What is the history of the Soviet Greek language?

By: | Post date: 2017-02-09 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

Indeed, as Basil Lucas has noticed, I did look into the history of Soviet Greek a few years ago, although the primary research was hardly mine: it was the Greek historian Vlasis Agtzidis’.

This is a summary of the history, although Basil’s answer gives plenty more detail (and so does my blog):

The Greek spoken in the former Soviet Union by long time settlers is of two dialects. Pontic (speakers of which migrated to the Caucasus, Ukraine and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries); and Mariupolitan (speakers of which moved to the Ukraine from Crimea in 1778).

In the Springtime of the Nations, when the early Soviet Union was promoting literacy in its many ethnic languages, Greek was promoted as a written language, in phonetic rather than historical spelling. Initially the language used was the demotic of Greece. Later on, the actual dialects spoken were made literary languages. (If you can call Bolshevik propaganda literature.)

In fact, the use of Demotic vs Dialect was something of a tug of war over a decade. In 1926, Topcharas called the use of Pontic as a codified language “both utopian and narrowly parochial”. In 1934, he wrote a school grammar of Pontic, and his phonetic orthography has influenced the Wikipedia orthography of Pontic.

In 1934, the official decision came down from Moscow to make Demotic the only variant to be promoted. Then in 1936, the Springtime was terminated, the intelligentsia was liquidated, and no more phonetic Greek was published in any variant of Greek. In Mariupol, which was my particular interest, some linguists studied the dialect in the 50s, and one volume of commemorative poetry about Lenin appeared in the 60s. A fair bit of Mariupolitan poetry appeared right after glasnot, including poetry written in the preceding decades. All of it in Cyrillic.

The refugees from the Greek Civil War that settled in places like Tashkent, now that I think of it, likely did not use phonetic Greek. They did not bring phonetic Greek them from Greece; they would have had no contact with the literacy advocates that had promoted phonetic Greek; and if they had, they would have been Stalinist enough to assume their liquidation served them right.


Basil thinks the 1934 decision was about assimilation, and led naturally to 1936. I spent a few paragraphs in Demotic in the Soviet Union trying to work out what was behind the 1934 decision—not what was in it for Greece or the local Greek intelligentsia, but what was in it for the Politburo. Because I don’t have access to the decision-making, I could only speculate:

  • Maybe enough on the committee, even at that late stage, were still committed internationalists, and wanted a vehicle for solidarity with communists in Greece.
  • Maybe they were hardheaded like Topcharas was (or claimed to be) in 1928, and thought it a waste of time to develop a literary norm when one was already available; the Committee had decided for Demotic in 1926, when it adopted the phonetic alphabet, and it did not change its mind in 1934.
  • Maybe Demotic was removed enough from the hearth that they felt it could dampen the calls for an autonomous Greek republic, as less of a rallying point.
  • And maybe it was just a local outcome, without intervention from the Politburo which didn’t actually care enough about the debate—and with the moderate party being more effective at lobbying than the radicals. That there was going to be a second meeting in 1936 suggests the Committee were still open to argument.

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