Demotic in the Soviet Union

By: | Post date: 2010-04-04 | Comments: 8 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek
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In the short-lived Springtime of the Nationalities, in the late ’20s and early ’30s, the Soviet Union encouraged its multitudinous constituent ethniticies to develop their languages into modern instruments of proletarian thought. Many languages were first written down in that period, and it was a freewheeling time, just as it was in art, poetry and music. The Springtime didn’t last long: many of the intellectuals involved were shot in the Great Purge, many of the ethnicities involved were internally displaced as undesirables, and the primacy of Russian was reasserted. Even more than that, the primacy of Cyrillic was reasserted, and the Latin-based Turkic alphabets of the Springtime were thrown out.

Which means they’re now coming back in messy ways, but that’s not what I’m posting about.

The ethnic Greeks of the Soviet Union were one of the ethnicities encouraged in the Springtime, and decapitated in the Purgetime. There are two major groups of ethnic Greeks: the larger group are Pontians who migrated to Russia and the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th century.

The smaller group are the Mariupolitans, who are a fascinating enclave in the history of Greek. Their language isn’t Pontic, though it has some elements in common; it is a good deal closer to the European variants of Greek. They originally lived in the Crimea, and had been there certainly since Byzantine times. (Yalta and Livadiya still have Greek names.) In fact, when the first and last fragments of Crimean Gothic were recorded in 1562, “one was a Greek speaker who knew Crimean Gothic as a second language, the other a Goth who had abandoned his native language in favour of Greek”, and Busbecq’s manuscript is full of Greek definite articles.

The Crimean Greeks were invited to live in the region of Azov by Catherine the Great, and moved en masse in 1778—naming one of their new villages Yalta. A portion of the population spoke a form of Crimean Tatar, which they call Urum (“Roman”, i.e. Greek, because that’s what they considered themselves to be.) There’s an interesting sociolinguistic story with Urum as well, but I’m deferring that to a following post.

There’s a third group of Greeks in the former Soviet Union, btw, though they weren’t there in the Springtime: political refugees from the Greek Civil War. Reportedly, these Greeks thought the decapitated local Greek intelligentsia got what they deserved, because Comrade Stalin was infallible. But this post is not about that either.

Now, Pontic is not mutually intelligible with Standard Modern Greek. Especially when the Pontic is spoken by someone in Sürmene or Stavropol, and not Kalamaria. You have a far better chance understanding it written, because the historical orthography used by both Standard and Pontic offer helpful hints. And if you’re informed about the key differences between Standard and Pontic, it doesn’t take much for you to work Pontic out: a few key words and sound changes, and you’re substantially better equipped to understand it. It’s not English and German, or even English and Dutch (that’d be Tsakonian); it’s more like English and Scots. (Not Groundskeeper Willie Scots. Real Scots, as in “what the hell is that Aberdonian saying to me?”) Nonetheless, even if it is spoken by someone in Kalamaria, snippets of Pontic on Greek TV will be subtitled; standard Greek speakers will definitely struggle to get what’s going on if they hear Pontic spoken. And that distinction matters.

I’m tiptoeing around the ghost of the old (and false) assumption “language = ethnicity”, because it’s the debate underlying this post. This post is about the debate during the Springtime of the Nationalities, on what form of Greek to use. Vlasis Agtzidis gives a detailed account of how the debate ran, with a tug of war between the two major camps that was resolved by a committee decision in Moscow—and by death squads a couple of years later.

Agztidis’ paper was on the site, itself a fascinating subject. appears to be down, and I’ve copied it to my site for now. The original citation: Aγτζίδης, Βλάσης. “Το γλωσσικό ζήτημα στις ελληνικές κοινότητες της Σοβιετικής Ένωσης”, Τα ιστορικά 43, Dec 2005.

[UPDATE: the paper is back on]

There were three attitudes to which language should be used. A conservative attitude was to stick with what had been the prestige language variant of Greek until then, Puristic. But the 1920s was no time to be conservative in the USSR, and that faction never got a serious hearing; in fact holdouts teaching in Puristic were reported to the authorities.

No, the 1920s were a radical time, a time to put the intelligentsia in the service of the people. A time in fact for the unprecedented step of writing Greek in a phonetic Greek alphabet. My post isn’t about spelling reform either though! (The previous one was.) It’s about the main conflict for which language should be used. The “moderate” party advocated the Demotic of Greece. The “radical” party advocated the local vernaculars, Pontic and Mariupolitan. (Noone advocated Urum, and that’s the followup post.)

The debate went on for some eight years, with different newspapers taking different sides, and intellectuals changing sides. In his 1928 grammar of Demotic, Kostas Topcharas wrote:

An objection could be addressed to our language: Why didn’t we make Pontic our instrument? We will answer: Though Pontic differs from Demotic a lot, it is a dialect. Moreover it is uncultivated, and having 150,000 people cultivate it now would be both utopian and narrowly parochial.

Of course, the Springtime of the Nationalities was all about utopias and parochialism, and making Pontic a written language in 1926 was as silly as making Athenian Demotic a written language in 1876; I don’t think that was the major argument for Demotic, and I’ll come back to that. But by 1934, Topcharas had changed his mind, and was advocating Pontic as the written language. As I noted, his school grammar of Pontic, which has been reprinted in Greece, is where Wikipedia Pontic orthography has got its digraphs from, particularly its telltale ςς.

At the beginning, Demotic was what was used, and what we could now call communist Demotic at that: the form of Demotic favoured by the Greek Left by the ’20s, following Psichari in making less concessions to Puristic than others’, and so regarded by the others as extremist. As I wrote at another time, Psichari was a royalist, and the communists of the ’10s regarded Demotic as a bourgeois distraction; so that this ideological colouring was not inevitable, but it has stuck since.

I’m reluctant to call it “Standard” Demotic btw, precisely because there was ongoing debate about how many concessions to make to Puristic, and Demotic was really only standardised by Triantafyllidis in 1941 (at the request of the fascist Metaxas regime, which again shows the peril of assuming neat ideological maps). But whatever the status of this Demotic in Greece, it was clearly a language of Greece, of the κατωμερίτες “down-landers”, and not the language spoken by the ethnic Greeks of the USSR.

This motivated the “radicals” to advocate using the local vernaculars, and elevating them to the status of written languages. The local vernaculars were in the ascendancy for a fair while, which caused a large body of Pontic and Mariupolitan to be published. Much of it was socialist realist literature of the girl–meets–tractor variety admittedly, but it was a literature delighting in flexing its newly found muscle.

Which made it all the more surprising when the All-Union Central Committee for a New Alphabet (consisting of Greek intellectuals and Soviet linguists) decided in Moscow in 1934 that the language of the ethnic Greeks of the USSR shall be the Demotic of Greece. It was the official decision from on high, and writers and the press scrambled to comply. Agtzidis notes that the flow of local literature dried up quickly; local authors weren’t even being published in Demotic, and the presses limited themselves to reprinting literature from Greece. Some “radicals” continued to agitate for Pontic, and there was going to be a second meeting of the Central Committee in 1936, to review the decision. Then came the Purge, and that was the end of local Greek literature until Glasnost.

Agtzidis expresses surprise that the local authors didn’t switch to Demotic to continue publishing. Now, I admit that I probably see the world differently to Agtzidis, and that is not necessarily an asset; but me, I’m not surprised. Downlander Greek was not their language; it was an unfamiliar language they had to learn at school. Clearly it could be learned, and journalism continued in Downlander Greek; but literary authors in particular had been sold on the notion of writing in their mother tongue, the language of their daily life. (The same rhetoric after all prevailed in the literature of Greece.) And Downlander Greek was not the language of their hearth.

Which brings us back to the perilous equation of “language = ethnicity”, and the implication that if you made Pontic or Mariupolitan a distinct language (that is, formed a distinct literary norm), you were making Pontians and Mariupolitans a distinct ethnicity. Agtzidis is at pains to point out that the “radicals” were not moving in that direction: they distinguished themselves from the Downlanders or from Bourgeois Greece, but they still saw themselves as kin (“the Greek race”, “our nation”). That still applies: Pontians in Russia still distinguish themselves from Hellenes (and they think Mariupolitans talk funny), but they acknowledge they’re part of the same family, as the forum thread I stumbled on shows.

Got to quote the Russian Pontian forum on Greece Greeks, and on Mariupolitan:

Ксерите педья оти ипе енан филос му а по тин еллада, Оти ромеяс ке елленес ехи ена ема 😉 (Elena S.)

You know what a friend of mine from Greece said, Romei [Pontians] and Hellenes [Greece Greeks] have the same blood. 😉

Атор епика скачать румейка трагодиас а со сайт Азовские греки. И мусики эн еморфи, ам и глосса… 🙂 🙂 🙂 Агрико олигон 😐 Эна трагодия легет “Ах, курциц, курциц”. Та румей лен “курцицья” та корцопа! 😀 Тема та пачидес йелуне полла м ато то логон. (Olga R.)

I’ve just been listening to Greek songs on the site “Azov Greeks”. The music is beautiful, but the language! 🙂 🙂 🙂 I don’t understand much. 😐 One song is called “Ah, kurtsits, kurtsits!. The Greeks call girls (kortsopa), “kurtsits!” 😀 Our pachudes (?) are laughing a lot with that word.

Agtzidis, I think it’s fair to say, doesn’t think a separate literary norm for Pontic would have been a wonderful idea. It is after all driving a wedge between Pontians and Downlanders—though that’s a wedge already there in their spoken languages; making it a norm just makes the wedge official. And had the Purge not happened, Pontic in the USSR could have gone along with a diglossia like Cyprus’ or Swiss German’s (*not* like Greece’s, which is why I keep saying Greece is a bad example of diglossia): Demotic as a standard language learned at school and used in public discourse, Pontic used in daily life and with limited use in literature.

I do think it would have been cool if the radicals had succeeded in getting their own norm. Cool in an entertainment-for-linguists way, I admit: if it wasn’t for the radicals, we wouldn’t have the corpus of Mariupolitan that we do (and that has not been used enough in linguistics), and we wouldn’t have the poetry of Georgi Kostoprav. But I’m not convinced it would be a disaster for Hellenism; forcing Greeks to realise that Hellenism is not all about Athens is a useful thing.

At any rate, those are idle thoughts; after 1936 there was no Pontic or Mariupolitan literary norm; many of the Pontians and Mariupolitans of the USSR are now moving to Greece and learning Standard Greek, and Mariupolitan itself is fast dying out, yielding to Russian. (They’re on the Ukrainian side of the border politically but not culturally.) The Greek government is sending Greek teachers to Mariupol’, to teach the children there Downlander Greek—which is going to kill off the indigenous form of the language that much faster. You’ll pardon me if I don’t applaud the initiative.

Agtzidis’ article ends with a question: Soviet language policy was eager to split ethnicities within the USSR from their kin outside: Moldavian differentiated from Rumanian, Buryat from Mongolian. Why then did Moscow affirm Demotic in 1934, instead of encouraging local norms of Pontic and Mariupolitan—which would inevitably have separated the local Greeks from the Downlanders?

I don’t know, and I’m curious if readers that know about the politics of the time have any opinion. My guess is, the USSR was anxious to forestall irredentism, so they split ethnicities from speakers of the same language across the border; but Greece was very far away. When the Purge did come, the first Greeks against the wall were those who were advocating for an autonomous republic of Greeks in Southern Russia; so splittism was still a source of anxiety; but annexation from Bourgeois Greece was not.

That explains why Moscow wouldn’t object to Demotic; it doesn’t explain why they’d prefer it to Pontic and Mariupolitan, which were winning. That depends on who was on the committee in Moscow, and whether anyone higher up than the committee cared enough. Professional linguists were involved, and that this was tied up with them publishing descriptions of the local variants; but in 1934 USSR, that does not preclude ideological considerations. (It doesn’t preclude them in say 2010 Brussels either, to be fair.)

  • 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.

To take us out, a sample of 1930s Mariupolitan. The collected poetry of Kostoprav are online from the 1995 publication, magnificently glossed word for word by Ioakeim Ioannidis, so I won’t cite them. Instead, I’ll cite from another volume of Mariupolitan literature that I got through interlibrary loan from Oxford—as it turns out, from Richard MacGillivray Dawkins’ library) (yes, a different Richard Dawkins). It’s the same volume I used in my post on Soviet Greek orthography, Φλογομινίτρες Σπίθες.

To be ornery for those who assume mutual intelligibility, I’m not going to gloss it, and I invite readers to have a go at translating it. This will be a problem, because the lack of mutual intelligibility means *I* don’t know what it means either.

(Remember, υ is /u/, ςς is /ʃ/.)

Α.Φ. Σαρμπάςς: Όλι πες τ’ αρτέλι! p. 27

Συρέφτανε πες τ’ αρτέλ
Ολ’ γαρίπκυ κόζμος.
Ατόρα κάμυμ δυλιά
Τίλογα δίχ-μας νόμος.

Τι μπικένιπςαςν-το πλυςς,
Τίνα χυλατράιβαν γιαλτζίδια
Ατίντς τι πέλςαντς πες τ’ αρτέλ
Να χαραμόννε τ’ δλία.

Μις μία τι’ άλο τ’ πλυςς’ ς
Τιθά τς παρακαλίςυμ,
Μις ατόρα λίγυς πλυςς
Τι’ άλυ καλά να ζίςυμ!

Τα τάτις-μας υρνέφκανταν
Μέρα-νίχτα πες τ’ δυλία,
Αμα ατό τ’ ίκςιραν-τυ
Οτ ίταν πες ςκυτνία

Ας το παλέο βαςιλία
Γαρίπ τράβαναν νιςτκάδα,
Ατό ίτυν αχ τ’ ατό
Τα δλίις οτ τ’ ίχαν γράδα.

Ατόρα κάμυμ δυλία
Τίπυς-πα τι νιάςςκυμιτς.
Μις-τον εργάτ, εργάτε-μας
Δύγνιμας τυ χράςςκυμιτς.

Ις-δικρό, άλυς-γυλφάν
Δυλέβυμ ςςένκα πες το ζαν.
Τα μαςςίνις τζαλέβνε,
Τα τζαράνια υςέβνε!


  • John Cowan says:

    The people who should be talking about the Hellenic language family are not the nationalists, for whom there is only Good Greek (beginning with Homer), Bad Greek, and Foreign, but the historical linguists, who should not talk of Greek as if it were a single language today.

    • Those same historical linguists dutifully refer to dialects of Chinese. The definition of language has never truly been a linguistic one, except where the language speakers can’t assert themselves against the linguists. (There are 600 tribes of Aboriginal Australians, but the linguists only recognised 200 distinct languages. In fact, you’re starting to see recently 600 Aboriginal languages being mentioned a lot more.)

      • John Cowan says:

        In China they do, small blame to them, but elsewhere the recognition of multiple Sinitic languages is well established.

  • Unknown says:

    The answer on why the USSR chose to promote Demotic Greek, could lie on the Greek language question. Before the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22, Venizelos, a politician of the bourgeoisie according to the USSR, promoted the use of Demotic Greek. After the 1920 elections (which Venizelos' party lost) his political opponents (bourgeois politicians as well) banned the use of Demotic Greek in favor of Puristic (Katharevousa) Greek. Greek communist writers or progressive scholars associated to some extent with the Greek Communist Party (e.g. Varnalis, Glinos) promoted the use of emotic, as they considered it to be the language of Greek people (workers, peasants), while on the other hand they considered Puristic as the language of the bourgeoisie. Until 1974 Demotic Greek was strongly associated with the Communist Part and left politics, and thus it was strongly opposed by the conservative Greek politicians (and the military junta of 1967-74 as well). Since Demotic Greek was not the language of capitalist Greece in 1936, but the linguistic form preferred and promoted by the communists of Greece the USSR changed its perceptions on Demotic Greek, as it was not any more the language of the (class) enemy.

  • opoudjis says:

    @Julia: Oh? Well, the claim was γιαλίτα, which now that you mention it does look a little odd derived from γιαλός "beach" (Ancient αἰγιαλός). Is there a clear Turkic etymology?

    The next village down of Livadiya "Meadow", OTOH, is uncontroversially Greek.

  • Yalta as a Greek toponym??? It looks pure Turkic to me.

  • opoudjis says:

    Trond: I have a couple more posts at least on Mariupolitan and Urum; thank you for your kind words!

    As the comments at Language Hat's recent post on Tibetan argued—not only is the question of when is a dialect a language politicised; even the ostensibly linguistic criterion of mutual intelligibility is itself politicised. (People *don't want to* understand Their language, or will make Extra Effort to understand the Our variant dialect.) You'll see the former with Bulgarian and Macedonian Slavonic; you'll see the latter with Standard Greek and Pontic. And I don't think it is just brainwashing, it really is all tied up with how identity works.

    But nothing odd about the Nationalists' behaviour there. Having A Whole Family of Greek Languages gives you only minor language geek kudos. Saying in the process that what Pontians and Tsakonians speak isn't Greek costs too much to be worth it. The discussion threads on that question get derailed too readily for me to have much time for. (Especially if they involve Anna K…)

  • Trond Engen says:

    Thank you, and keep going! I love these histories of les langues perdues, and I share your sentiment.

    (It strikes me as odd that Greek nationalists never seized on the multiversity as an opportunity to claim a Hellenic language family.

    (But maybe they did. What do I know of Greek nationalists?)

    (Probably not. Nationalists are odd, and they never do.)))

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