The cosmopolitans of the Byzantine capital


Greeks of Constantinople
Arnavutköy was one of the largest Greek seaside villages on the Bosphorus. Credit: Özgür Okkalı, CC BY-SA 2.5 / Wikipedia

by Matthew John Hadodo, PhD *

Most people know the song “Istanbul was Constantinople” and maybe no better than the Greeks in Istanbul themselves. Although at the turn of the 20th century they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, today only a few thousand remain in Istanbul.

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

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

The Greeks of Constantinople only about 2,000

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

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

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

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

In addition, other groups of people with distinct languages ​​also formed Istanbul’s larger community. The Venetians, Genoese, Franco-Levantines, Armenians, Judeo-Spanish speaking Sephardic Jews and of course Turks, among other groups, all brought their language with them.

Greek dialect

As a result, the Constantinople Greek dialect exhibits many characteristics found in peripheral varieties of Greek, maintaining some lost archaisms in most dialects, many borrowings from other languages, and commonalities with Standard Greek as well.

If you ask a Greek from Istanbul about dialect differences, the first thing they’ll tell you are specific lexical differences. Some vocabulary words come directly from Turkish and other languages.

Greeks of Constantinople
On the left is one of the two buildings belonging to the Greek Consulate, the Sismanoglio Megaro on Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian bridge connecting Pera / Beyoglu to Tünel. Inside the Megaro are archives where they host various cultural events. The adjoining buildings are riverbanks which have retained the neoclassical / baroque style. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

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

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

The name Istanbul itself is symbolic of linguistic borrowings. Although there are some popular etymologies trying to explain where the term comes from, Istanbul is most likely derived
from Stim Poli (to or in the city) and even at the end of the Ottoman era, Stamboul is how the British and others then called Constantinople, especially in reference to the old city. Of course, now the city’s name in Turkish is Istanbul, although they called it Konstaniye.

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

Some of them 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 like κάμ (ν) ω are also older forms found in dialects such as Cypriot and Cretan Greek.

Pronunciation of the Greeks of Constantinople

As a result, Istanbul Greek is not easily defined as belonging to one dialect group rather than 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. Often referred to as βαρύ or χοντρό (thick), they occur when ls are produced more at the back of the throat 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 in the 1930s. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

This dialect pronunciation and the use of the accusative object case “me / se” rather than the standard “mu / su” for indirect objects show some similarities with northern Greek dialects.

Other pronunciation or phonetic differences include the pronunciation of “Ï„Ï‚” and “τζ” such as “ch” and “j”. Additionally, some words of French or other origin that have also entered Standard Greek, such as ζακέτα, retain the French sound “zh” (think measuring) in Istanbul Greek.

Why is the dialect different? Although there are many linguistic explanations, social factors play an important role in the evolution of language over time. Sociohistorical and geopolitical reasons can largely explain how certain aspects of Istanbul Greek evolved as they did.

Greeks of Constantinople in commercial, cultural and political roles

Having historically been an important part of the city’s cosmopolitan nature before the Byzantine era and throughout the Ottoman era, the Greeks of Constantinople held notable commercial, cultural and political roles.

These included the Phanariot elite serving as princes in Wallachia and Moldova, many architects trained in Western European building styles, and many middle-class shop owners in the Pera district. Of particular importance were the French-style pastries where many Greeks from Istanbul had trained in France.

When associated with all ethnic groups mixing widely (there were very few enclaves where there was only one community) in an integrated manner. The large Franco-Levantine, Judeo-Spanish, Armenian and other populations were often
colleagues, classmates and neighbors. As a result, most of the European and Asian sides of the city have a unique European style for buildings and types of shops and storefronts.

This European cosmopolitanism then finds an echo in the language of the Greek community in Istanbul.

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

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

Despina Makridou
Despina Makridou on the left (born 1918) aged about 10 in her school uniform. Credit: Matthew John Hadodo

Migration and language

However, migration also plays an important role in linguistic variation. Many Greeks and non-Greeks around the world are now aware of the forced population exchange of 1923. After the Greco-Turkish War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, approximately 1.5 million Greeks in Asia Minor were sent to Greece despite the fact that their “Turkish” soil was their homeland. In turn, around half a million Turks were sent to Turkey.

What’s interesting is that these exchanges were based on religion rather than language, so many Greeks in Asia Minor were either completely Turkic or spoke a different Greek dialect (including Pontic, Cappadocians and others) and many 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 Greeks from Istanbul left their homeland of present-day Turkey for various reasons, the separation from mainland Greece during the 19th and 20th centuries meant that the Greeks in Istanbul had not suffered the same language policies. than the majority of the Greek speaking world.

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 in Athens.

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

Even the 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 to “cleanse” in Istanbul, while this term and related terms have become euphemisms for “prostitutes” in Greece.

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

Nonetheless, many Greeks in Istanbul, especially young people, those with Greek satellite television, and those with close family ties in Greece increasingly adopted features of Standard Greek in their speech.

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

* Matthew John Hadodo completed his doctorate in sociolinguistics at the University of Pittsburgh with a focus on language and identity, and began a postdoctoral position at the Center for the Study of Language and Society at the University of Bern. His work mainly focuses on the endangered Greek dialect of Istanbul.


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