Pontic infinitive, real and imagined

By: | Post date: 2011-01-23 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
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I too noticed the breathless article in the Independent, right after New Year’s Day, on the discovery of

a Greek dialect that is remarkably close to the extinct language of ancient Greece.

The actual Independent article is not as over-the-top as the daft lead-in article, which has done the rounds through the world’s press. I didn’t comment on it at the time, because I was still on blog hiatus, and the over-the-top renditions I had seen made me roll my eyes. (Newspaper sensationalises science story, film at 11.) But if you read the actual article, interviewing the linguist involved (Ioanna Sitaridou), it’s reasonably sober, and tells you much of what you might have already gathered over the past few decades of Greek dialectology—and indeed, from this blog 🙂 .

The article is talking about the Muslim speakers of Pontic, who have stayed in Turkey after the 1922 population exchanges, in the Of valley. They call their language Romeyika, which is of course Romaic, the pre-Modern name for Greek. Linguists call it Ophitic, as a subdialect of Pontic Greek.

Ophitic is indeed somewhat archaic compared to other variants of Pontic, in its infinitive, and its preservation of Ancient οὐκ ~ οὐκί /uk ~ ukí/ “not” as (where the rest of Pontic has ‘κ’ [kʰ]). You’d expect such conservatism in a geographically and culturally isolated linguistic enclave. The “closest to Ancient Greek” claim, though, is a bit much; as Nikos Sarantakos pointed out on his Magnificent Blog,

just as every mother considers her child the must beautiful in the world, so too every researcher considers their field of study and research findings to be of exceptional importance.

We know why the researcher had to highlight the conservatism of Ophitic in the press release: that’s how you get funding, and Vahit Tursun, himself a Muslim Pontic-speaker now living in Greece, was quite happy to give her a pass:

For nearly twenty years we have been busying ourselves, writing and talking, yet we have not been able to convince Greeks and Greece of the existence of this culture, the danger that it will disappear, and how Greek it is. Leave Dr Sitaridou alone; maybe she can convince the English to do something about it.

Fair enough.

Still, as Prof Angeliki Ralli pointed out in the Greek press (also reproduced at Sarantakos’ blog), Ophitic isn’t the only survival of the infinitive: it has also persisted in Southern Italian Greek. And in both cases, as in Early Modern Greek, the infinitive is much reduced—it’s still an infinitive in retreat, restricted to modal verbs. So you use the infinitive in these variants of Greek in phrases like “I want to talk” or “I can walk”, but not “Better to walk than to run” or “I told her to walk”.

(No, Tsakonian did not preserve the infinitive. It did however preserve the participle used as a verb complement at least up to 1930: Pernot records Costakis telling a fairy tale with the phrase (ο κούε) αρχίνιε κχαούντα “(the dog) started barking”, where Modern Greek only allows “started to bark”, άρχισε να γαυγίζει. And even that seems to have vanished soon after; in the texts Costakis recorded from the late ’40s on, there are no such participles.)

The infinitive is still a remarkable survival for Greek dialect, and it used to be a point of pride for linguists that Pontic had an infinitive. News of the Ophitic infinitive had reached the linguistic republic from Michael Deffner’s research on Pontic in 1877.

Deffner, M. 1877. Die Infinitive in den pontischen Dialekten und die zusammengesetzten Zeiten im Neugriechischen. Monatsberichte den Königlich Preussischen Akademie de Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 191-230. Berlin.

Yes, that Michael Deffner.

The problem with that claim was, the Pontic that refugees spoke in Greek had no infinitive. In 1977, this claim struck the linguist Tombaidis, himself the son of Pontic refugees: he kept reading that Pontic had infinitives, but there were no infinitives in the Pontic he spoke, or in any Pontic he’d ever heard. So Tombaidis circulated a linguistic survey among several Pontic speakers, and published his findings in:

Tombadis, D.E. 1977. L’Infinitf dans le Dialecte Grec du Pont Euxin. Balkan Studies 18: 155–174.

Tombaidis found that all but one of the speakers he surveyed didn’t use an infinitive; many of them indeed completely misunderstood the examples of the infinitive he showed them from Deffner’s research. Tombaidis could find no evidence of the infinitive surviving in any Pontic text or language use he had access to over the past century; and since Deffner was *that* Deffner, Tombaidis concluded that the claims of the infinitive were not to be trusted.

Greek linguists weren’t particularly aware of Ophitic until Peter Mackridge reported on them in 1987, and didn’t have ready access to Ophitic speakers:

(Mackridge, P. 1987. Greek-Speaking Moslems of North-East Turkey: Prolegomena to Study of the Ophitic Sub-Dialect of Pontic. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 11: 115–137.)

One of the archaisms Mackridge noted was the survival of the infinitive; so Deffner, it turns out, did not make the infinitive up. But it’s just as true that Pontic as spoken in Greece does not have the infinitive; nor is it likely that the infinitive died out the minute the refugees hit the shores of Greece. Ἀρχεῖον Πόντου, The Pontic Archive was publishing texts from its establishment in 1928, six years later; and folklore journals were publishing Pontic texts from a fair while before that.

What’s happened is straightforward: Christian Pontic had lost the infinitive some time after the Of valley converted to Islam (17th century, I think), but long before it was displaced to Greece and Russia. Christian Pontic had remained in some contact with the rest of the Greek-speaking world, and in any case was a much larger population, where innovations could travel.

Oh, that one speaker Tombaidis found who insisted he used the infinitive? Tombaidis can’t name him; but he drops enough hints on who he was. In retrospect, it’s clear why he insisted he used the infinitive too. No, he wasn’t a Muslim Pontian. He was Odysseas Lampsides (1917-2006), historian specialising on Trebizond, and editor of The Pontic Archive.

Of course, you don’t want to say on the record that a researcher is lying—even if the researcher is in this instance acting as a research subject. But then again, it needn’t be counted as lying: people can convince themselves they do all sorts of things linguistically. That’s why elicitation should not be the only tool you rely on in investigating a language. (As any syntactician has found who’s tried to work out whether a sentence of English is acceptable—and then repeated the exercise with five related sentences. After a while—you just can’t tell any more.


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