Pontian and Cappadocian Greek languages ​​struggling to survive after the genocide

The Greek Genocide is known to be one of the most tragic events in world history. More than a million Greeks in Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor were put to the sword by two successive brutal regimes – the Young Turks and the Kemalists. An additional 1.5 million Greeks were forced to leave their most prized possessions and ancestral homes when the Republic of Turkey was founded. Many cities founded by Greece such as Smyrna, Trapezounta and Caesarea were Turkified under new Turkish names, Izmir, Trabzon and Kayseri. Not only did the Genocide leave a lasting effect on the Hellenic history of Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor, but the Genocide has a lasting effect on the minority Greek languages ​​that are on the verge of extinction, Pontian and Greek Cappadocian.

Pontic Greek

The Pontic Greek language is an ancient dialect, derived from the ancient Koine Greek language. The people who spoke it lived mainly in the region of Pontus in Asia Minor. The region is known for its proximity to the Black Sea and its rugged terrain which helped the Pontic Greeks fend off various foreign invaders. When the Greeks of the region fell under the Romans, they Romanized, but were still able to retain their customs and traditions. The Pontic language became isolated from the Turkic invasions as the region was cut off from the Roman power base of Constantinople after the Battle of Manzikert. As an isolated language, the Pontic Greeks retained their own archaic words, and many phrases were different from the main Greek dialect. As Pontianak moved closer to the kingdom of Georgia in medieval times, the language would spread there along with the Greeks within the kingdom.

In the Ottoman era, the language was able to continue uninterrupted, as the first Ottoman rule would not be as brutal as it was in the late Ottoman period. Many Greeks who converted to Islam to advance through the Ottoman system, as Dhimmi status would not allow Christians to improve their social status, would pass the language on to other Turks in the region. Muslims would use Romeyka, which derives from the Pontian language. During the Greek Genocide, many Pontic Greeks were killed – nearly half of the region’s population, and many fled to Russian-held areas in neighboring Georgia and Armenia. This spread the Pontic language in the USSR, which survived, but not thanks to Stalin’s purges and the deportations of Pontic Greeks to Central Asia.

After the genocide in Turkey, around 8,000 crypto-Turks speak the language, but not openly. Many are descendants of Greeks who were forcibly converted following the genocide. Worldwide, Pontic Greek is spoken by nearly 780,000 Pontic Greeks, but only 200,000 to 300,000 are considered active speakers. They are concentrated in Greece, Australia and the United States. It is currently an endangered language that the Greek diaspora and many linguists are fighting to preserve today.

Cappadocian Greek

The Cappadocian Greek language is also derived from Koine Greek. After the Seljuk migration to Anatolia following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the language began to diverge from Byzantine Greek as the Cappadocian Greeks began to be closely linked with the Turkic migrations. When Turkish settlers arrived in Anatolia, they concentrated on the central regions. One, because the high mountainous terrain reminded them of Central Asia, and two, because the coastal regions were heavily defended by the Romans and Armenians. Cappadocia, located in central Anatolia and close to the Seljuk capital of Iconium, came firmly under the control of the Turks from the 11th century until today. Much of the Cappadocian language would then be mixed between Koine and Byzantine Greek, with Turkish vowels and consonants. The Cappadocian Greeks gradually switched to the Turkish language due to Turkification and forced conversions to Islam, more rapidly during the Genocide.

Genocide and Turkification left a detrimental effect on Cappadocian Greek, more so than it did on the Pontic language, as initially Cappadocian was considered a dead language after the population transfer. The language has seen a recent revival thanks to the efforts of Dr. Mark Janse and a few hundred speakers who remained in Greece. By the early 2000s, Dr Janse had discovered that the language was mostly ‘underground’, with older speakers in Larissa and Thessaloniki. The current speakers are the first post-genocide generation whose parents taught them the dialect. Today there are 1,000 to 2,000 speakers, making it a critically endangered language according to UNESCO, with fears it could disappear completely in our lifetime.

Today, the Greeks of Asia Minor continue to do their best to preserve their history, cultural traditions and language, despite centuries of persecution. It should be noted that genocide is not only physical violence targeting an ethnic group, but also its culture, heritage and language. The Greek community and outside linguists must work hard to ensure that the Hellenic dialects of Asia Minor do not disappear as only the Turkish government benefits from cultural erasure.

Julian McBride is a New York-born forensic anthropologist and freelance journalist. He is the founder and director of Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. It reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflict, rogue geopolitics and war, and also tells the stories of victims of war who never speak out.

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