The inhabitants of Phokaia are quite clear that their ancestors came from places far to the east, arriving in long ornately carved boats propelled by oars and a single sail. Yet the Phokaians possess no boats and had no knowledge of the winds before Greek traders came among them. They say their skill in making boats was taken from them when a great monster arose from the sea. Likewise they assured us that their ancestors possessed a wondrous music, using golden disc-shaped objects arranged in a line to produce the most varied and exquisite tones, yet their present music consists of a few rudimentary tunes delivered with no great dexterity on ill-made clay pipes or tapped out on small metal drums. One possession they retain from their ancestors is a secret calendar that can be used to chart the location of all the fish on earth though the few elders who know how to read the calendar have died.
The most remarkable achievement of the Phokaians is their language. It is said that, having reached the small island that would be their home, following the instructions of their holy men they burned their boats on the shore. That evening the ashes lodged in their throats and the next morning they found that, though knowledge of sea-craft and music had deserted them, a new almost intolerably complex language had taken possession of them.
The language of the Phokaians could be regarded as the extreme opposite of our languages. Not only do they constantly add to the beginning of words, producing the most intricate precisions of meaning and weaving extraordinary connections between all levels of experience, but the purposes for which they use language are hard to explain to those who are not Phokaian. The prefixes to words, the preliminary change-notes, as their grammarians call them, indicate, among many other things, the degree of formality, the time of day, the state of weather at the moment of speaking, whether causality in the word is to be perceived as flowing forwards or backwards, the degree of longing the word experiences to rejoin the things it describes and (most importantly) the five residencias or realms one might be talking of. Their words become extraordinarily long. In part because of this they do not use language to converse about everyday matters that are at hand or to issue instructions, but rather language to them is a kind of parallel universe, which flows alongside other activities, a music, a tapestry, a mirror that all attend to while going about other unconnected tasks. Their island is small – two days walk suffices to trace its perimeter. Their language brings the universe into their presence: from stars to sea monsters, from the delicate quivering of fish to the listless ripple of a desert wind. Humour and grief flash in jagged splices across their language. They have lost everything and they have gained everything. At times they wish they could forget language and simply hammer objects as other people do, accumulating women and making money. At times they regret that their ancestors fixed upon such a narrow world, a tiny island generating endless verbal complexities. Yet their speech is beautiful and silence, they say, gathering in the space where the voice fades out, is the strongest word in all language.
(Menander, Travels in Zam, Phokaia and the great ocean of the South)
Leonidas knew the language of the Phokaians, passing entire months living in their presence and their speech. During the busy fishing and farming seasons he would withdraw into the private world of Greek to write. Undoubtedly the intricate language of the Phokaians entered all his thought, along with their paradoxical relationship to time.
(from Monochrastes, A brief biography of Leonidas the self-exiled)
It is sometimes misleadingly asserted that the Phokaians forgot their ancestors’ knowledge and even degenerated through living on a tiny island separated by immense seas from all neighbours. Those who have listened attentively to their stories know that nothing was forgotten. Choices were made to abandon certain practices which, however convenient or beautiful they might seem, lead to terrifying consequences. The Phokaians had fled a disastrous cycle of civil wars, an era when the quest for trade goods and luxury lead to an explosion in the traffic in slaves. Cities were destroyed, wars waged that women and children might be captured and sold. All this was done that silks, perfumes, rare foods and wines, statues and glittering entranceways might grace the ever more sumptuous houses of the rulers. The long debated decision to renounce the use of boats was the Phokaians’ way to ensure they would never return to that violent archipelago. It also served to protect them from chance meetings at sea, whereby others might be alerted to their existence and come in search of them.
The court music of their ancestors’ archipelago relied on a peculiar gong-like instrument requiring very precise combinations of gold, silver and other precious metals. Not only were such instruments too difficult to bring with them or manufacture, but the music itself was always associated with the taste for luxuries. It had long been used to mark off the atheremonistanika, the caste of those who believed their refinement, their ancestry, their lighter skin colour, entitled them to despise and enslave others. However beautiful the music, the Phokaians told me, it always whispered of superiority.
The language the Phokaians discovered on their island became, in effect, their supreme music. Running alongside everyday life it also rippled and curved to its varying rhythms – the arrival and departure of friends, the preparation of food, children’s games, the flicker of rain on the dry brick of their houses, the trembling of the sun above the sea. Their language binds the Phokaians, joining old and young, abolishing every artificial difference, diverting, informing, sustaining them with its humour, its shifting tones of a finely registered tenderness.
(Xantipides, My year among the Phokaians)