Greeks speaking the wrong language

By: | Post date: April 7, 2010 | Comments: 10 Comments
Posted in categories: Greece

The Mariupolitans are a distinct group of ethnic Greeks living in the Ukraine, who formerly lived in Crimea. Like I explained in the Other Place, a minority of Mariupolitans speak not Greek, but a variant of Crimean Tatar they call Greek: Urum.

They are not the only people who consider themselves Greek but speak a Turkic language. As the Wikipedia article notes, the Pontians of Tsalka in Georgia who speak Turkish are also called (Tsalka) Urums; and a large number of the refugees from the 1922 population exchange were Karamanlides, who spoke Karamanli Turkish (and wrote it in Greek characters). When the refugees of Salonica waxed sentimental about their football team PAOK, they didn’t just say ο ΠΑΟΚ μας in Standard Greek. They also said τεμέτερον ΠΑΟΚ in Pontic—and bizim PAOK in Turkish. Nikolaos Contossopoulos is the foremost researcher on Cretan dialect of the 20th century; but his folk were Turkish-speakers. He concluded, he told me once, that Pontic has undergone syntactic influence from Turkish (an obvious but not necessarily a popular conclusion), because Pontic syntax sounded just like his elderly relatives trying to speak Greek.

Which goes to show something blindingly obvious, but lost in the modern East European process of nation-building: language is not the same as ethnicity (and neither is the same as nationality).

Turkic languages are the languages of Muslims, as far as everyone in the region is concerned, and a Christian speaking Turkic violates the easy dichotomies of nation-building. Which means that if Turkic-speakers internalise an ideology of being ethnically Greek—or indeed, of being Rum, Christian, as an ethnicity—then they won’t take nationalist pride in speaking Turkic. They will see themselves as speaking the “wrong” language. That’s not untenable in an Ottoman or Russian context: after all, the Turkic-speaking Greeks did continue speaking Turkic for centuries. But if they find themselves in a majority Greek-speaking context, they will be pressured to drop Turkic for Greek, and they won’t have much of a motive not to.

And indeed, that’s what happened with the Karamanlides in Greece. Greece was never well-disposed to minority languages to begin with, and the Turkish that used to be spoken by the refugees is barely mentioned in scholarship: it never became an emblem like Pontic, or even a bugbear like Macedonian Slavonic. It was quietly, and efficiently, dropped.

The Turkish of the Karamanlides passed unlamented—and unrecorded. Greek linguistics had its own priorities, being practiced after all by Greeks who saw the world in a particular way. Contossopoulos spent his career on someone else’s dialect—which is after all what most linguists do; but working on his own family’s dialect was not an option. Nor, I venture to say, would he have been dismayed that it was not.

Karamanlides speaking Turkish was a paradox to nationally-minded Greeks; Karamanlides dropping Turkish might seem a paradox to cosmopolitan-minded non-Greeks. The mother tongue, we assume by default, is the driver of identity and its rallying point and its emotional centre: how sad it must be to hate your own mother tongue.

And I admit to being troubled at the notion of hating one’s mother tongue. Yet loving one’s mother tongue, chosing to value it as identity, is as much a construct as valuing religion or culture, or what Greeks nebulously call ethnic consciousness, εθνική συνείδηση. It’s innate to seek out one’s own, but who one’s own are is something learned, and acquired.

And engineered. The Christians of the Ottoman Empire had to be taught they were Bulgarians, or Greeks, or Macedonians, or Albanians. What the people of village X thought they were 500 years ago is different to what they thought they were 100 years ago, and often what they think they are now. And the change was often enough initiated, because someone from Athens or Sofia came to town, and told them so; or because the local landlord made a choice, and his villagers followed suit.

But the question of what people “really” are, of how their language or quirks or DNA contradict their current self-identification, is pointless. If for whatever reason the villagers of X or Y now consider themselves Greek, well, they’re Greek; telling them a hundred years on they’ve been brainwashed means nothing. (The same goes for the search for Greeks in FYROM, it should be said: the Vlachs there in particular have changed their minds too.) Telling the Karamanlides they should have held on to a Turkish-speaking identity in Greece means even less. They suffered for being Christian in Turkey, they suffered for being aliens and speaking the wrong language when they fled to Greece: if they’ve come to hate their mother tongue, they aren’t obligated to hold on to it for my linguistic edification.

That’s problematic for me to say: the Karamanlides have had to jettison their linguistic heritage, because they were told to, and they found themselves in the coercive linguistic context of a monolingual nation-state. All Other Things being equal, maybe they shouldn’t have had to make that choice. But All Other Things were not equal; and it’s hard to know how much of an attachment they’d formed to Turkish while in Turkey. Love Of Mother Tongue, like everything else, is taught, and they wouldn’t have found many such teachers.

And that’s all terribly confused, because on the one hand I don’t seek to be an apologist for nationalism, let alone to presume how the Karamanlides felt at the time; but on the other what the (former) speakers themselves now think should not be dismissed either. On the one hand, I can’t get over the notion that hating your mother tongue is dysfunctional; on the other, it’s as dysfunctional to expect Greeks in Greece to speak Turkish. The essentialism of nationalism—or at least, of unreflective, pitchfork-yielding nationalism, is not just hateful, it’s counterproductive; and not just counterproductive, but obscuring. There’s a reason linguists don’t want to hear about the political dimensions behind what counts as a separate language: the flags get in the way of seeing the isoglosses.

Yet flags matter too, and “Nationalism Bad” is itself an unreflective stance. People are invested in their identities. No less genuinely so, because the identity is changeable, and engineerable. I responded negatively to the commenter at Sarantakos’ who was happy that the Muslim Greeks had to leave Greece, because they had a family tradition of national fickleness, having converted in the first place. There was enough fickleness in the other direction, or alternating between the two, to make such atavistic purity tests contrary to the national interest—and not merely inhumane. Patriotism is not a matter of genetics, it is cultural, acquired, and contingent. That doesn’t mean it’s not real; and it doesn’t mean either that the descendants of the Karamanlides are somehow lesser Greeks, or that their Greekness doesn’t matter to them.

I got started on this post because I’m posting at The Other Place about the Urum. The Urum, like the Karamanlides, are Greeks Speaking The Wrong Language. As I’ll explore there, they seem to have sensed in the ’20s that they Spoke The Wrong Language: so they didn’t pursue Ausbau like every other minority in the USSR did. That may be a pity and brainwashing; or it may be redressing an historical anomaly (as Pontus And The Left put it). But it was real. Now, there are signs at least some of them are taking pride in their language after all—with the support of the Greeks Speaking The Right Language. That’s real too. Both groups are now turning into Ukrainians Speaking Neither Of The Above (Russian): the Greeks there, Greek-speaking and Tatar-speaking, now have different Otherness and different threats to their identity to deal with.


  • Anonymous says:

    A very insightful piece, but there is one important aspect of Turkic-speeking Greeks you didn't touch on: the special nature of Turkishness in relation to Greekness, which is to say, antithetical. If the Karamanlides spoke Arabic or German or some other language, they would still be speaking a wrong language as Greeks within the Greek state, but only if they spoke Turkish (or Tatar or Kyrgyz or Chukchi or whatever language associated with the Turks) would they be speaking The Wrong Language. Greek as a language has always had a supremacist attitude towards other languages, but ever since the Turks conquered Greece, Turkishness has earned a place as the absolute antithesis of Greekness, which complicates the matter even further when it comes to the linguistic aspects of these constructs. Which makes the Karamanlides an "impossible people", and the fact that they had to hate their mother tongue a no-brainer. Duh, you had to hate the fact that your mother tongue was Turkish if you wanted to be Greek. There may be a tragedy there, as these people weren't asked if they wanted to be Greek, but the fact of the matter is that you can be a Greek and speak any language as your mother tongue — as long as it ain't Turkish.

  • π2 says:

    To the links above, let me add a recent conference on the Karamanlidika (abstracts available, acts presumably soon to follow).

    On Axos of Kappadokia and on Axos of Pella, I found a thesis online (which I haven't read).

  • opoudjis says:

    @Anon: you do excellent well to ask for references, and I will disappoint you, because this is based on bits I remember reading ten years ago. Let me go through:

    * Mariupolitans: I've linked to a bibliography in The Other Place
    * Pontians of Tsalka: I only know of them through Wikipedia, as linked.
    * "bizim PAOK": a newspaper article I read in Greece, but 322 Google hits mean something.
    * Contossopoulos: personal communication.
    * Turkic = Muslim: background knowledge from living in Greece 🙂
    * Karamanlides not being noticed in Greek linguistic scholarship: I know absence of evidence is no evidence of absence, but I was seeking out documentation on minority languages in Greece for my PhD (which I did not use), and I saw *nothing* in the Athens and Thessalonica Uni libraries, or even in the linguistic histories of Modern Greek. The closest was one (1) dissertation on the Turkish of Western Thrace, which is not the same at all. Blogger Doctor has put up a review of a recent book on the Gagauz
    * Someone from Athens came to town: background knowledge on the Macedonian Struggle, and the business of having to raise Greek national consciousness among Slavophones.
    * Someone from Sofia came to town: comments by Butcher Of Yore on the comparable work done with Bulgarians in Eastern Thrace by Vasil Kanchov (in the context of the Trakatroukides of Kız Dervent, which I still owe him a post on).
    * The local landlord made a choice: one of the central theses of Karakasidou's book on identity in Greek Macedonia
    * Vlachs have changed their minds: that's probably the most controversial claim, and the blog I linked to before is by people who claim they haven't: article my friend George B. showed me once, about the more melancholy attitude contemporary Vlachs in Macedonia take to identity. This article at obviously has a pro-Aromanian POV, but talks about current and former attitudes in the Vlach population of FYROM; just ignore the references to "propaganda".
    * Karamanlides suffering in Greece for speaking Turkish: starting with this post by Doctor, but background knowledge from anyone who has heard the word τουρκόσπορος, really…

  • opoudjis says:

    @π2: Thank you for your awesome example. I was aware of Axos in Cappadocia through linguistics; to my embarrassment, I did not know until looking up links for this article that the Karamanlides had a proud reputation for literacy in the Ottoman world.

    The behaviour you report is paradoxical, but as you say, not at all irrational. People will reconfigure facts to fit a positive self image: they will be Karamanlides, because they remember their high reputation—higher in the Ottoman world than the few Cappadocians, I take it, and better known as a group; and they will be Greek-speaking Karamanlides, because that's the only way to retain prestige in the context of Greece.

    To the distinctiveness angle, I can only add the little shards I know:
    * The Grecophone Cappadocian numbers were tiny compared to Pontians (the number I remember, from Anastasiadis' Cappadocian Syntax PhD, is 37000 refugees); so it was harder for them to maintain distinctiveness to begin with, without latching on to a larger group.
    * The Cappadocians were anxious about recording their linguistic heritage, even if they weren't successful in preserving the language (or at least, so I thought until Mark Janse found contemporary speakers). Thanassis Costakis wrote the grammar of Anakou; he told me that Cappadocians would ring him after midnight with words they remembered, because they knew their language was dying. He contrasted that with his own Tsakonian, whose speakers were indifferent to its fate.

  • opoudjis says:

    @John: You, and a couple of my friends on Facebook, pointed out the parallels with assimilation in Australia; bizzarely, that had not even occurred to me, which is a curious kind of mental block! Australian nationalism is of course very different to Greek nationalism, which is why this post tiptoes so much: the ethnic component isn't completely absent, but it isn't anywhere near as strong.

    Speaking Punjabi in Hindi. That's a cool anecdote. People will do all sorts of stuff to maintain distinct linguistic identity. Aboriginal language revival worked, as far as some communities were concerned, if they got 10 words added to their Aboriginal English; the point was not the ergative as far as they were concerned, but the distinctiveness. Orthography gets similar quirks, just look at Norwegian vs Danish.

    More comments later, I'm afraid I'm on holiday. 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Could you please post your references?

  • π2 says:

    Extremely interesting post.

    The Karamanlides are a particularly interesting group as far as ethnic, linguistic and other choices and identities are concerned. And the situation can be even more complicated than the one you describe. An example follows:

    I recently met someone from Axos in the Prefecture of Pella. He proudly identified himself as a Karamanlis, and vehemently denied that Karamanli was a Turkish dialect (in fact he got offended): he insisted that his grandparents and the whole village had songs and old sayings in "a form of archaic Greek". Now, the interesting thing is that he was half right. Axos is a refugee settlement with most inhabitants originating from Axos in Kappadokia. The inhabitants of Axos in Kappadokia were, according to all accounts, almost exclusively Greek Orthodox and Greek-speaking; in fact it was one of the settlements with the higher percentage of Greek-speaking inhabitants in the area. And the Greek idioms of Kappadokia do have some archaic elements.

    The interesting question, however, is why he (and, presumably, the rest of Axiots) identified themselves as Karamanlides. The rational choice in the new environment of the Greek state, where Turkish was frowned upon and the Greek identity was promoted (or forced), would be for the Axiots to identify themselves as Kappadokes (as other groupos of refugees did) and not as Karamanlides. My guess is that this choice was due to two factors: a) there must have been some Karamanlides coming to (new) Axos, apart from the Kappadokes. At nearby Arravissos, apart from the pre-existing Vlachs, Slavophones and some local Greek-speakers, there arrived Kappadokes, Karamanlides and other groups. I had read a very interesting account (unfortunately the link is broken) of the ethnolinguistic situation there, describing how the teachers and the priests promoted the Greek identity, how Turkish was frowned upon, and how Greek-speaking refugees soon saw themselves as the leaders of the community.

    b) The choice of identity by the Axiots was much more complex than Greek / non-Greek, Greek speaking / Turkish-speaking. They retained the proud identification with their Greek language, but also saw themselves as part of the larger cultural group of nearby Karamanlides (remember that the Karamanlides of the Ottoman empire were very proud of their cultural identity, their comparatively higher literacy rates, etc.). In other words, in order to fit in better in their new environment, they chose as part of their overall identity the elements that served both the need of commonness with the needs of the Greek state (language, religion) and their needs of distinctness, of a common group origin for which they were and are proud of, even if its terminology is not technically correct.

  • Sraosha says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Phoevos says:

    Thank you very much for this: insightful and to the point. As usual.

  • John Cowan says:

    language is not the same as ethnicity (and neither is the same as nationality)

    Gee, ya think, O card-carrying member of the anglophone Greeks of Downundria?

    In India, there are some interesting effects in the north because of the wavering nature of the Abstand that separates the official languages. (Sort of like Standard French and Standard Italian being completely mutually unintelligible despite being connected by a historic dialect chain.) In particular, Standard Punjabi and Standard Hindi are sharply separated by their morphophonology among other things, but if you ask a peasant somewhere in the middle of the chain "What language do you speak at home?" you will get a "constructed" answer that has little to do with how close the local dialect is to the actual standards. If he says "Hindi", that may mean that he is or aspires to be educated in Standard Hindi, for example, even if his home variety is much closer to Standard Punjabi.

    What's more, for the past fifty years or so, Punjabi-speakers have been moving to the Delhi area and learning to speak Hindi, while persistently maintaining certain Punjabi markers in their speech that allows them to characterize it as non-Hindi. In sociolinguistic phenomenological terms, they are speaking in Punjabi in Hindi. Which is the equivalent of my saying I speak Yiddish because I have a few hundred words of Yiddish origin in my English. (And me not even Jewish. But that's another story about construct{ed,ive} identity…)

    In any case, there is nothing really paradoxical about declaring to a Russian census-taker that your native language is Greek, even if you don't speak a single word of Greek. Eliezer ben Yehuda apparently decided that his native language was Hebrew, and he took steps to Make It So, with consequences we see to this day. And just look at the self-view of Aromanians: in Greece (as you've reported) they are Hellenes who aren't Greeks; in Albania they are Greeks; in Bulgaria they are Romanians; in Romania they can't decide (and neither can the ethnic Romanians); in That Country Up North, they are themselves, whatever that is.

    Lastly, it seems like All This Stuff is still echoing in your own back yard. As the song says, when will they ever learn?, where "they", alas, means "we".)

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