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Constantinople Greeks: The Cosmopolitans of Byzantium’s Capital

Constantinople Greeks
Arnavutköy was one of the biggest Greek sea-side villages in the Bosporus. Credit: Özgür Okkalı, CC BY-SA 2.5/Wikipedia

by Matthew John Hadodo, PhD

Most people are aware of the song “Istanbul was Constantinople” and perhaps none better than the Greeks of Istanbul. Although at the turn of the 20th century they numbered hundreds of thousands, there are only a few thousand left in Istanbul today.

Despite the geopolitical conflicts that have impacted the local population, Istanbul Greeks are very proud to maintain their specific brand of Greekness that embodies their experience in the historic Byzantine capital: cosmopolitanism.

The Istanbul Greek dialect, with influence from Greek varieties across the Mediterranean and other languages spoken in the City, is one important way Istanbul Greeks hold onto their cosmopolitan cultural heritage.

Constantinople Greeks only about 2,000

The Istanbul Greeks are an indigenous minority that in the early 20th century numbered around 300,000 individuals, then approximately 35% of Istanbul’s population. With currently about 2,000 members, Istanbul Greeks now make up around 0.01% of Istanbul’s population of nearly 20,000,000.

Constantinople Greeks
Closeup of traditional wooden Istanbul Greek style homes with cumbalar/τζούμπες, enclosed rectangular balconies. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

Since the city was founded in 657 BC (about 2,500 years ago) by Doric Greeks from
Megara, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul has been home to a vast diversity of communities. Throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Greeks from all over (especially Epirus, Thrace, Chios, Cappadocia) migrated and helped shape the community into a unique New York City style melting pot.

The borders that existed then were permeable and changing. Greeks came together and very different dialects mixed as a result.

Furthermore, other groups of people with distinct languages also formed the larger Istanbul community. Venetians, Genoese, Franco-Levantines, Armenians, Judeo-Spanyol speaking Sephardic Jews, and of course Turks, among other groups, all brought their languages with them.

Greek dialect

As a result, the Constantinople Greek dialect has a lot of features found in peripheral varieties of Greek, maintenance of certain archaisms lost in most dialects, many borrowings from the other languages, and commonalities with standard Greek, too.

If you ask any Istanbul Greek about dialectal differences, the first thing they will tell you are specific lexical differences. Some vocabulary words come directly from Turkish and other languages.

Constantinople Greeks
On the left is one of two buildings belonging to the Greek Consulate, the Sismanoglio Megaro on Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian walkway connecting Pera/Beyoglu with Tünel. Inside the Megaro are archives where they host different cultural events. The contiguous buildings are shorefronts that maintained the Neoclassical/Baroque style. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

For example, μπαντέμι from Turkish badem (almond) exists alongside αμύγδαλο. Some
French and Italian words went to Turkish first before becoming part of Istanbul Greek such as Italian passaporto > Tk pasaport > πασαπόρτι.

Other words were directly borrowed from other languages without ever being incorporated into Turkish, such as French portmonnaie > πορτμονέ (coin purse).

The name Istanbul itself is symbolic of language borrowings. Although there are a few folk etymologies trying to explain where the term comes from, Istanbul is most likely derived
from Stin Poli (to or in the City) and even in the late Ottoman era, Stamboul is how British and others called then Constantinople, especially when referring to the Old City. Of course now the name of the city in Turkish is Istanbul although they used to call it Konstaniye.

Common vocabulary of Greek origin in Istanbul Greek include terms such as όρνιθα for chicken, γιατρικά for medicine, χουλιάρι for spoon, απίδι for pear, κόχη for street corner, and many, many others.

Some of these are archaisms, such as χουλιάρι which comes from Byzantine κοχλιάριον and along with απίδι are found in Pontic and Cappadocian Greek varieties, among other Greek dialects. Other verbs such as μνείσκω (to live in a particular place) and the pronunciation of κάνω as κάμ(ν)ω are also older forms found in dialects such as Cypriot and Cretan Greek.

Pronunciation of Constantinople’s Greeks

As a result, Istanbul Greek is not easily definable as belonging neatly to one dialect group over another. In terms of pronunciation, one of the most noteworthy features of Istanbul Greek is the “dark l” before the vowels a, o, and u. Often called βαρύ or χοντρό (thick), these are when the ‘l’ is produced more at the back of the throat rather than at the front as in standard Greek.

Cosmopolitan Greeks
A photo of the author’s great great uncle Pavlos Makridis and his family in Istanbul sometime in the 1930s. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

This dialectal pronunciation and the use of accusative object case “me/se” rather than standard “mou/sou” for indirect objects shows some similarities with Northern Greek dialects.

Other pronunciation, or phonetic differences include pronouncing “τς” and “τζ” as “ch” and “j.” Also, some words of French or other origin that have entered into Standard Greek, such as ζακέτα, maintain the French “zh” sound (think ‘measure’) in Istanbul Greek.

Why is the dialect different? Although there are plenty of linguistic explanations, social factors play a large role in how language changes over time. Sociohistorical and geopolitical reasons can explain a lot about how certain aspects of Istanbul Greek evolved the way they did.

Constantinople Greeks in commercial, cultural, and political roles

Having historically constituted a major part of the city’s cosmopolitan nature from prior to the Byzantine and throughout the Ottoman eras, Constantinople Greeks served in noteworthy commercial, cultural, and political roles.

These included a Phanariot elite serving as Princes to Wallachia and Moldovia, many architects trained in Western European construction styles, and many middle-class shop owners in the Pera neighborhood. Especially prominent were French-style patisseries where many Istanbul Greeks had trained in France.

When coupled with all the ethnic groups, there was much commingling (there were very few enclaves where there was solely one community) and integration. The large Franco-Levantine, Judeo-Spanyol, Armenian, and other populations were often co-workers, schoolmates, and neighbors. This results in much of both the European and Asian sides of the city having a unique European flair to the buildings and types of shops and store fronts.

This European cosmopolitanis is echoed in the language of the Istanbul Greek community.

Linguists often discuss the role separation plays in language and dialect divergence. This is
particularly true in the case of Greek varieties spoken across the Mediterranean. The different Greek communities of Asia Minor established from the Byzantine era and earlier were separated across long distances with mountains, valleys, and seas in between.

As Turkish speaking Ottomans spread across the region, their influence culturally and linguistically was clear (and, for this reason, we see many similarities with regions of Greece under extended intimate Ottoman rule, such as northern Greece, Crete, Rhodes, etc.). Separation and isolation played a role in the development of these and other language varieties.

Despina Makridou
Despina Makridou on the left (born in 1918) at about 10 years old or so in her school uniform. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

Migration and language

However, migration also plays a significant role in language variation. Many Greeks and non-Greeks alike worldwide are now aware of the forced population exchange of 1923. After the Greco-Turkish war and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, about 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor were sent to Greece despit “Turkish” soil having been their homeland. In turn, about half a million Turks were sent to Turkey.

What is interesting is that these exchanges were based on religion rather than language, so many of the Asia Minor Greeks were completely Turcophonic or spoke a very distinct dialect of Greek (including Pontics, Cappadocians, and others) and many of the Turks spoke exclusively Greek. Spared from the exchange were the Greeks of Istanbul (as well as the islands of Imvros and Tenedos) and the Turkish Muslims of Western Thrace.

Although many Istanbul Greeks left their homeland of what is now Turkey for various reasons, the separation from mainland Greece throughout the 19th and 20th centuries meant that Istanbul Greeks did not undergo the same language policies that the majority of the Greek-speaking world did.

This is part of the reason why many Katharevousa words and phrases are still used in everyday conversation in Istanbul, without necessarily having the same connotations as they would in, say, Athens.

Constantinople Greeks
The author’s grandmother, Despina Makridou Kirmizelma, with his mother, Margaret, in the late 1950s on one of the Prince Islands. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

Even non-Katharevousa words that are no longer used in mainland Greece are still used in Istanbul. For example, παστρικός and its derivatives are still used for “clean” in Istanbul whereas this and related terms have become euphemisms for “prostitutes” in Greece.

The reason for this is because of the Asia Minor Greek refugees who were disparaged for washing themselves more regularly than their Athenian counterparts and thus were deemed as being “clean” in order to prostitute (which was not necessarily the case, of course). However, this semantic shift never took pace in Istanbul, so the word is still used.

Nevertheless, many Istanbul Greeks, especially the youth, those with Greek satellite television, and those with strong family ties in Greece, have increasingly adopted Standard Greek features in their speech.

Visiting contemporary Istanbul is very different when you don’t necessarily know the local history in depth. Many Istanbul Greeks, or Polites, refer to themselves and prefer the term Romioi. Ellines gets reserved for those from mainland Greece, otherwise referred to as Elladites.

*Matthew John Hadodo completed his PhD in sociolinguistics at the University of Pittsburgh focusing on language and identity and started a postdoctoral position at the University of Bern’s Center for the Study of Language and Society. His work mostly focuses on the endangered Istanbul Greek dialect.

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