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 Philip Mansel, November 2012
In Search of a Lost Language
Cities, as well as nations, have had their own languages or dialects. Vienna had ‘wienerisch’, incomprehensible to most other German speakers. Venice had Venetian, which many consider to have been a separate language, until its replacement after the sixteenth century by Tuscan. Alex Baltazzi, George Galdies, and George Poulimenos are to be congratulated on recording and preserving the language of the Greeks of Smyrna – Smyrnaika. It is as lost as the Greek city itself, killed in the conflagration of 1922, although it survived for a few decades among refugees in the Nea Smyrna district of Athens.
Closely connected to the Greek of the Aegean islands, which supplied so many immigrants to Smyrna, Smyrnaika nevertheless acquired a vocabulary of its own. Smyrna was a dynamic, international port, a Hong Kong or Singapore on the coast of Anatolia, trading with other ports throughout the world. Persians, Armenians, Jews, Italians, French, Dutch and British lived there, as well as Turks and Greeks. The population rose from around 6,000 in 1600 to 250,000 in 1914. The city became famous for what Alex Baltazzi, descendant of one of its most prominent families, calls ‘her joie de vivre, the splendour of her houses, beautiful cafes and theatres, music, arts and cuisine and of course for her proverbial hospitality’. The English writer Norman Douglas, who visited it in 1895, wrote that Smyrna seemed to be ‘the most enjoyable place on earth’.
Naturally Smyrnaika absorbed words from other languages, as this 2,000 word lexicon shows; armuara from the French word for cupboard; arsisiz from the Turkish for insolent; demirtsiz or blacksmith from demir, the Turkish word for iron; dekolte fromt he French decollete; skartos, the word for reject, from the Italian skarto; and many others. For many Smyrniots – as for inhabitants of other Mediterranean ports - Smyrnaika was only one idiom among several. As I have heard for myself, many Smyrniots switched languages in mid-sentence, from Turkish to French to Greek to Spanish (although Smyrnaika had fewer Spanish words than the Greek of Salonica with its vast Spanish-speaking Jewish population).
With the work of the Levantine Heritage Foundation – and the forthcoming exhibitions in Izmir, Marseille and London on the history of Smyrna - this excellent lexicon, the distillation of the knowledge of several lifetimes, shows that, even if the physical fabric of a city is destroyed, its language and literature survive. Cities die; in different forms, and on different continents, their spirit goes on.
Philip Mansel (www.philipmansel.com) is author of, among other books, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire (1995), a history of the city under the Ottoman Empire; and Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (2010), a history of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. Both have been translated into Turkish and Greek.