Ömer Asan's family comes from a Greek-speaking village in the region of Pontus in north-east Turkey. The community to which they belong, together with many other communities in the region, are survivals from a time, before the creation of the nation-state, when language, religion and customs did not have to conform to a national standard of homogeneity. These people are Greek-speaking Muslims. For this reason they were allowed to remain in their homeland after the war between Greece and Turkey in 1919-1922, when, with certain exceptions, the Christians of Turkey and the Muslims of Greece were obliged by the Treaty of Lausanne to emigrate to the other country. Since the exchange of minorities took place on the basis of religion, and language and religion did not necessarily go together in the Ottoman Empire, many Turkish-speaking Christians found themselves forced to move to Greece, while Greek-speaking Muslims were obliged to migrate to Turkey. Thus the large communities of Greek-speaking Christians living in Pontus, numbering hundreds of thousands, were forcibly resettled in Greece, while the Greek-speaking Muslims remained high and dry above the flood tide that swept away hundreds of thousands of their fellow Greek-speakers.
Who are these people? This is what Ömer Asan set out to discover. The definition of an individual or a community according to criteria of race is a dangerous undertaking. Suffice it to say that the Greek-speaking Pontian Muslims must have very diverse genetic origins, consisting of Greek and Turkish elements as well as elements from the peoples that inhabited the region before the coming of the Greeks from about 800 BCE and before the arrival of the Turks in the eleventh century CE. During the Byzantine period the Pontians became Christian and no doubt large numbers of those who still spoke other languages gradually became Greek-speaking. Some time after the Ottoman Turks captured the capital of Pontus, Trebizond, in 1461, some Pontians began converting to Islam, although the largest wave of conversion seems to have taken place as late as the seventeenth century. As occurred in other Greek-speaking areas of the Ottoman Empire such as Crete and Cyprus, however, their change of religion was not accompanied by a change of language; after all, as far as Islam is concerned, a Greek-speaker can be just as good a Muslim as a Turkish-speaker. While the majority of Pontians remained Christian, there are tens of thousands of Greek-speaking Muslims in Pontus at the beginning of the third millennium. The largest communities of Greek-speaking Pontic Muslims are to be found in the Of district, where the majority of the population espoused Islam; indeed, Of became renowned for the piety and learning of its hodjas (Islamic teachers).
My own interest in these survivors is chiefly linguistic. Because the Greek-speakers of Pontus were cut off from the rest of the Greek-speaking world, the local Greek dialects of are in many respects significantly different from the Greek spoken on the mainland and the islands of Greece - so much so that Pontic and standard Greek are to a large extent mutually incomprehensible. After 1922, the majority of Pontic-speakers were resettled in Greece, where they continued for decades to preserve their language, customs, dress, music, dancing, cuisine, etc. Even now, almost eighty years after the departure of their communities from Pontus, the older people still speak to each other in Pontic. Nevertheless, almost all of the Pontic Greeks speak standard Greek too, and this - coupled with the fact that their communities have been surrounded by Greek since their arrival in Greece - has inevitably exerted an influence on their Pontic. They were already exposed to the Greek of the Church while they were still living in Pontus, and many were exposed to standard and official Greek at school there; but in Greece they were immersed in a standard Greek-speaking environment that gradually impinged on them more and more as the press gradually gave way to radio and thence to television.
By contrast, ever since their conversion to Islam, the Greek-speaking Pontic Muslims have not been exposed to any other kind of Greek than their own; nor did they have much close contact even with their Christian neighbours in Pontus. This means that their speech has preserved many archaic features that have now almost or completely disappeared from the Pontic spoken in Greece. (It should be said that their speech has also lost a large number of words that have been replaced by items of Turkish origin.) Ömer Asan's village, like the village where I have carried out my own linguistic fieldwork, is situated in the district of Of, east of Trebizond, which is home to the largest concentration of Greek-speakers in Pontus today. The Of district is the easternmost area in which Greek has been continuously spoken without interruption since ancient times. If Pontic is a peripheral dialect of Greek, then the sub-dialect of Of is a peripheral version of Pontic. Like most peripheral dialects, the speech of Of preserves an exceptional number of ancient words and grammatical features. For this reason the study of the sub-dialect of Of can throw fascinating light on the historical development of the Greek language.
Christian Pontic has been more exhaustively studied than any other dialect of modern Greek. By contrast, no one had workd on Muslim Pontic for more than a hundred years until I carried out some linguistic fieldwork in the Of dictrict in the 1980s. I was greatly struck by the ancient and medieval features of the Of sub-dialect, such as the use of the ancient negative particle ou where the other Pontians use ki and the other Greeks use kai.
Ömer Asan's book is the first study of the history, culture and language of the Pontus to have appeared in Turkey. It is also the first book ever published to contain a survey of the vocabulary and grammar of the Pontic Greek sub-dialect of Of. I was both delighted and astounded when I learned that Asan was about to publish the original version of his book in Turkey. In a country that, despite obvious evidence to the contrary, officially prides itself on its ethnic homogeneity, for anyone to publish a study of the history, culture and language of a linguistic minority there seemed daring, to say the least; it also seemed extraordinary that a Turk should be interested in investigating the non-Turkish aspects of his local culture. Asan has thrown himself with great passion into the study of the history, culture and language of his village and its surrounding region. I have learned a great deal from his book, not only about the folklore and customs of his village, but about its language, and it has been fascinating to compare the vocabulary and grammar of Çoruh, as he records them, with the linguistic material that I and others have collected from other villages in the Of district and from other parts of Pontus both before and after 1922. The variety in vocabulary and grammar between one village and another just a few miles away is extraordinary, and we would ideally like to have such a study of every Greek-speaking village in Pontus.
Asan's collection of material from Çoruh is a rich treasure-house of language and lore, and I eagerly look forward to seeing the results of his continuing investigations.