Lost and Found Language Department: Archaic Greek

by Translation Guy on March 31, 2011
18 comments

Trebizond, a land of great mountains rising from the Black Sea in Turkey, has always been the end of the road. Last distant outpost of the Roman Empire, westernmost terminus of the Silk Road, final bivouac of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, the distant land of Jason’s Golden Fleece. And the end of the road for ancient Greek, according to Cambridge University philologist Ioanna Sitaridou.

Greek speakers continued to live in Trebizond and other parts of Turkey under Ottoman rule for centuries, preserving Greek language and culture amidst the dominant Turkish Muslim society. But the war between Turkey and Greece following the First World War concluded with a treaty that formalized a policy of joint ethnic cleansing, with the expulsion of all Muslims from Greece and all Orthodox Greek Christians from Turkey. This sad story is infinitely more complex than can be described here, but suffice it to say that 20th Century Trebizond was the end of the road for Greek in Turkey. Variants of the Pontic Greek spoken in Trebizond survived outside Turkey, but the Cappadocian Greek spoken farther south became a kind of poster child for dead languages―one of the first such loses to be well documented in linguistic literature.

But in typical Trebizond fashion, a holdout population of Greek speakers remained, who, as Muslims, were allowed to keep to their valleys. And they kept to themselves, too, playing their own music and marrying within their own community, largely unknown to the rest of the world, keeping their language to themselves. So a few years ago, when Sitaridou met these speakers of Romeyka, she discovered a community of some 5000 people who have held onto a Greek dialect that appears unchanged from ancient times.

The video has a great soundtrack of the local music and language, along with some very cute grannies.

It’s the spitting image of the Koine Greek of Hellenistic and Roman times, spoken at the height of Greek influence across Asia Minor during classical times. “Romeyka preserves an impressive number of grammatical traits that add an ancient Greek flavour to the dialect’s structure, traits that have been completely lost from other Modern Greek varieties,” says Sitaridou.

Meanwhile, back in Greece, the language evolved rapidly from its ancient roots, emerging from the later Medieval Greek spoken between the 7th and 13th Centuries AD – so-called Byzantine Greek, which seems to have remained unchanged, a linguistic island alone in a sea of Turkish.

Future research will try to assess how Pontic Greek of Trebizond evolved over the centuries. “We know that Greek has been continuously spoken in Pontus since ancient times and can surmise that its geographic isolation from the rest of the Greek-speaking world is an important factor in why the language is as it is today,” Dr. Sitaridou said. “What we don’t yet know is whether Romeyka emerged in exactly the same way as other Greek dialects, but later developed its own unique characteristics which just happen to resemble archaic Greek.”

18 Comments

  1. Jupiter says:

    I remember seeing something on t.v. one time about a helicopter flying over an heavily forested part of south/central america; the film crew on board captured footage a native waving crazily at the helicopter…some surmised that he’d never seen any outsiders before and that seeing the helicopter was a revelation not only for the native, but for us “outsiders”, as we realized that there are parts of our world that are still intact from bygone days. Lets hope the people can preserve this language before it’s lost forever.

  2. Cappadocian Greek is an extreme case of language change
    and dialectal variation among the Modern Greek dialects in
    having lost the tripartite grammatical gender distinction into
    masculine, feminine and neuter nominals, a distinction
    operative in Greek since its earliest recorded stages.

  3. Hi everyone, I found this too about Romeyka. I love the page Ken, keep up the good work

  4. Lynn S says:

    You dont have to look that far past the border into New York state to see how different dialects evolve from the same language

    • Ken says:

      The Bronx is the Bronx and Queens is Queens, and never the twain shall meet (Subway series excepted)

  5. him810ce says:

    Check out those gap tooth babes!! I think it’s better I don’t know what they’re saying, lol!!

  6. Mike Hill says:

    Wow, even after so many wars there was ethnic cleansing, but it was language that crossed religious borders and survived

  7. Peace says:

    Will those TV ads for Rosetta Stone actually help me to learn Greek, or is too difficult to learn? I’m leaving in 1 year for an extended stay on the continent and will be spending most of my time in Greece.

    • Ken says:

      I don’t think just watching those ads is going to do it, Peace, unless you are watching in Greek….

  8. Gerald P. says:

    how often are supposed dead languages like this found?

    • Ken says:

      There’s a lot of effort in the linguistic community to document these languages before the linguistic lights go out for ever. There’s not much time.

  9. A dead language can mutate into a modern language. Ancient Greek, for example, was the obvious precursor to Modern Greek, although the two languages are markedly different.

  10. Shelley Dunn says:

    Judging by what I saw in that video, not many people will be speaking this dialect for much longer…

  11. George says:

    Their pronunciation reminds me more of Russian, than Cupriote. Cypriote are somehow monotonous, while Pontiaka are more wild and melodious simultaneously.

  12. Nikolas says:

    Pontic dialect is much softer than the Cypriot, does not have the extended -n at the end of a male or neutral accusative and moreover in Pontic the pronunciation of “dhelta” (dh) is not pronounced as “th” (as Cypriots pronounce it). One common element between two dialects is the pronounciation of a definite form of “s”. In some words appears the pronounciation “sh” (e.g. Hashemenos=Shy), which should be product of contact with the turkish environment. I would not agree in any way with George saying that there is relevence to Russian. He might be fooled by the existence in Modern Greece of many refugees speaking both Russian and Pontic.

  13. Mike1767 says:

    Take a crack at these undecipherable texts Translation Guy

    • Ken says:

      I love secret codes. Chief benefit is that if you are the only guy who can read it, you can really cut down on QA costs. I remember watching Codex Seraphinianus progress to the remainder bin at B&N back in the day. I would have bought it but I couldn’tdecypher the price tag. Great collection. Weburbanist is a great blog.

  14. Fifi says:

    Never forget the Pontian Greek Genocide – Fifi RULES!!

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