300 x 4 Spartans -- The Living Legacy of King Leonidas
The 2006 hit movie, 300, retold the ancient battle of Thermopylae in bold, graphic-novel terms. Reviewers and pundits of all political stripes saw the film as an analogy to the Iraq War, and audiences relived the heroic stand of the vastly outnumbered Spartans against the Persian king Xerxes I ("The Great").
In Greek, Thermopylae means "Hot Gates," named for the hot mineral springs near the pass. It was the ancient gateway into Greece from the north and lay between the cliffs of Mount Oeta and the Malic Gulf in east central Greece. Three famous military confrontations took place at Thermopylae: (1) the immortal stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans and their Greek allies (a defeat, in 480 B.C.); (2) A similar Herculean effort by the Greeks to stop invading Gauls in 279 B.C. (another defeat); and the Roman victory over Syrian King Antiochus III in 191 B.C. 
Unlike Athens, Sparta was a mediocre city. Thucydides, the 5th century Greek historian, wrote of Sparta that future generations would not believe that the city had once been Greece's mightiest land power on the basis of its paltry, deserted ruins. Sparta began with the invasions of Dorian Greek invaders into the areas in the 11th century B.C. and developed a distinct society by 800 B.C. At odds with their "freedom-fighting" cinematic images, the Spartans subjugated the original inhabitants of their territory to a state of abject serfdom. These serfs, or helots, worked the land and freed the Spartan men for military service. 
Spartan society survived into the later Roman era. But in 396 A.D., the Visigoths destroyed the city, and later Slavic invaders dispersed the Spartan population. The town of Sparta itself was not rebuilt until 1834 (1991 population: 15,496). 
King Leonidas would be pleased to know that his Doric Spartan language has withstood the ravages of time to stand apart from standard modern Greek. In fact, other Greeks cannot understand the Tsakonian (or Tzakonian, Tsakonia) language, derived from ancient Spartan. Thirty percent of the words in the Tsakonian vocabulary are not found in modern standard Greek,  and many words of common origin now differ in form and pronunciation. Consider, the Tsakonian and standard Greek version of the Pater Noster (Lord's Prayer, without accent marks):
TSAKONIAN: Aphenga namou, p'essi ston ourane
Na enni hagiaste to onoumanti,
Na mole ha basileianti,
Na nathi to thelemanti,
San ton ourane, ezrou ze tan ige.
Ton anthe ton epiousion di namou ni samere.
Ze aphe namou ta khrie namou
Kathou ze enu emmaphinte tou khreouphilite namou,
Ze me na pherizere emounane's' keirasmon,
Alla eleutherou namou apo ton kakon. 
STANDARD GREEK: Patera mas, pou eisai stous ouranous
As hagiaste t'onoma sou,
As erthe he basileia sou,
As gine to thelema sou,
Hopos ston ourano, etsi kai ste ge.
To psomi mas to kathemerino dose mas semera.
Kai sukhorese mas ta khree mas
Hopos ki' emeis sukhoroume tous khreopheiletes mas.
Kai me mas pheres se peirasmo
Alla leuterose mas apo ton ponero. 
In 1981, there were 1,200 speakers of Tsakonian (including shepherds in the evocative number of 300) along the eastern Peloponnesian coast and in the towns of Kastanitsa, Sitena, Prastos, Leonidi, Pramatefti, Sapounakeika, Tyros, Melana and, possibly, Korakovunio.  The Tsakonians lead a pastoral, seasonal existence, herding their flocks of sheep up in the mountains during the summer and coming into the towns below to spend their winters. 
The language is diverse for its small population. Its dialects include Northern Tsakonian (Kastanista-Sitena, with the smallest population), Southern Tsakonian (Leonidio-Prastos) and Propontis Tsakonian (the extinct Vatka-Havoutsi, which was closest to standard Greek). The last people to speak only Tsakonian were recorded in 1927; nowadays, all speakers use standard Greek as a second language. During the winter, Tsakonian children attend Greek schools -- including kindergarten. 
The "family tree" of Tsakonian among Greek dialects is as follows:
| Cappadocian Greek (Greece)
| Modern Standard Greek (Greece)
| Greek, Ancient (Greece)
| Pontic (Greece)
| Yevanic (Israel)
Tsakonian (Greece) 
 "Thermopylae." The Columbia Encyclopedia. The Columbia University Press, 2000. 38085. General Reference Center. Gale. DISCUS Remote Patron Access ITWeb. Accessed on October 7, 2007.
 Bradeen, Donald W. "Sparta." Encyclopedia Americana. 2007. Grolier Online. Accessed on October 7, 2007.
 Ethnologue website, "Tsakonian" web page http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=tsd. Accessed on October 7, 2007.
 "Convent of Pater Noster: The Lord's Prayer in 1438 Languages and Dialects" website, "Tsakonian" web page, http://188.8.131.52/www1/pater/JPN-tsakonian.html. Transcribed by denseatoms. Accessed on October 7, 2007.
 "Convent of Pater Noster: The Lord's Prayer in 1438 Languages and Dialects" website, "Demotic Greek" web page, http://184.108.40.206/www1/pater/JPN-gr-dimotiki.html. Accessed on October 7, 2007.
 Bennett, Linda A. (Volume editor). "Tsakonians" in the Enyclopedia of World Cultures: Europe. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1992. Volume 4, p. 269.