by Sam Topalidis (2009)
History of the Greek Language
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (2005), the form of Greek written and spoken today evolved in four phases; Ancient Greek, Koine (also called Hellenistic Greek), Byzantine Greek and Modern Greek. [Others may consider there were no breaks in the continuous historical development of the Greek language.]
Encyclopaedia Britannica (2005) states Ancient Greek is divided into Mycenaean Greek (14th-13th century BC) and Archaic and Classical Greek (8th-4th century BC), which date from the adoption of the alphabet. The development of five letters to signify vowel sounds was the principal innovation of the Greek alphabet.
The language of the Archaic and Classical periods consisted of a number of dialects as a result of the Dorian invasions [which began around 1100 BC] of Greece and later of overseas Greek colonisations. These dialects comprised a West group (including Doric), an Aeolic group, an Ionic-Attic group, and an Arcade-Cypriot group.
Koine was spoken from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD and it arose from the establishment of Alexander the Great's empire. Its main basis was the Attic dialect, with some Ionic features. Koine unified the formerly fragmented local dialects and simplified Greek grammar in the course of its expansion throughout the non-Greek-speaking areas of the Hellenised world. The Atticists, who urged that the Classical language be used for all writing, dismissed Koine as ‘impure'. Their suggestion was adopted, and thus the written form, known as Byzantine Greek (5th-15th century AD), stayed rooted in the Attic tradition while the spoken language continued to develop. A chasm between the written and spoken languages opened and gradually widened. [Mackridge (1985), states Greek became the official language of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century AD.]
Modern Greek ‘could be considered' to date from the 15th century and is of two kinds. One includes all the local dialects. The other is Standard Modern Greek, which is the official written and spoken language of Greece. Standard Modern Greek emerged from the convergence of two historical varieties of modern Greek - Demotic, which was understood by almost everyone; and Katharevousa, the ‘pure', archaizing written language used in administration and other areas of public life. In 1976, Demotic was declared the official language of the state, replacing Katharevousa in government documents, newspapers and education.
Distribution of Pontic Greek in Asia Minor
The north-east corner of Asia Minor, which borders the Black Sea (see Map 1), is known as the Pontos. Greeks colonised this region from the 7th century BC and lived there until the last Christian was forcibly expelled in 1923. These Pontic Greeks spoke a dialect called Pontic Greek.
Mackridge (2007) in Topalidis (2007) states that:
Pontic Greek is a dialect of the Greek language that is largely derived, like almost all the other modern Greek dialects, from the Koine (common) Greek of Hellenistic and Roman times (4th century BC - 4th century AD). It probably began to become markedly distinct from the rest of the modern Greek dialects after the Seljuk invasions of Asia Minor [in the 11th century AD], which split Pontus from the other regions of the Byzantine Empire. However, some older features of the Greek language that disappeared from other Greek dialects were retained in Pontic, while some innovations seem to have taken place in Pontic under the influence of other Greek dialects even after the medieval period. In its vocabulary, Pontic has been influenced by Persian and Caucasian languages, and in recent centuries it has taken on a large number of loanwords from Turkish.
Mackridge (1991) states that when Pontic Greeks moved into Russian speaking areas, Pontic Greek also acquired a large number of Russian words. He also states that although many Pontic Greeks believe their language stems from the ancient Ionic dialect, the linguist Hatzidakis (1892 and 1930) demonstrated that only a couple of undoubtedly Ionic words could be found in Pontic Greek.
The Greek linguist Triandafyllidis (1981 , p. 290) in Nicholas (1999) divided Pontic Greek into three groups. ‘Oinountiac in the western, non-contiguous part of the Pontos from Inepolis to Oinoe. Trapezuntiac on the eastern shore of the Pontos, from Kerasounta [Giresun] to Ophis [Of], Chaldiot was spoken in the Chaldia region, south of the eastern shore, and including Gumushane and its surrounding villages, as well as the southern mining colonies and the coastal town of Kotyora [Ordu]. Dawkins (1937) established that the printed Pontic of Rostov on Don (see Map 1) is also Chaldiot. Nicholas (1999) agrees with Papadopoulos (1955) who limits himself to a two-way distinction between Oinountiac and Trapezuntiac-Chaldiot, given that Oinountiac tends to pattern more closely with mainstream Greek. Nicholas refers to these two variants as Western and Eastern Pontic.
Hionides (1996) believes that the Pontic dialect remained so remote from the other modern Greek idioms that to the ear of the rest of Greece, it sounds like a foreign language.
Map 1. The Black Sea (King 2004, p. xvii)
Pontic Greek Dialect in Of
Dawkins (1937) states the most archaic form of Pontic Greek survived among the Moslems of Of (east of Trabzon, see Map 1). Hionides (1996) states Pontic Greek is spoken by the Turkish people of the provinces of Of and Tonya [south-west of Trabzon]. In 1985, he counted eight villages in the province of Tonya, 21 villages in the province of Of and five villages in the province of Surmene where the Turkish population spoke Pontic Greek. He also mentions that many Turks in Trabzon also fluently spoke Pontic Greek. However, Asan (1996) states that 60 villages in the Trabzon region with 40 of these villages in the Of region speak Pontic Greek.
Mackridge (n.d.) at: www.omerasan.com/eng/home.html accessed on 28 December 2008, describes Ömer Asan's important 1996 work:
ever since their conversion to Islam, the Greek-speaking Pontic Muslims have not been exposed to any other kind of Greek than their own; nor did they have much close contact even with their Christian neighbours in Pontus. This means that their speech has preserved many archaic features that have now almost or completely disappeared from the Pontic spoken in Greece. (It should be said that their speech has also lost a large number of words that have been replaced by items of Turkish origin.) Ömer Asan's village, like the village where I have carried out my own linguistic fieldwork, is situated in the district of Of, east of Trebizond, which is home to the largest concentration of Greek-speakers in Pontus today. The Of district is the easternmost area in which Greek has been continuously spoken without interruption since ancient times. If Pontic is a peripheral dialect of Greek, then the sub-dialect of Of is a peripheral version of Pontic. Like most peripheral dialects, the speech of Of preserves an exceptional number of ancient words and grammatical features. For this reason the study of the sub-dialect of Of can throw fascinating light on the historical development of the Greek language.
... it has been fascinating to compare the vocabulary and grammar of Çoruh, as he [Asan] records them, with the linguistic material that I and others have collected from other villages in the Of district and from other parts of Pontus both before and after 1922. The variety in vocabulary and grammar between one village and another just a few miles away is extraordinary, and we would ideally like to have such a study of every Greek-speaking village in Pontus.
Ömer Asan's article, ‘Trabzon Greek: a language without a tongue' at: www.omerasan.com/eng/home.html accessed on 27 June 2009 (updated 2005), states that:
it was in the Greek language [Pontic Greek] that the inhabitants of the Solaki Valley [near Of] (apart from the late comers) were introduced to Islam and in which the imams in question were educated. ... Actually, there is no more natural and logical a way of learning any sort of unfamiliar thought, doctrine or religion than through the mother tongue.
... Of the various Greek dialects in existence at the present day, Trabzon Greek, the language closest to ancient Greek ... has been sacrificed to religious, national and political intrigue and impotence. Although there is no prohibition of any kind in place, Trabzon Greek, labelled by religious bigots as a ‘giaour' [outside the Islamic faith] language, by nationalists as an ‘enemy' language and by bureaucrats and politicians as a ‘separatist' language, has the misfortune of being listed at the head of merely local, not national, languages.
Asan's (1996) ‘courageous' work in Turkish on the culture of a minority group has been criticised in Turkey, where the government prefers to pasteurise its cultural past. Asan should be congratulated, not condemned for his work. We should all embrace and respect our cultural diversity as an essential part of our identity.
Revithiadou and Spyropoulos (2006) have also studied Pontic Greek spoken by people from Of who had settled in the village of Nea Trapezounta in northern Greece. Drettas (1999) in Bortone (2009) estimated that 300,000 people in Greece speak Pontic Greek.
Bortone (2009) states Muslim Pontic Greek spoken around the villages of Of, has no history, especially for its speakers. They have no written records and many of their speakers do not even know that the language is related to Greek. Some do not know which parts of their speech is Turkish and which is their local ‘other language'. Many call it Romayka, but never Pondiaká or Eliniká. Romayka is not formally taught and has no standard of any kind.
Bortone (2009) states that many Pontic Muslims report that they did not learn Turkish until they went to school. He also believes that Romayka will probably ultimately disappear. Interesting to note, from an email I received from a Trabzon local, that in 2008, five and six year olds in a school in a village of the town of Hayrat, near Of, were observed by their teacher to speak Pontic Greek (Romayka) as their native tongue.
Bortone (2009, p.83) states,
Greek peripheral dialects have archaic traits; but the Greek of the Of region has traits lost everywhere else.
... we would do well to emphasize the archaic nature of Romayka, if only because of the implicit irony: its archaic character is due to the very fact that Romayka has been isolated from the Greek tradition.
Pontic Greek in the Soviet Union
Pontic Greeks had been emigrating to the Soviet Union, including Georgia, in significant numbers from the 18th century.
The first census of Imperial Russia, based solely on the criteria of language, suggested that 186,925 Greek-speaking Greeks (105,169 in the southern Caucasus) lived within the borders of the empire in 1897 (Agtzidis (1997) in Sideri (2006)).
Dawkins (1937) states the number of Greek speakers in Russia was considerable. Correspondence he received from Professor Semenov of Rostov on Don (see Map 1) stated that there were 60,000 Greeks at Mariupol (south-eastern part of Ukraine, on the coastal region of the Sea of Azov) and 100,000 at Rostov on Don (the latter all speaking Pontic Greek). Sergievsky (1934) believes there were around 97,000 Mariupol Greeks, of whom some 82,000 spoke Greek. Mackridge (1991) states the Greek dialect spoken by the Mariupol Greeks differs markedly from Pontic Greek, though the two may be distantly related.
Dawkins (1937) states the Pontic Greek dialect of the Gumushane district (south of Trabzon) agrees with the Greek of Rostov on Don. He believes the great mass of the Rostov population came over to Russia from this district in the Pontos.
At the time of the October Revolution in Russia, Karpozilos (1999) estimated that the Pontic population in Russia to have been more than 350,000 concentrated in 34 urban centres and in about 287 villages. He also states that between the two World Wars in Southern Russia and Caucasus that it was a serious issue in which form of Greek would books and Newspapers be written. Formal Greek (Katharevousa), Demotic Greek or Pontic Greek. Karpozilos (1999, p. 148) states:
to raise the Pontic dialect to the level of a language for the Greek minority posed great problems. The dialect had never been systematically written; it had a rather limited vocabulary that lacked the words and idioms to convey abstract and sophisticated ideas; it also lacked the proper words for several new political and social concepts. ...
In schools, it was agreed that the children should be taught demotic Greek, but for the instruction of the masses it was thought best to use both dialects - in newspapers, pamphlets and various other publications. This important decision was taken ... on 10 May 1926.
Joseph (2003) states, in the 1970 Soviet census, 336,869 citizens claimed Greek ethnicity but only 39%, gave Greek as their native language. In the 1979 census, 344,000 declared Greek as their ethnic status. Hionides (1996) was of the view most of these 344,000 spoke Pontic Greek.
As human beings first, and nationalists a distant second, we should embrace our cultural history and revel in its diversity and not pasteurise it for the benefit of national conformity. With this embrace, we can also learn to respect other people's languages and cultures.
The history of Pontic Greek (and how it probably began to become markedly distinct from the other Greek dialects from 11th century AD) and the Greek language is fascinating and should be documented and studied.
Will Pontic Greek continue to be spoken? Bortone (2009) believes Pontic Greek spoken in the Pontos in Asia Minor today will probably disappear. The challenge is to keep the Pontic Greek dialect alive. The more recent work of researchers like Emeritus Professor Peter Mackridge, Assistant Professor Pietro Bortone, Dr Theofanis Malkidis, Ömer Asan, Dr Anthi Revithiadou and Dr Vassilios Spyropoulos have increased our knowledge of the dialect.
Pontic Greek is still spoken today in Asia Minor, and by the Pontic diaspora in Greece and at least in countries like Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Canada, Australia and the USA. Drettas (1999) estimated 300,000 speakers exist in Greece. Who could estimate how many Pontic Greek speakers actually exist worldwide today? Are you one of them?
Agtzidis, V 1997, Parefxinios diaspora. I Ellenikes egkatastasis stis vorioanatolikes periokhes tou Efxinou Pontou, [in Greek, Black Sea diaspora. The Greek settlements in the northeastern Black Sea], Kiriakidis Brothers, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Asan, O 1996, Pontos kültürü (in Turkish), Baski Istanbul, Belge Yayinlari.
Bortone, P 2009, ‘Greek with no models, history, or standard: Muslim Pontic Greek', in Standard languages and language standards: Greek, past and present, (eds) A. Georgakopoulou and M. Silk, Publication 12 of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, King's College London, Ashgate, Surrey UK, pp. 67-89.
Dawkins, RM 1937, ‘The Pontic dialect of modern Greek in Asia Minor and Russia', Transactions of the Philological Society, pp. 15-52.
Drettas, G 1999, ‘To ελληνο-ποντιακó διαλεκτικó σύνολο', [in Greek] in Χριστίδης, A.-Φ. et al. (eds) Διαλεκτικοί θύλακοι της ελληνικής γλώσσας, Athens, pp. 15-24.
Hatzidakis, GN 1892, Einleitung in die neugriechische Grammatik, [in German] Breitkopf & Hartel, Leipzig.
Hatzidakis, 1930, ‘Einiges über das pontische Griechisch', [in German] Byzantinisch-Neugriechische Jahrbücher, no. 7, pp. 383-7.
Hionides, C 1996, The Greek Pontians of the Black Sea, Boston, Massachusetts.
Joseph, BD 2003, ‘Some reflections on Greek in a Slavic context, in both academia and the real world, with an overview of Greek in the former Soviet Union', in Balkan and Slavic Linguistics, in Honour of the 40th Anniversary of the Department of Slavic and east European Languages and Literatures (Ohio State Working papers in Slavic Studies 2) ed. by D. Collins & A. Sims (2003), Columbus Ohio State University, pp. 93-101.
Karpozilos, A 1999, ‘The Greeks in Russia', in The Greek Diaspora in the twentieth century, (ed. Clogg), St Martins Press, New York, pp. 137-57.
King, C 2004, The Black Sea: a history, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Mackridge, P 1985, The modern Greek language- a descriptive analysis of standard modern Greek, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Mackridge, P 1991, ‘The Pontic dialect: a corrupt version of ancient Greek?', Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 335-9.
Mackridge, P 2007, Personal email.
Nicholas, N 1999, The story of pu: the grammaticalisation in space and time of a modern Greek complementiser, PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, Australia.
Papadopoulos, AA 1955, Ιστορική Γραμματική της Ποντικής Διαλέκτου (in Greek, Historical Grammar of the Pontic Dialect), The Committee for Pontic Studies, Athens, supplement 1.
Revithiadou, A and ‘Ofitika Pontic: a report on the dialect and its people',
Spyropoulos, V 2006, e-posted paper at: www.revithiadou.gr/files/reports_on_dialects/Report_OP.pdf viewed June 2009.
Sergievsky, 1934, ‘The Mariupol Greek dialects: an attempt at a brief description', Bulletin de l' Académie des Sciences de l' U.R.S.S., Classe des sciences sociales, no. 7.
Sideri, E 2006, The Greeks of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia: memories and practices of diaspora, unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.
Topalidis, S 2007, A Pontic Greek History, Canberra, Australia. (Available by emailing author at:
Triandafyllidis, M 1981, Νεοελληνική Γραμματική: Ιστορική Εισαγωγή, (in Greek,
(1938), Modern Greek Grammar: Historical Introduction), Salonika, Aristotle University.
I warmly thank Assistant Professor Pietro Bortone for sending me an early copy of his 2009 paper.