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Pontian & Cappadocian Greek Languages that Struggle to Survive Post-Genocide

The Greek Genocide is known for being one of the most tragic events in world history. Over one million Greeks from Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor were put to the sword by two successive brutal regimes – the Young Turks and the Kemalists. A further 1.5 million Greeks were forced to leave their most valuable possessions and ancestral homes during the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Many Greek-founded cities such as Smyrna, Trapezounta, and Caesarea were Turkified to new Turkish names, Izmir, Trabzon, and Kayseri. Not only did the genocide leave a lasting effect on Hellenic history of Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor, but the genocide has a lasting effect on minority Greek languages that are on the verge of near extinction, Pontian and Cappadocian Greek.

Pontian Greek

The Pontic Greek language is an ancient dialect, branching from the old Koine Greek language. The people who spoke it primarily lived in the Pontus region of Asia Minor. The region is famously known for its proximity to the Black Sea and rugged terrain which helped Pontian Greeks repel various foreign invaders. When the Greeks of the region fell under the Romans, they became Romanized, but still were able to keep their customs and traditions. The Pontic language became self-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, Pontian Greeks preserved their own archaic words and many phrases were differential than the main Greek dialect. As Pontianak became close with the Kingdom of Georgia in the medieval period, the language would spread there with the Greeks within the kingdom.

In the Ottoman period, the language was able to continue uninterrupted, as early Ottoman rule wouldn’t be as brutal as it was in the late Ottoman period. Many Greeks who converted to Islam to advance in the Ottoman system, as Dhimmi status wouldn’t allow Christians to further their social standing, would pass on the language to other Turks in the region. The Muslims would use Romeyka, which derived from the Pontian language. During the Greek Genocide, many Pontian Greeks were killed – close to half the population of the region, and many would flee to Russian-held areas in neighboring Georgia and Armenia. This spread the Pontic language to the USSR, which survived, though no thanks to Stalin’s purges and deportations of Pontic Greeks to Central Asia.

Post-genocide in Turkey, approximately 8,000 crypto-Turks speak the language, but not openly. Many are descendants of forcibly converted Greeks from the genocide. Worldwide, Pontic Greek is spoken by close to 780,000 Pontian Greeks, but only 200,000 to 300,000 are considered to be 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 fight to preserve today.

Cappadocian Greek

The Cappadocian Greek language also derived from Koine Greek. After Seljuk migration into Anatolia following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the language began to diverge from Byzantine Greek as the Cappadocian Greeks began to be heavily intertwined with the Turkic migrations. When Turkic settlers came to Anatolia, they made a focus 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 control of the Turks from the 11th century to today. Much of the Cappadocian language would then be mixed between Koine and Byzantine Greek, with Turkish vowels and consonants. Cappadocian Greeks gradually switched to the Turkish language due to Turkification and forced conversions to Islam, more rapidly during the genocide.

The genocide and Turkification left a damaging effect on Cappadocian Greek, more so than it did with the Pontic language, as initially, Cappadocian was considered to be a dead language after the population transfer. The language has gone through a recent revival thanks to efforts from Dr. Mark Janse and a few hundred speakers left in Greece. In the early 2000s, Dr. Janse had discovered that the language was primarily ‘underground’, with elderly speakers in Larissa and Thessaloniki. The current speakers are the first-generation post-genocide whose parents taught them the dialect. Today there are 1,000-2,000 speakers, making it a critically endangered language under UNESCO, with fears it can become fully extinct in our lifetime.

Today, Greeks of Asia Minor continue to do their best to preserve their history, cultural traditions, and language, despite centuries of persecution. One must note that genocide isn’t just physical violence targeting an ethnic group, but also its culture, heritage, and language. The Greek community and outside linguists must work hard to ensure the Hellenic dialects of Asia Minor do not fade as only the government of Turkey benefits from the cultural erasure.

Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He’s the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims who never get their voices heard.

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