Whenever I miss my grandparents, I re-read Dido Sotiriou’s classic novel «Ματωμένα Χώματα» (Bloodied Earth), not only because she provides a harrowing and all too human account of an Asia Minor Hellenism on the brink of destruction, but also because she is one of the few writers who attempts in her work, to record the dialect of the Asia Minor Aegean littoral. When I read her pages, the voice of my grandfather, whose family, like that of Sotiriou also hailed from Aidinio, modern day Aydin, and an entire lost world, come to life:

Θείρα μ’ ισύ μι τσι κρουνοί

κι μι τσι πρασ’νάδις

κι μιτα λιβιντόπ’δα

κι τσ’ εύμορφις κυράδις.

Growing up in suburban Melbourne and listening to my grandparents use such words as μπάνκα, βιζιταδόρος and αντρέσα, I marvelled at how expertly they had assimilated what I believed to be English loan words into their spoken Greek. My astonishment grew even greater upon hearing my grandmother harangue me on the importance of «να μη βγάζω νάμι,», that is, not acquiring a bad reputation or name.

Yet these words, and so many others employed by my forebears were not acquired in Australia. They existed in their vocabulary from that primeval time before their exile from Asia Minor, in the aftermath of the Catastrophe. For ours here in the Antipodes is not the first multicultural and multi-linguistic Greek reality. Pre-Catastrophe Smyrna was a vibrant trading and cultural entrepot oriented towards both West and East, housing a multitude of different ethnicities, including Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Levantines and Jews. It was only natural that with these Smyrnans rubbing shoulders with one another, interacting with each other, falling in love with each other and competing with each other for markets, privileges and opportunities, that the veritable Babel of languages spoken in the city, would coalesce in order to form an international vocabulary with a number of registers in use depending on the social context. From this polyglot crucible emerged a distinct Smyrnan dialect of Armenian, a distinct Smyrnan dialect of Ladino spoken by the Jewish community and of course, the unique Greek dialect of Smyrna, Smyrneika. The Turkish population, especially those involved in trade and commerce, also had a working knowledge of the dialect and indeed, most of the foreign words that exist in Smyrneika are of Turkish origin.

Photo: Dean Kalimniou

Through trade, education and travel, this unique hybrid dialect, incorporating terms from all the nations of this great urban centre spread to the other centres of Hellenism around Smyrna. In the expression: «Όταν κοντουιζέρνεις βράδυ, ν’ ανάβεις τα φάρα του ωτομομπίλιου,» (When you are driving at night, switch on your headlights) for example, we note that just as migrants in Australia turned to English in order to denote terms for emerging technology, the Smyrnans turned to French, this being the dominant language of trade and education in the city. Thus, while κοντουιζέρνω is derived from the French conduire, φάρα derives from the French phares, denoting headlights, ultimately from the Greek φάρος, the word for lighthouse, showing just how cyclical the process of borrowing can be.

According to lexicographer of the Smyrnan dialect George Poulimenos, under the influence of the Levantines, the Smyrnan accent: “revealed the same musical tone as modern Italian or the idiom of Chios.” Over the course of a century, the Levantines of Smyrna, who prior to the Catastrophe formed about 10 per cent of the total population, controlled a significant section of the city’s trade and commerce and pioneered the economic and industrial development of the hinterland, adopted Greek as their first language. Poulimenos believes they did so for a number of reasons, apart from the fact that the dominant element was Greek speaking, namely that in contrast with Australia in the early years, mixed marriages with Greeks were common and deemed socially acceptable, the nannies of Levantine children were predominantly Greek and there was a constant influx of Greek Catholics, primarily from the Cyclades.

Thus, while Greek was primarily written in Smyrna in the Greek alphabet, Greek Catholics and Levantines who adopted Greek as their first language made the language their own and used it as an expression of their own unique identity by writing it in “Frangochiotika,” a phonetic transcription of Greek using the Latin alphabet, which originated in Chios at the time it was under Genoese rule.

While many scholars believed that Smyrneika had died out as the last survivors of the Catastrophe passed away and their descendants’ language gradually morphed into standard modern Greek, surviving only in rebetika songs and in the poems, memoirs and literature of such writers as Kosmas Politis and Sokratis Prokopiou, Poulimenos reveals in his 2014: “A Smyrneika Lexicon” that he was shocked as recently as 2010, to be addressed while in Smyrna, in the dialect he thought had ceased to exist. This is because while the Greeks were exiled from the city in 1923, Levantines remained, speaking Smyrneika in their city as late as the 1960s, the idiom declining to the point where it exists on the cusp of extinction only as a result of the steady emigration of the Levantines to other urban centres of the world, with the only Greek spoken around the city and its environs, being paradoxically, the Cretan dialect spoken by the Muslims of Crete who were settled there after the population exchange.

Further within the hinterland, in Aidinio and beyond, while the hybrid vocabulary of Smyrna filtered down, its lyrical cadences did not. The language of the hinterland has the undulating tonal qualities that mimic the twists of the Meander River which winds its way amiably through that fertile country, down to the Aegean, punctuated by surprising palatisations and nasalisations that resemble Russian. The efficient, no-nonsense people of this land mercilessly dispensed with the superfluous vowels that render the lilting of the Smyrna dialect so mellifluent. The result however is no less musical. Their utterances, a clash of consonants, are sonorous, resembling the sound of water gurgling over the rocks of the Meander, unhurried and unimaginably ancient.

It is here that communities of Greek speakers began to come into contact with communities of Turkish speaking Greeks from Karamania and Cappadocia, the so-called Karamanlides who, in a manner akin to that of the Levantines, used the Greek alphabet to write Turkish, the only language they knew, as members of these communities migrated towards Smyrna in search of employment opportunities. The sole surviving mementoes of my forebears’ sojourn in their ancestral homeland is a half-burnt icon, snatched hurriedly from the conflagration and the «Ζεππούρι Δαβίδ,» the Book of Psalms, written in Karamanlidika. These bear mute witness to the linguistic polymorphy of an age and a place that is irretrievably lost. Sometimes, I oblige a friend, who spent his formative years in Constantinople to read the Psalms to me. He marvels at the old-fashioned nature of the Turkish translation and the outmoded vocabulary employed, just as my friends in Greece do when, feeling comfortable, I let down my guard and lapse into my ancestral tongue. They identify words and expressions which, they assure me, are no longer in use in this age of amnesia, are at best quaint and at worst, unintelligible.

Consequently, I inhabit a world in which my tongue is constantly on the defensive, for it is an Other in the motherland and in this place, where we struggle to retain the Greek taught in our schools, superfluous. On the odd occasion, I argue with my older cousin as to the proper use, or pronunciation of a word or phrase. We each remember our grandparents’ speech differently and there is now no one left to adjudicate. Employing the memory of our ancestral tongue almost exclusively to communicate with each other, we are actually speaking two separate languages simultaneously: one real and the other imagined, experiencing increasing difficulty in discerning which is which. As our children grow older, they begin to understand some of our arcane terminology. But even though they are fluent in Modern Greek, they cannot make the same sounds as we do. They are too far removed from those who have lost, for their tongues to emulate their meanders.

It was not only people, land, homes, property and a way of life that were irretrievably lost in the Great Fire of Smyrna but also a complex network of dialects, linguistic registers, expressions and conventions that borrowed from each other, informed one another and enriched each other. Ultimately, it is language that preserves unique modes of thought and attitudes, encoding events that cannot be expressed in any other way. As each one of the last of the speakers of these dialects, precious witnesses to a presence in Asia Minor that spans over three millennia, regardless as to whether they lived there or are descendants of those who left, utters their last words in their primal tongue, we suffer the same loss, again and again and again.