The Pontian Greek dialect, or more commonly known as Romeika (Ρωμαίικα), is thought to have died as a language in Turkey after the the 1923 population exchange when all the Christian Greeks of the Black Sea coast known as Pontus (Πόντος), and also those in Asia Minor (Μικρά Ἀσία), were expelled to Greece.
The language is a direct descendant of the Koine Greek spoken 2,500 years ago. As Pontus is an isolated region wedged between the sea and mountains, Romeika did not develop much compared to the Greek language of other regions, and in a sense, is much closer to Ancient Greek than the Modern Greek spoken today.
A part of modern Greek mythology was that hundreds of thousands of Muslim Romeika speakers existed in Pontus, but there was just no way of knowing. However, enter the 21st century with the digital age and internet, and all of a sudden people could connect with those in Pontus. With this, many contacts and friendships have emerged between the Greek-speakers of Turkey and the descendants of those who were expelled from the region.
To the shock of many people, who may not know this fact even to this day, the Greek language and culture is still alive and thriving in Pontus. It is kept alive and continued by many of the Muslims in the isolated villages of Pontus away from the cities, even nearly 100 years since the population exchange.
Merve Tanrıkulu is one such Romeika speaker keeping this culture alive in Turkey. The young musician was born in 1992 in the town of Okena (Όκενα, Turkish: Köknar) in Katohoriou district (Κατωχωρίου, Turkish: Çaykara) district of Trapezounta province. She describes herself as a "Black Sea woman" and says Romeika is her identity.
Her music video can be found below.
When asked by Greek City Times what Romeika means for her identity and culture, she explains that it is everything because it is her "mother tongue."
"Romeika is actually my identity. Because Romeika was spoken as the mother tongue in the village where I was born and grew up, and I grew up speaking this language. I even thought the world language was Romeika. Everything that made me, my childhood, my culture, was shaped by Romeika. My first love story is Romeika," Tanrıkulu explained.
She recalls how going to school as a child was her first contact directly with the Turkish language and how this was difficult as her teacher did not know Romeika.
"But this was not a problem because I was speaking half Turkish in school and Romeika in social areas. I think Turkish was just a language of instruction for us, because when we speak Turkish in the social environment in the village, it was seen as funny. Of course this situation started to change after our migration from the village to the city," she said.
Greek City Times asked her that because Romeika is an archaic form of the Greek language, in fact one of the most ancient forms of Greek, whether being a speaker of Romeika makes her feel like she is a part of an ancient culture thousands of years old.
Her response was "of course it does."
"We are talking about a language that has a 2,500-year history," she added. "It is possible to find traces in many areas. In this context, I travel to the past from time to time."
When inquired why it is important that Romeika survives in Turkey, the singer says that the language adds "richness" to the country.
"Firstly, it should be known that in some villages of Trabzon, there are young people and old people who still do not speak Turkish very well. Also, why would a culture or a language disappear? For me, it should be seen as a colour and richness. As an individual raised by Romeika, I believe that we owe it to be protected instead of destroying it. I do not understand why we are fighting so hard to destroy everything, to forget it and to ignore it," the cultural activist said.
When asked further about this, Tanrıkulu said that for some people in Turkey, the existence of Romeika is seen as "insulting" and that they have to lie about being speakers of it, and rather say they speak the Kartvelian language of Laz that is related to Georgian.
"Unfortunately, a problem of Romeika in Turkey is that it is seen as insulting. Even people who speak Romeika have to say that the language they speak is in Laz, not Romeika. For this reason, there are many people who think that the language spoken in Trapezounta is not Romeika but Laz. For these reasons, the language and culture of Romeika is dying. It even entered UNESCO's list of endangered languages. What a pain, isn't it? Because what keeps a culture alive is the language," she stressed.
When asked about her musical journey and how it is important for Romeika, she explained that she first sees herself "as a worker" of her "culture, rather than a musician."
"I'm not just singing. I read poetry, tell stories, etc. While I was complaining that I should sing more to my friends who are interested in Black Sea music, I decided to undertake this mission on the recommendation of a friend. Our laments, epics and folk songs should not disappear. That's why singing Romeika is of course very important and valuable for both my childhood and Romeika. Fortunately, I went this way," Tanrıkulu said.
As part of ensuring Romeika stays alive, Tanrıkulu released a professional music video titled 'Romeika Ninni'.
"I got very nice comments from Greece. They loved it, I did not receive any negative comments. In Turkey there were many very loving people who sent me nice messages, but I have also received many negative reviews. They wanted to see me as being political. However, I am neither a politician nor a historian. Of course, I have an ideological thought, but I have never been a person to use it for interest or provocation," she emphasised.
When asked more about this, she said "there was a lot of pain in the past."
"Of course, we will also talk about the pain, but we must look ahead by using the language for peace and doing beautiful things. By tampering with the past, we will damage the future and our culture. After doing some research, I saw that whatever job you do, there will definitely be people who do not love you and insult you. I would like to tell people who do not like me, may they believe in the power of love. Thinking negatively and using insulting language only makes them unhappy," she urged.
"I think music is the best way to reach people because expressing injustice, longing, resentment, pain and love with music provides an opportunity to touch hearts. As you know, there is a Romeika-Turkish dictionary prepared by the beloved Vahit Tursun and published by Heyamola for readers. I also translated a Turkish book into Romeika and it will be the first book translated into Romeika. It's a great feeling to produce this, I'm excited," she said with pride.
When asked to explain more about her song 'Romeika Ninni', she explained that "It is a work that will always have a special place for me as it is my first work."
"We released Romeika Ninni professionally about a year ago. We made Romeika Ninni as it was a work that was never done before but suggested by my friend Özcan Onat, who was my companion. I wrote the lyrics from the words I compiled from our elderly people in the village. And believe me, by using that feeling, I tried to look through the eyes of a mother on the Black Sea. Vahit Tursun was a grammatical editor. We shot the clip in a village of Trapezounta and it was directed Murat Davulcu," she explained.
*Watch 'Romeika Ninni' here-
As a final question to her, Greek City Times asked if she had any plans to perform in Greece in the future?
"I have never been to Greece. I was supposed to come for an event before the coronavirus pandemic canceled everything. I would love to come to Greece and sing with people," she concluded.