The cosmopolitans of the Byzantine capital

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Constantinople Greeks
Arnavutköy was one of the largest Greek coastal villages on the Bosporus. Photo credits: Özgür Okkalı, CC BY-SA 2.5/ Wikipedia

by Matthew John Hadodo, PhD *

Most people are familiar with the song “Istanbul was Constantinople” and perhaps no better than the Greeks of Istanbul themselves. Although there were hundreds of thousands around the turn of the century, there are only a few thousand left in Istanbul today.

Despite the geopolitical conflicts that have affected the local population, Istanbul Greeks take great pride in preserving their specific type of Greek that embodies their experience in the historic Byzantine capital: cosmopolitanism.

Istanbul’s Greek dialect, with influences from Mediterranean Greek varieties and other languages ​​spoken in the city, is an important way for the Istanbul Greeks to preserve their cosmopolitan cultural heritage.

Constantinople Greeks only about 2,000

The Istanbul Greeks are an indigenous minority that numbered around 300,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century, at that time around 35% of Istanbul’s population. With currently around 2,000 members, Istanbul Greeks now make up around 0.01% of Istanbul’s population of nearly 20,000,000.

Constantinople Greeks
Close up of traditional wooden houses in the Greek style of Istanbul with cumbalar / τζούμπες, closed rectangular balconies. Photo credit: Matthew John Hadodo

Since the city of 657 BC BC (about 2500 years ago) was founded by Dorian Greeks
Megara, Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul is home to a great diversity of communities. Throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, Greeks immigrated from all over the world (especially Epirus, Thrace, Chios, Cappadocia) and helped shape the community into a unique New York-style melting pot.

The borders of that time were permeable and changeable. Greeks came together and thus very different dialects mixed.

In addition, other groups of people with different languages ​​also made up 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 Greek dialect of Constantinople has many features found in peripheral variants of Greek, the retention of certain archaisms that have been lost in most dialects, many borrowings from the other languages, and also similarities with standard Greek.

When you ask an Istanbul Greek about dialectical differences, the first thing you will be told is specific lexical differences. Some vocabulary comes straight from Turkish and other languages.

Constantinople Greeks
On the left is one of two buildings of the Greek consulate, the Sismanoglio Megaro, on Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian path that connects Pera / Beyoglu with Tünel. In the Megaro there are archives in which various cultural events take place. The adjacent buildings are bank fronts that have retained the neoclassical / baroque style. Photo credit: Matthew John Hadodo

For example, μπαύγδμι from the Turkish bath (almond) exists next to αμύγδαλο. Something
French and Italian words first went into Turkish before becoming part of Istanbul Greek, such as: B. Italian passaporto> Tk pasaport> πασασ.

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

The name Istanbul itself is symbolic of language bonds. Although there are some folk etymologies out there trying to explain where the term comes from, Istanbul is most likely derived
from Stim Poli (to or in the city) and even in the late Ottoman period, that is what the British and others called Constantinople at the time called Stamboul, especially when referring to the old town. Of course, the city is now called Istanbul in Turkish, although it used to be called Konstaniye.

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

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

Pronunciation of the Greeks of Constantinople

As a result, Istanbul Greek is not easily classified as one dialect group over another. In terms of pronunciation, one of the most notable features of Istanbul Greek is the “dark l” before the vowels a, o, and u. These are often referred to as βαρύ or th (thick) when the ls are produced more in the back of the throat than in the front , as in standard Greek.

A photo of the author’s great-great-uncle Pavlos Makridis and his family in Istanbul sometime in the 1930s. Photo credit: Matthew John Hadodo

This dialectal pronunciation and the use of the accusative object “me / se” instead of the standard “mu / su” for indirect objects has some similarities with northern Greek dialects.

Other pronunciation or phonetic differences include the pronunciation of “τς” and “τζ” as “ch” and “j”. Some words of French or other origin that have also entered standard Greek, such as ζακέτα, retain the French “zh” sound (thinking measure) in Istanbul Greek.

Why is the dialect different? Although there are many linguistic explanations, social factors play a huge role in how language changes over time. Socio-historical 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

Since the Greeks of Constantinople historically constituted a large part of the city’s cosmopolitan nature prior to the Byzantine and during the Ottoman periods, they served in notable commercial, cultural, and political roles.

These included the Phanariote elite, who served as princes of Wallachia and Moldova, many architects trained in Western European architectural styles, and many medium-sized shopkeepers in the Pera district. Particularly prominent were pastry shops based on the French model, in which many Istanbul Greeks had trained in France.

Associated with all ethnic groups that are largely intermingled (there were very few enclaves where there was only one community) in an integrated way. The great Franco-Levantine, Judeo-Spanish, Armenian, and other populations were often
Colleagues, classmates and neighbors. This results in both the European and Asian parts of the city having a uniquely European flair in the buildings and types of shops and store fronts.

This European cosmopolitanism is then reflected in the language of the Greek community in Istanbul.

Linguists often discuss the role of separation in the divergence of language and dialect. This is
This is especially true of Greek varieties spoken throughout the Mediterranean. The various Greek communities in Asia Minor, established since Byzantine times and earlier, were largely separated, with mountains, valleys and seas separating them.

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

Despina Makridou
Left Despina Makridou (born 1918) at the age of about 10 in her school uniform. Photo credit: Matthew John Hadodo

Migration and language

However, migration also plays a significant role in language variation. The forced population exchange of 1923 is known to many Greeks and non-Greeks around the world today. After the Greco-Turkish War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, around 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor were sent to Greece despite “Turkish” soils. In return, around half a million Turks were sent to Turkey.

Interestingly, these exchanges were based on religion rather than language, so many of the Greeks of Asia Minor were entirely Turkish or spoke a different dialect of Greek (including Pontics, Cappadocians, and others) and many of the Turks spoke Greek exclusively. The Greeks of Istanbul (as well as the islands of Imvros and Tenedos) and the Turkish Muslims of Western Thrace were spared from the exchange.

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

This is one of the reasons why many Katharevousa words and phrases are still used in everyday conversations in Istanbul without necessarily having the same connotations as in Athens.

Constantinople Greeks
The grandmother of the author Despina Makridou Kirmizelma with his mother Margaret in the late 1950s on one of the Princes’ Islands. Photo 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, while this and related terms have become euphemisms for “prostitutes” in Greece.

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

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

Visiting contemporary Istanbul is very different if you don’t necessarily know the depths of local history. Many Greeks or politicians in Istanbul call themselves and prefer the term Romioi. Ellines is reserved for those from mainland Greece, also known as the elladites.

* Matthew John Hadodo PhD in sociolinguistics from the University of Pittsburgh with a focus on language and identity and started a postdoctoral position at the Center for the Study of Language and Society at the University of Bern. His work mainly focuses on the critically endangered Greek dialect of Istanbul.



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