Another obstacle in reading Makriyannis, if you’re trying to follow along on a map, is place names. He’ll mention, say, Sálona; you look on your map and find no such place. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you discover that it’s now called Amphissa. Fortunately, the Great Hellenic Encyclopedia not only gives all former place names in its articles, it cross-references them, and there is a copy in the New York Public Library. In the course of reading about the period, I had occasion to look up many such names, and my reference map of Greece is now liberally sprinkled with them, the old names in penciled parenthesis: Lamia (Zituni), Panetolion (Mustafuli), Evinos (Fidaris), Elatia (Drakhmani). What most of these pairs have in common is that the old name, the traditional name, is Turkish or otherwise foreign in origin; the “new” name is the classical name, imposed after many centuries of desuetude by the new government, indifferent to the virtues of allowing people to call their town, river, lake by the names they’d always used but supremely attentive to the desire of Western Europeans to imagine their beloved Hellas restored. The very name Hellas (Ellas in katharevusa, Ellada in dimotiki) was strange, foreign, to Greeks of the day; they called themselves Roman (Romios) and their language Romaic (romeika), and their dreamed-of capital was Constantinople, “the City” (i Poli, which in the phrase is tin Poli ‘to/in the City’ was the source of the Turkish name Istanbul). They wanted Emperor Constantine to reappear and reestablish the Roman Empire (what we call “Byzantine”) again; to reorient them to Athens and Pericles and this strange name “Hellas” took many decades. But it was accomplished, and in the end people could sit in a cafe in Amfissa rather than sitting in a cafe in Salona, and foreign visitors could travel the country using Thucydides or Pausanias as their guide and see the very same place names outside the windows of their bus. Like the Acropolis, the entire country had been wiped clean of distractions from the important reality, that of 2,500 years past.


  1. Wow, what a fascinating post. It’s hard to explain to people what joys can come from crawling word-by-word across a map. I’ve done the same thing as you were doing with maps of Spain, which is a toponymic casserole that would make even a geologist’s eyes cross.

  2. What about the Porte Greeks? Isn’t there a bunch of stubborn types in Thessaloniki whose grandparents were thrown out of Smyrna and other parts of Aisa Minor by Ataturk in 1925, who still speak a Greek dialect heavily larded with Turkish words, still dream of returning to the City and calling their language ‘Roman’ or ‘Christian’ again, and still celebrate obscure rituals marking them out from other Greeks?

    And haven’t the Turks been similarly traumatised by the crude 1920s alphabet Latinisation of Ataturk?

  3. Mark: Google has no results for “Porte Greeks,” and I’ve never heard the term; are you sure you’re not thinking about “Pontic Greeks,” the ones expelled from the Black Sea region who speak a dialect unintelligible to other Greeks? There are a bunch of them in the region around Thessaloniki, and as it happens I’ve just started an excellent book by Anastasia Karakasidou, Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, which deals (among other things) with that situation. In her Preface she says “The common popular perception, with which I too had been enculturated as I grew up, was that Greek Macedonia was inhabited by two groups: “locals” (dopyi) and “refugees” (prosfighes) from the 1922-23 Greco-Turkish War who had settled among them. Both groups were regarded as Greek…. [Doing research for the book] proved to be a far more challenging experience than I had anticipated, for I soon realized that despite my native fluency in Greek there was nevertheless much that I was missing because of my inability to speak the Pontic dialect. Moreover, now as I reread my field notes from Mavrorahi, I realize that I had been also hampered, although unconsciously, by a frame of mind that led me to relate to the Pontics there as one Greek to another. There are many unstated assumptions…” I think, though, that if those refugees dream of returning anywhere, it’s to villages in the Trebizond area; most of their ancestors probably never saw Constantinople.

    As for the Turks, I don’t think most of them were all that traumatized by the new alphabet (although of course the cultured types who had a psychological investment in Arabic-script literature were); the Latin alphabet happens to be far more suited to Turkic languages than the Arabic (which doesn’t mark vowels), and it’s far easier to learn to read and write now. The alphabet chosen is weird for foreigners (especially c = j), but of course that doesn’t bother the Turks. Alphabetization was actually one of Mustafa Pasha’s better innovations.

  4. Silly me – yes, of course, I mean the Pontic Greeks, you’re quite right. I constantly mix those up (I’m obviously thinking of the Divine Porte – the rule of the White Eunuchs, rule of the Black Eunuchs, and all that jazz…).

    My Turkish friends have convinced me that Latin letters are better suited to Turkish than the Arabic alphabet, yes, but I still find the wholesale suppression of a writing system chilling and Orwellian in itself. After all, if it was so obviously intrinsically better, why the need for compulsion? And the way it prevents ordinary Turks from reading their old books without the special effort of learning the other alphabet, and some other words – isn’t there something sinisterly manipulative (culturally disenfranchising vandalism) about that act of government, quite separate from rational discussion of what the best script would be?

  5. Interesting that for all the utopianism of the field of “language planning”, its most successfully implemented achievements (aside from the revival of Hebrew) seem to be in the area of writing reform, and yet often at great cost to their users.

    I’m reminded of what my sinophile cousin tells me about the modern turn of events in Chinese. After about two millennia of the writing system being one of the great cultural unifiers across China, Beijing and Taiwan have intentionally taken the system in different directions, apparently to make it more difficult for their populations to read each others’ propaganda. The situation is even worse when it comes to online text, where competing systems like GB and BIG5 are intended to enforce the non-interoperability of mainland and Taiwanese content and software. Although apparently people are getting around these problems; a bit of Googling turns up a lot of what looks like Chinese-to-Chinese “translation” software.

    At least that’s what I’ve gathered. Anybody know whether I’ve got my facts right or the above is just a bunch of folklore?

  6. Prentiss: I don’t know anything about the online situation, but the alphabet discrepancy is due to the PRC, not Taiwan, which uses the same characters that have been in use for centuries. In the ’50s Mao decreed that the writing system should be simplified in order to make it simpler for people to learn; while in theory this might have been sensible, in practice it was done (of course) by ideologues with no linguistic knowledge and less aesthetic sense, so that the results are extremely unpleasant to anyone with knowledge of the classical system (unlike the much more restrained Japanese simplifications). There’s a brief description of writing reforms here.

  7. romeika = Romaic? I wonder whether “Romaeic” might not be more in line with convention and etymology.

  8. Nope, it’s spelled Romaic in English. Which is certainly in line with etymology (Roma).

  9. Now that the politics has died down, it’s clear that the split in character encodings (as distinct from repertoires, or lists of characters in use) between GB and Big5 wasn’t intentional separation, just the consequences of separate and uncoordinated development.

  10. And the way (the adoption of the Latin alphabet) prevents ordinary Turks from reading their old books
    There was very little in the way of Arabic-alphabet book printing in the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. Napoleon is generally credited with bringing the printing press to the Arab-Muslim world.
    A sometimes vexing issue is the deciphering of old land deeds, legal agreements and the like.

  11. In any case, modern Turks can’t understand their old books anyway unless they have studied Ottoman Turkish, which is loaded with Perso-Arabic and Persian loan words and even loan syntax. The alphabet reform is the smallest part of the overall language reform, which gave Turkish a transparent alphabet, a transparent morphology, and all without too many archaisms and adoptions from other Turkic languages. For that matter, writing modern Turkish in the Arabic script would be close to unintelligible, what with only three vowel letters to represent eight vowels short and long.

Speak Your Mind