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Fascinating Cambridge University Research Links Endangered Pontic Greek Dialect to Ancient Greek

By Gregory Pappas

Until Medieval times, the area of Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, lay at the heart of the Greek-speaking world. The land of the legendary Amazon kingdom was colonized by the Greeks in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and was immortalized in Greek mythology as the area from which Jason and his crew of 50 Argonauts began their journey across the Black Sea on his quest for the Golden Fleece.
Remarkably, despite millennia of change in the cultural and socio-political history of the surrounding area, in this mountainous and isolated north-east corner of Asia Minor its people still speak Greek. The uniqueness of the dialect – known as Romeyka – is providing a fascinating window on language past and present, as Dr Ioanna Sitaridou, University Lecturer in Romance Philology at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Fellow and Director of Studies in Linguistics at Queens’ College, is discovering.
On the verge of extinction
Romeyka is proving a linguistic goldmine for research because of the startling number of archaic features it shares with the Koiné (common) Greek of Hellenistic and Roman times, spoken at the height of Greek influence across Asia Minor from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD.
‘Although Romeyka can hardly be described as anything but a Modern Greek dialect,’ explains Dr Sitaridou, ‘it preserves an impressive number of grammatical traits that add an Ancient Greek flavor to the dialect’s structure – traits that have been completely lost from other Modern Greek varieties.’
As devout Muslims, Romeyka speakers in the Trabzon area were exempt from the large-scale population exchange between Greece and Turkey following the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Using religion as the defining criterion to re-settle Christians in Greece and Muslims in Turkey, the Treaty resulted in the exchange of some two million people between the two countries. For Pontus, the result was an exodus of Greek-speaking Christians, leaving small enclaves of Greek-speaking Muslims in Turkey.
Repeated waves of emigration from Trabzon, coupled with the influence of the dominant Turkish-speaking majority, have left the dialect vulnerable to extinction (UNESCO have designated Pontic Greek as ‘definitely endangered’). ‘With as few as 5,000 speakers left in the area, before long Romeyka could be more of a heritage language than a living vernacular,’ says Dr Sitaridou. ‘With its demise would go an unparalleled opportunity to unlock how the Greek language has evolved. ’
Language cartography
Dr Sitaridou’s research project is uncovering the secrets of this little-studied dialect. Her expertise is both in syntax, which is the study of a language’s grammatical rules and sentence structure, and in how and why language changes. ‘With Romeyka, I have the most wonderful opportunity to study these two things in tandem. Not only does the dialect demonstrate elements that are proving problematic for the current linguistic theory but it also presents us with a living example of an evolving language.’
In collaboration with Professor Peter Mackridge (University of Oxford), who has carried out pioneering research on Pontic dialects since the 1980s, Dr Sitaridou is also working with Dr Hakan Özkan (University of Münster), Professor Stavroula Tsiplakou (Open University of Cyprus), the European Dialect Syntax network (Meertens Institute) and three postgraduate students: Stergios Chatzikyriakidis, Petros Karatsareas and Dimitrios Michelioudakis.
At the core of her work are field trips to villages in Pontus to map the cartography of the language – how it works, how much micro-variation there exists (known as synchrony) and how the morpho-syntactic structure has changed through time (diachrony). Information is gathered through video and audio recordings of the villagers telling stories, as well as through specially structured questionnaires that Dr Sitaridou has designed to collect the complex data needed for unpicking the structure of a language.

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