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Tsakonia (Modern Greek: Τσακωνιά) or the Tsakonian region (Τσακωνικός χώρος) refers to the small area in the eastern Peloponnese where the Tsakonian language is spoken. It is not a formally defined political entity of the modern Greek state, being more akin to such vague regional constructions as "Dixie" in the United States or the "West Country" in England.
In his Brief Grammar of the Tsakonian Dialect published in 1951, Prof. Thanasis Costakis defines Tsakonia as the area from the town of Agios Andreas in Kynouria south to Leonidio and Tyros and inland as far as Kastanitsa and Sitaina, but asserts that in former times the Tsakonian-speaking area extended as far as Cape Malea in eastern Laconia. The principal town in Tsakonia at this time was Prastos, which benefited from a special trading privilege granted by the authorities in Constantinople. Prastos was burned by Ibrahim Pasha in the Greek War of Independence and was abandoned, with many of its residents fleeing to the area around Leonidio and Tyros or other spots on the Argolic Gulf.
Some early commentators seem to have confused the speech of Maniot dialect speakers with true Tsakonian, demonstrating the flexible nature of the term.
The actual Tsakonian speech community has shrunk greatly since Brief Grammar was published, but the area delineated by Costakis is still considered "Tsakonia" due to the preservation of certain cultural traits such as the Tsakonian dance and unique folk costumes.
The Tsakonians (Greek: Τσάκωνες Tsákones) historically speak the Tsakonian dialect and have certain peculiar cultural traditions, such as the Tsakonian dance. Today, the dialect is critically endangered.
The term Tsakonas or Tzakonas first emerges in the writings of Byzantine chroniclers who derive the ethnonym from a corruption of Lakonas, a Laconian/Lacedaemonian (Spartan)—a reference to the Doric roots of the Tsakonian language and the people's relatively late conversion to Christianity and practice of traditional Hellenic customs.
According to the Byzantine historian George Pachymeres, some Tsakonians were resettled by the Byzantine emperor Michael VII Ducas in Propontis. This was part of their compensation for serving as marines in the Byzantine Navy.:737 They and the Peloponnesian Gasmouloi, who served in the same role, were dismissed from service by Michael's successor, Andronicus II, who made large reductions in the naval force, preferring to rely on Genoese mercenaries.:747 They lived in the villages of Vatka and Havoutsi, where the Gösen River (Aesepus) empties into the sea. However, based on the preservation of features common to both Propontis and the Peloponnesian dialects, Prof. Thanasis Costakis thinks that the date of settlement must have been several centuries later.
Tsakonians in later time were known for their masonry skills; many were also shepherds. A common practice was for a small crew of men under a mastora to leave their village after the feast of Saint Demetrius and to return at Easter. They would travel as far as Attica doing repairs and white-washing houses. The Tsakonian village of Kastanitsa was known for its chestnuts and derives its name from the Greek word for the nut.:13
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