Introducing Language and Society. 1992
  • • Dialects. 1994
  • • Language Myths, with Laurie Bauer. 1998
  • In Sfakiá: passing time in the wilds of Crete, 2008
In Sfakia book

Hospitality Sfakia

Hospitality in Sfakia

The Sfakians are famous for their hospitality. The locals welcome their guests like friends. Many visitors come back to Crete to visit Sfakia year after year. Enjoy their generosity!

Impressive nature

Impressive nature

Rough white topped mountains up to 2453 metres high, split by 25+ gorges, fertile plains, forests, and the blue sea, and inbetween them small whitewashed villages with many coves and unspoilt beaches.

History and tradition

History and tradition

Brave people that have stood up against their many invaders, preserving their tradition of independence, celebrating their victories with music, poetry and dance, together with friends!