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‘Romeyka’ The Ancient Greek Dialect Spoken in Northern Turkey

Romeyka speakers
Two Romeyka speakers in a traditional house on a summer meadow in Çaykara, Trabzon Province, Turkey. Credit: İhsan Deniz Kılıçoğlu / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Romeyka is a dialect of Greek spoken in the region of Trabzon (Trapezounta) and Pontus, around Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Researchers say it bears striking resemblances to ancient Greek dialects.

Its speakers are Muslims but many also trace their lineage back to the Pontic Greeks, who mostly left Turkey for Greece during the population exchanges of the early 20th century.

However, this fascinating dialect is threatened and may become extinct, as only small communities in Northern Turkey still speak it. Professor Ioanna Sitaridou at Cambridge University is currently leading a team of academics researching the Romeyka dialect.

Romeyka, an endangered dialect

Romeyka is “the last surviving variety of Greek spoken in north-eastern Turkey in the area traditionally known as Pontus,” says Profesor Ioanna Sitaridou. Presently, only three Greek-speaking enclaves of the Romeyka dialect remain in the region in Çaykara, Sürmene, and Tonya.

During antiquity and the medieval period, many inhabitants of Anatolia in what was then a part of the Byzantine Empire spoke a variety of the Greek language, which was the lingua franca of the region.

However, many of the region’s inhabitants adopted the Islamic religion as Antalolia was gradually conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Some of these converts kept their original languages, whereas others began to speak Ottoman Turkish more frequently. On the other hand, some Muslim Turks and Cappadocians who migrated to north-eastern Anatolia adopted the local Greek dialects, before over time mostly adopted Turkish.

In any case, the linguistic evolution in the region was quite complex as the process of Islamization took place between the 15th and 18th centuries. In 1923 however, a population exchange occurred between Greece and Turkey, and virtually all Orthodox Christians, many of whom spoke Greek, were expelled from the region.

However, the Romeyka speakers were Muslims and therefore allowed to remain in Turkey. This explains the continued presence of a Greek dialect in the region, whereas most other Pontic Greeks were permanently expelled.

Only the very few remaining Greeks living on the islands of Imbros (Gökçeada) and Tenedos (Bozcaada), as well as those in Istanbul, and the descendants of expelled Muslim Cretans, still speak Greek in Turkey.

Linguistic features and academic importance

The academics researching Romeyka have done so with urgency since this variety of the Greek language is now itself endangered. According to UNESCO, it is “definitely endangered” and the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages lists it as “severely endangered”.

The linguistic profile of Romeyka is interesting for several reasons. The dialect has some influences from Turkish, like word orders, but several other elements are influenced by earlier features of Greek  not present in modern dialects of Greek.

One of these is the preservation of the infinitive in Romeyka, whereas the infinitive is no longer used in modern Greek.

Romeyka is also different from modern Greek and neighboring languages and dialects with respect to negation, double object constructions, and multiple wh-fronting.

“Romeyka is a living language preserving structures only to be found in Classical Greek, which has been dead for more than 2,000 years,” says Professor Ioanna Sitaridou. “What these people are speaking is a variety of Greek far more archaic than other forms of Greek spoken today.”


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