A Lexicon of Smyrneika – Izmir Rumcası Sözlüğü by Alex Baltazzi, George Galdies & George Poulimenos. 2012. Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları. ISBN 978-975-333-284-2
Review by Görkem Daşkan1, October 2012

As the title suggests ‘A Lexicon of Smyrneika’ is a lexicon of a Greek idiom called Smyrneika which was largely spoken in Smyrna (Izmir) not so long ago, more precisely before 1923. (The writers of the lexicon assert, though, that they were still speaking it in Izmir well into the 1960s, and would still speak it with fellow Levantines today.) Smyrneika has derived mainly from Romeika (Tur. Rumca), the Greek the Greeks of Anatolia (Tur. Rumlar; Gr. Romios – ‘Romans’ as the Anatolian Greeks referred to themselves) had historically spoken, and it could be said that this idiom has been enriched with the influence of a wide range of languages throughout the second millennium AD: first and foremost the Ancient and Chiot Greek respectively, and then Turkish, Italian, French, Spanish and Arabic. Looking back from today, it is no coincidence that these languages made their contributions to this idiom in one way or another, because a) by and large, they were the leading languages spoken across the Mediterranean in the given period of time, and b) Izmir and its surrounding environs (both inshore and offshore) had become a pivotal spot in the eastern Mediterranean (i.e. the Levant) mainly in the 16th century in that it attracted numerous traders, seamen, peasants, nomads and several other interest groups from around the region and Europe to seek fortune there -a flourishing centre of trade and commerce, and in this way did these languages make their way into Izmir and the local languages, most particularly into Greek. (Smyrneika/Greek was of course not the single language spoken in and around Izmir, but one of the “lingua franca”s in the area, along with French, as of the 19th century and towards the demise of the city as a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures, religions, capital and so on.)

The authors take care to explain in the lexicon that the idiom, grammatically and syntactically Greek and mixed vocabulary-wise (that is, encompassing the Hellenised forms of a plenty of words imported from the aforementioned languages), has been written over the time in both Greek and Latin scripts, the latter of which reflects another integral point: that of Frangochiotika -the phonetic spelling of Greek using the Latin script, or as more famously known, the name given to the way the Catholics in the Aegean islands used to write Greek. How this particular nuance relates to this book is twofold: 1) just like the Catholics of the Aegean islands like Chios wrote Greek in Latin script, the Catholics (or more inclusively, the Levantines) of Smyrna, some of who had ancestrally inhabited Chios and many others had close ties with the island as well as with the other port cities of the Levant, wrote Greek -albeit a Smyrna kind of Greek, in Latin script. 2) The authors of the book, Smyrniots -ancestrally or by birth, have preferred throughout the dictionary of words Latin over Greek spellings, except in the surprisingly cheerful finale to the book, “Smyrniot Conversations”, for which one has to have a good command of Greek (or better Smyrneika) to be able to understand it properly as it is solely in Smyrneika written in both Latin and Greek scripts. (But still, again, lots of ‘familiar’ words are easily recognised).

So there are approximately 2000 words offered in this trilingual lexicon, put down in Latin letters and with explanations in Turkish, English and Modern Greek. The book excludes many other words of the idiom since they can be found in any Turkish-Greek or English-Greek dictionary and thus focuses rather on the essential words that comprise the essence of this idiom. Explanations for words are usually longer than brief definitions. That is, many of the words are described elaborately for the benefit of the English-speaking reader, for a) they are often meaningful only in the local, historical and factual context and within the semantic boundaries of this idiom, and b) (interdependent with a) there is often no English equivalent or short translation of these words. For these reasons, this list of words, sayings and proverbs serves as a palette of facts and observations as well, gathered from the everyday life in Smyrna, and conveys to the reader the atmosphere of a ‘multicultural’ life led in the area in past times. By multicultural, we are referring to a pre-modern (coastal) society where various communities intersected, interacted and interpenetrated each other on a number of scales and levels (maybe more greatly than we think), and this was probably the case in the city that came about, as many of the words in the lexicon are arguably suggestive of, by means of maritime and agrarian sectors, trade activities, hierarchies, relations with authorities and other forms of business, as well as religious and educational institutions in the widest sense. And if we are to take this account as a proof of that, then it would not be very hard to contend that such inextricable links were not limited to the elites (who spoke Greek, among others, so to speak) but rather span across a variety of people from diverse backgrounds. As such, many words in this lexicon are still quite prevalent and valid in (local) Turkish and most probably, to some extent, they are so in Modern Greek. The population exchange of 1923 has obviously caused a major challenge to the progress of this idiom. It was then that a great number of Greek-speakers had to leave Turkey, and many restrictions concerning minority languages followed afterwards, and as pointed out by one of the authors of the book, the idiom became almost extinct during the 1960s, when the remaining speakers of this idiom, the Levantines, began to take their leave for new destinations around the world. As a result, you can hardly hear Smyrneika being spoken in present-day Izmir.

Being a unique example of its kind, A Lexicon of Smyrneika, is far from being merely nostalgic but indeed a worthwhile linguistic effort. Having been augmented by the authors from their personal and collective memories of a time gone by, and corroborated to a limited extent from the literary works of Kosmas Politis and Sokratis Prokopiou, the data here embraces the qualities of a skilful research, and at the same time, the sweetness of a storybook. The reader is therefore recommended to try the dramatic dialogues at the end of the book, after getting a little familiar with the words. Last but not least: some really pleasant and rare visuals of old photos and engravings of Smyrna bring a final shine to the whole project. All in all, it is a fine addition to the literature of languages and cultures on the verge of extinction, and a remarkable tribute to the beloved city of Smyrna-Izmir.

1 gorkemdaskan[at]gmail.com return to main text

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