Help Save Romeyka! Academic launches “last chance” crowdsourcing tool for Pontian Greeks

Professor Ioanna Sitaridou, right, with a 100 year-old Romeyka speaker in Turkey’s Trabzon region. Photograph: Professor Ioanna Sitaridou

University of Cambridge lecturer Dr Ioanna Sitaridou has launched a new initiative for Romeyka speakers.

The endangered Romeyka language, indigenous to northern Turkey and spoken by the Pontian Greek diaspora in Greece and all across the world, has a new lease on life after University of Cambridge lecturer Dr Ioanna Sitaridou launched the project "Crowdsourcing Romeyka."

The Greek dialect threatened with extinction is spoken by only a few thousand people in the remote Black Sea mountain villages of Trabzon, even though it has been described as a “living bridge” to the ancient world after researchers identified characteristics that have more in common with the language of Homer than with modern Greek.

Since Romeyka is threatened with extinction, Sitaridou launched a “last chance” crowdsourcing tool to record its unique linguistic structures before it is too late.

As the Guardian reported, the Crowdsourcing Romeyka project invites native speakers worldwide to upload recordings of themselves speaking the language. Ioanna Sitaridou, a professor of Spanish and historical linguistics, said she anticipated that many would be in the US and Australia, as well as spread across Europe.

“There is a very significant diaspora which is separated by religion and national identity [from the communities in Turkey], but still shares so much,” she said.

Sitaridou has established that rather than having developed from modern Greek, Romeyka descended from the Hellenistic form of the language spoken in the centuries before Christ and shared some key features with ancient Greek.

An example is the verb's infinitive form, which in Romeyka still uses the form found in Ancient Greek. So while speakers of Modern Greek would say “I want that I go”, Romeyka preserves the ancient form “I want to go”. This structure had become obsolete in all other Greek varieties by early medieval times.

As a result, Sitaridou has concluded that “Romeyka is a sister, rather than a daughter, of modern Greek”, a finding she says disrupts the claim that modern Greek is an “isolate” language, meaning it is unrelated to any other European language.

Modern Greek and Romeyka are not mutually intelligible, says the academic; she suggests that an apt comparison would be speakers of Portuguese and Italian, both of which derive from Vulgar Latin rather than from each other.

Though the history of the Greek presence in the Black Sea is not always easy to disentangle from legend, the Greek language expanded with the spread of Christianity. “Conversion to Islam across Asia Minor was usually accompanied by a linguistic shift to Turkish, but communities in the valleys retained Romeyka,” Sitaridou said.

In contrast, Greek-speaking communities that remained Christian grew closer to modern Greek, mainly because of extensive schooling in Greek in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne saw Turkey and Greece exchange their Christian and Muslim populations, but because the Romeyka-speaking communities in the Trabzon region are Muslim, they remained in their homeland despite being Greek.

However, according to Sitaridou, the language is now endangered due to extensive contact with Turkish, cultural stigma, and migration. A high proportion of native speakers in the region are over 65, and fewer young people learn the language.

Does she think the online initiative could help save Romeyka as a living language?

“Obviously I love all languages and I would like to see them preserved,” she said. “But I’m not one of these people who think languages have to be preserved at all costs. And at the end of the day, it’s not exactly down to me. If the speakers decide to pass it on, great. If the speakers choose not to pass it on, it’s their choice.

“What is very important for these [minority] languages and for these speech communities is to keep for themselves a sense of belonging and who they are. Because it connects them to their past, whatever way you see your past.

“When speakers can speak their home languages they feel seen and thus they feel more connected to the rest of society. On the other hand, not speaking the heritage or minority languages creates some form of trauma which … undermines integration.”

READ MORE: Google launches Woolaroo to preserve Calabrian Greek and other endangered languages.

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