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Lost and Found Language Department: Archaic Greek
March 31, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 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.”

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