Pontian Greeks may have been forced out of their homeland one hundred years ago, but their language still lives today, in communities near Turkey’s Black Sea coast.
From antiquity up until medieval times, the area of Trebizon, or Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast, lay at the heart of the Greek-speaking world.
The land of the legendary Amazon kingdom was colonized by the Greeks in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, and was immortalized in Greek mythology as the area from which Jason and his crew of fifty Argonauts began their journey across the Black Sea on his quest for the Golden Fleece.
Studies conducted by historians and linguists suggest that thousands of Muslim Pontians in today’s northeast Turkey speak a Greek dialect which is remarkably close to the extinct language of the earliest years of ancient Greece.
Most of these individuals live in a cluster of villages near the contemporary Turkish city of Trabzon. Linguists have found that their dialect, called “Romeyka,” a variety of Pontic Greek, has structural similarities to ancient Greek which are not observed in other forms of the language spoken today. Romeyka’s vocabulary also has parallels with the ancient language.
Dr. Ioanna Sitaridou, Director of Studies in Linguistics at Cambridge University, who has traced the origins and evolution of Romeyka over the centuries, estimates that at least 5,000 people currently speak this particular dialect.
“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. With its demise would go an unparalleled opportunity to unlock how the Greek language has evolved,” said Dr. Sitaridou in an interview with British daily The Independent.
As devout Muslims, Romeyka speakers in the Trebizond/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 uprooting and exchange of some two million people between the two countries. For Pontus, the result was an exodus of Greek-speaking Christians. However, this still left small, isolated enclaves of Greek-speaking Muslims within Turkey.
In 1996, Turkish researcher Ömer Asan made headlines with his book the “Culture of Pontus” (Pontos Kültürü) in which he suggested that up to 300,000 people still speak Pontic Greek.
Asan, originally from the region of Of, in Trabzon, an area with a strong Islamic tradition and a substantial Greek-speaking population, was charged with violating Turkey’s “Anti-Terrorism Law” by “propagandizing separatism,” before he was acquitted in 2003.
In a 2000 interview with the Greek edition of the International Herald Tribune, the author maintained that “there are still people in Turkey today who speak and understand Pontian, which is the oldest surviving Greek dialect.
“The members of this community come from Trabzon and are scattered throughout Turkey, or have emigrated to other countries. Pontian is spoken in sixty villages in the Trabzon region, most of them in the Of area. At a conservative estimate, I would say this dialect is spoken by around 300,000 people,” he concluded.
Pontic Greek is an endangered Indo-European language spoken by about 778,000 people worldwide. However, only 200,000–300,000 individuals are considered active speakers of the tongue.
The language is mainly spoken in northern Greece, but is also used Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan and by members of the Pontic diaspora around the world.