The status of Urum

I've already posted about the seesaw in the Soviet Union of the '30s between Demotic and the indigenous variants of Greek, Pontic and Mariupolitan. As I've also mentioned, Greek is not the only language spoken by the ethnic group around Mariupol. A minority instead speak the Turkic language Urum.

A group identifying itself as Greek and Christian but speaking a Turkic language is a challenge to the levelling impulse of modern nationalism—and far from the only one. At the Other Place, I posted what was going to be the lead-in to this post: its maudlin meditations on identity were more appropriate there, and I ended up talking more about the Karamanlides than the Urum anyway. But there's still some sociolinguistic outcomes of the situation that it's worth going through here.

Urum is a variant of Crimean Tatar, a language distinct from Tatar and closer to Turkish. The language came with the Greeks from Crimea. The entire ethnic group moved to Mariupol in 1778, invited by Catherine the Great to bolster the local Christian element: the fact that some of the Christians spoke the Muslims' language obviously wasn't a concern before modern notions of nationalism.

Crimean Tatar was the "bazaar language" of the Crimea, its language of trade and of dealings between speakers of different languages. One of the main reasons Mariupolitan Greek is so hard to understand for Standard Greek speakers is its profusion of Tatar words. And even though Urum is closer to Turkish than Tatarstan Tatar, it's still different enough for those loans to sound somewhat off-kilter to Standard Greek speakers, compared to their own loans from Turkish.

How it came to pass that a group of Christians spoke Tatar and followed Greek-speakers to the Ukraine is a question we're not equipped to answer. The lazy answer is that they were Greek-speakers who switched their language, presumably in villages with a majority Tatar population. There were penalties against switching from Islam, so it is an easier answer than the alternative, that they are Tatar-speakers who switched their religion. Still, it would be foolish to get too precious about notions of Hellenic DNA—especially when we can be reasonably sure there is Gothic blood in the Mariupolitans, with the last (and first) documented speakers of Crimean Gothic switching to Greek, and their bishop in Crimea still being the bishop of Gothia. (It would be foolish to get precious about DNA in general, but that's a topic for the Other Place.)

The Urums felt Greek enough to move to the Sea of Azov, and they feel Greek enough to call themselves members of the Greek ethnic group (and to call their Turkic Greek: their "Urum" corresponds to the Mariupolitan Greek's "Rumeyka"). But there was some sense of separateness, because the Urums and Grecophones did not live in the same villages in the Ukraine (18 Grecophone, 15 Urum villages), and E. Perekhval'skaya (whose online description I am using extensively, via Google Translate) thinks that sense was already there in the Crimea.

The Urums' language was still, to some perspectives, the "wrong language" for Greeks to be speaking. This was not particularly an issue under Ottoman or Russian Imperial rule, when language wasn't much of an identity determiner anyway. But as I posted in the Other Place, once Turkic speakers find themselves in a Greek nationalist context, they will be pressured to drop Turkic—and the Karamanlides would likely have been all too happy to comply.

The Azov region is not Greek Macedonia; but something did happen during the Springtime of the Nationalities, when the Mariupolitans were cultivating their dialect as a literary language. The presses of Mariupol produced poetry and agitprop and theatre and journalism in Greek; but Urum got nothing. Perekhval'skaya cites a bibliography by S.A. Kaloerov documenting 23 Greek writers; only one wrote in Urum. Wikipedia tentatively mentions just one school primer produced in Urum; that contrasts with full school education in Greek—although unsurprisingly, Demotic Greek, not Mariupolitan.

Even more strikingly, as Pontus And The Left mentions, Mariupolitans carried out a campaign of linguistic purism, to rid Mariupolitan of Russian. We can see that in the translations I put up in the last post: Kir'jakov now renders "Ukraine" as /ukraˈina/, but Kostoprav at the time rendered it as /ukraˈnia/, just as Demotic does. But Elinizatsia was also targeted at ridding Mariupolitan of Tatar elements.

There is a chuckle to be had that the campaign was called Elinizatsia (ελινιζάτσια), which itself is Russian for Hellenisation; but with Russian long the language of literary discourse, I'd be more surprised if they called it Ekselinizmos (εκςελινιζμος). The getting rid of Russian makes sense: it's asserting their own place in the world, where they hitherto used Russian (and still did for words like Elinizatsia).

But getting rid of Tatar words was about something else. The Urums were a minority (15% in 1926), Tatar wasn't encroaching on Greek any more the way it had in the Crimea, and the way Russian was now. The advocates of Elinizatsia were working with literary Mariupolitan, and were against adopting Downlander Demotic (as I posted about); so they were supposed to be holding on to what made Mariupolitan distinct from Demotic. But Tatar—which is what makes Mariupolitan most distinct—is not part of that picture.

Vlasis Agtzidis closed his article on the debate between Demotic and Pontic & Mariupolitan with a question: why did the Soviets not encourage the USSR Greeks to adopt a separate ethnicity from the Downlander Greeks, as they did elsewhere during the Springtime? I had some guesses, but what struck me was the short shrift Urum got.

I get it why the Grecophones didn't want to know about Urum: their nationalism was informed by "language = ethnicity", by contacts with Greece, and possibly with ambivalence towards the Urums. (I have no idea whether there was hostility, I just know they don't live in the same villages.) I get it why the Urums would have gone along with it, once "language = ethnicity" notions took hold in the Ukraine.

What I don't get is, why did the Soviet government go along with it? The Springtime of the Nationalities was all about splittism, raising new national consciousness where there was none before. Sure the Urums didn't want to be called Urums instead of Greeks; to this day, Perekhval'skaya reports, both Urums and Grecophones are proud their passports say they are ethnic Greeks, and were upset that the Ukraine is getting rid of ethnic labels in passports. But why would the Soviets have listened to them, instead of presuming to know what's best for them?

I have no idea, and from the two seconds I spent researching the Springtime of the Nationalities on Wikipedia, I can tell there is a huge literature on the topic that I have no intent of getting into, to find out. I can only guess that at least in this instance, where there were no national security angles at stake, the decision-making was more local than I'd assumed.

The lack of pride in Urum has endured. To quote Perekhval'skaya:
It is interesting to note that while the "Hellenic" language is an important factor in Rumeic [Grecophone] ethnic identity and has a high prestige in the eyes of the Greek population of the Azov region, Urum is not such a factor (or is to a much lesser extent), and has substantially less prestige.
Unlike Rumeic, the Urum (Turkic) language does not have symbolic value as a marker of national identity. It seems connected to this that to date, the degree of preservaton is significantly lower than the relative safety of the Rumeic Greek language in the Sea of Azov. In the Urum village Mangush we could not find a single person who could translate the linguistic form, which Rumeic-speaking Greeks coped with easily. That is, the language shift among the Urum-speaking Greeks has gone much further, and this language is really threatened with extinction. The situation with the Greek Urums of Azov is typologically similar to the ethno-linguistic situation of the Turkic-speaking Greeks living in eastern Georgia.

Not that Rumeic is so much better off. Symeonides & Tompaides in their 1995 survey found old speakers in the villages struggling to produce Rumeic. Perekhval'skaya is more sanguine about claims of the death of Mariupolitan, which has been predicted for the past 150 years. But she admits it is no longer a language of daily communication, and its domains are severely restricted, to daily banalities or even just formulaic conversation-starters—a story very familiar in accounts of language death.

(She also concurs the real risk is from the Greek government sending Standard Greek teachers over, displaying the sensitivity to organic linguistic heritage and diversity that one would expect from the Greek government. Admittedly Symeonides & Tompaides, who were doing fact-finding for the government, think the dialect is so far gone, education in the dialect would not help anyway.)
  • Συμεωνίδης, Χ. ϗ Τομπαΐδης, Δ. 1999. Η Σημερινή Ελληνική Διάλεκτος της Ουκρανίας (περιοχής Μαριούπολης). Αθήνα: Επιτροπή Ποντιακών Μελετών.

One thing has changed though. The '30s Mariupolitans ignored Urum as far as I know. The '90s Mariupolitans celebrated it. I have three volumes of literature published by Mariupolitans—though in Donetsk and Kiev, not Mariupol; they are all mostly in Mariupolitan Greek (and the Mariupolitan is mostly Kir'jakov's), but they all feature Urum from Valerii Kior as well. Kir'jakov and Kior also worked together on an Ukrainian–Rumeic–Urum phrasebook, whose cover picture (sorry I don't have a colour copy) is… well, it's something:

  • Кирьяков, Л.Н. (ed.) 1988. Пирнэшу Астру: Стихя, пиимата, дъыимата. Донецк: Донбас.
  • Кирьяков, Л.Н. (ed.) 1989. Пирнэшу Астру: Стихя, пиимата, дъыимата, хурато, паримия, аинигмата. Донецк: Донбас.
  • Шевченко, Т. 1993. Кобзар: Билыгмена пиимата пас та румейка ки урумика глоссис. Схиматыстыс: Кирьяковс, Л. Київ: Український письменник.
  • Мороз, Г.А., Кир'яков, Л.Н., Кіор, В.І. 1993. Українсько-Грецкий Розмовник (Українська, румейська, урумська мови). Донецьк: Донбас.

What has changed? I don't know, but as I speculated at The Other Place, both languages are now dying, and the encroachment of Russian means Tatar is no longer sensibly a threat to Greek, but a fellow victim. Kir'jakov was a schoolchild during the Springtime (born 1919); he may not have taken in the purist rhetoric that his teachers did, though he is only 16 years younger than Kostoprav. And as Perekhval'skaya dryly notes, "literary Rumeic is confined, unfortunately, to a small number of enthusiasts". The rapprochement with Urum may likewise be a matter of a small number of enthusiasts; most Mariupolitans may not even know there's an issue.

I don't know if Urums have got in touch with other speakers of Crimean Tatar—which is alive and kicking as a literary language back in Crimea. That would involve seeking out a Roofing Langauge (Dachsprache) that has nothing to do with Greek, and I still can't imagine the Urums take enough pride in their Crimean Tatar to align it to a more standard version. Kior's ad hoc Cyrillic, with <о' у'> for Latin <ö ü> or Turkic Cyrillic <ү ө>, simply means they did not have access to Turkic-specific typography in Donetsk or Kiev. (This was still 1993.) Would they have the motivation to seek out more standard Tatar typography now? Is there any activity in producing Urum literature now at all? I don't know.

If they do meet with their fellow speakers of Crimean Tatar, it will likely be awkward, like the meetings of Vlachs from Greece and Vlachs from elsewhere in the Balkans are. Too much separation in identity to work through. Anecdotally, the Greek Vlach approach to dealing with the separation in identity in get-togethers, though what I like to call the Grkoman Syllogism, backfires. ("We speak Vlach. We are Greek. You also speak Vlach. Argal, You're Actually Greek. And you will appreciate us telling you so.")

I can't imagine how such a meeting with their linguistic kin would go for Urums. For all I know, twenty years on, there's noone confident enough in their Urum to go.


  1. Πολύ παρέα κάνεις με τον Φρίντμαν. Άκους εκεί "γραικομάνικος συλλογισμός"...το παίζεις και ευαίσθητος πανάθεμά σε.

  2. Pfffft. "We Speak English, We Are English; You Speak English, You Also Should Be English." I don't think so. My metaphysical ancestors spilled blood for the right to call The Queen "Ms. Mountbatten-Windsor" (which is the highest title of honor in our country, after all, compare Mr. President). Fortunately for anglophones, being an anglophone, even a monolingual anglophone, doesn't say anything about either nationality or ethnicity.

    Then again: those who speak three languages are trilinguals, those who speak two languages are bilinguals, those who speak one language are Americans. That would certainly include me.

  3. As far as I remember the relevant map, there was at least one village in which Urums lived together with Gr-speaking Greeks. I do not know whether this settlement was a recent one, but there still was (is?) such precedent.

    From my experience, Greeks speaking both languages treated each other friendly and took part in common events without expressing any mutual animosity.

    If you are interested I may put you in touch with B.Podolsky, the author of Urum dictionary. He can probably share his observations from earlier periods.

  4. I believe that should be Ms. Windsor-Mountbatten.

  5. Ένας Χασάπης από τα ΠαλιάMay 07, 2010 4:56 AM

    Ομολογουμένως κι εμένα μου χτύπησε στο μάτι το Grkoman Syllogism - δεν είναι απλώς η χρήση του όρου αλλά και η επιλογή της αποκοπής του Greekoman->Grekoman σε Grkoman, όπως την προωθούν σε ΗΠΑ, Καναδά και Αυστραλία οι εκεί "Ντέλτσεφ-Μισίρκωφ".... Τόσο πολύ πια έχει περάσει η ορολογία τους;

    Κατά τ' άλλα περιμένω πως και πως την ανάρτηση για τους Τρακατρούκηδες.

  6. The Queen and the other major royals don't actually have legal surnames, but her descendants who don't have another title use "Mountbatten-Windsor" thanks to a badly worded Order in Council of 1960. The name of the royal house itself remains "Windsor", as it has been since WWI.

  7. Η χρήση του Γραικομάνος, και δη στη σλαβίζουσά της ορθογραφία, ήταν εκ μέρους μου απερισκεψία: είπα να αποφύγω το «Βλάχικος συλλογισμός» που είχα ξαναπεί, ως ανακριβές, και αναλογίστηκα την αντίδραση στο «συλλογισμό» από την «αντίπαλη» μεριά, με την «αντίπαλη» ορολογία. Αλλά φυσικά το γραικομάνος—όπως και να ορθογραφηθεί—είναι βαριά κουβέντα, και στα συμφραζόμενα εδώ δεν κολλούσε. Γι' αυτό (και μόνο) ομολογώ σφάλμα.

    Πάντως για το κατά πόσο το παίζω ευαίσθητος, αυτό ας το κρίνει ο αναγνώστης από τα γραφόμενά μου. Ίσως να γράψω εκτενέστερα για το θέμα στο Άλλο Μέρος. Αλλά όχι απόψε, δεδομένου τι ανάρτησα εκεί μόλις τώρα...

  8. @Julia: The one village does mean there isn't outright hostility between the two groups, and I'd be surprised if there were; thank you for the information! The fact that it's only one of the thirty-odd does still point to a separate identity, but one it seems that did not have a lot of impetus behind it.

    It'd be great to hear from Baruch Podolsky; thank you!

  9. Well, fist of all thank you very much for such a information! :-). Finally i got some light on my ancestors from Mother site. Well my grandmother was born in Yalta village(on Azov sea). SHe told me the story like this: Rumeic and Urum (in the my grandma translation it were "Greko-Ellincy"(ukr) and "Greko-Tatary"(ukr) Greek-Hellen and Greek-Tatar) always arguing between themselves. As Perekhval'skaya mentioned there were separate villages for Rumeic and Urum people. Our family story is like this. My GrandGrand mother was Rumeic,and my grandgrand father was Urum. But they are love each other and want to get married. But feel great pressure and many negativeness from both sites. Any how they get married and live happy ever after.
    And one more factor i would like to mentioned. It is about WHY Rumeic and Urum language are now kind of dying and modern Rumeic and Urum people speak mostly in Russian. In the 30th of the XX century, the communist government with Stalin on the head, have started to "provide" the cervices called "ethnic cleansing". Let me explain. Because in that time it was much possibility that small nations (like Urum and Rumeic)can start their own small autonomous republic inside the soviet union. So the decision was very simple : physically take out about 50% of people who national identity was different from soviets and just send them to Siberia or simply kill for no reason! So that time on 30th many many Urum and Rumeic people were killed. AND many Russians from the central regions of Russia were send in to the Azovs villages just in the houses from Greeks were taken. Anyhow the intervention of russian language have been start and sure Rumeic or Urum languages were prohibited strongly.
    Also we can not omit that after World War II many people die and also after 1945 the politics on "erasement" cleaning of small nations was continuing. Many of my relatives are die like this. :-(
    I write all this to make it clear why till now not many people that can speak fully Rumeic or Urum. And twice pity that those languages are going to death.

    Anyhow hope my mumbling here was not too much, and somehow give some light to this story too :-)


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