Urum, a Turkic Language of Pontic Greeks, Its Contact with Russian—And Curious Parallels with Yiddish

Jul 17, 2015 by


Some enthnolinguistic maps of the Caucasus region, such as the one reproduced from GeoCurrents, show “Greek” as one of the groups in south-central Georgia and bordering areas of northern Armenia. In actuality, these are Pontic Greeks, but their language is not Greek but Urum—a Turkic rather than Indo-European tongue, mutually comprehensible to some degree with Turkish. The history and current status of the Urum communities in the Caucasus are discussed by Martin Lewis in a GeoCurrents post. Their language deserves a closer look.

As noted by Stavros Skopeteas in his article “Caucasian Urums and Urum language” (to be published in the Handbook of Endangered Turkic Languages, edited by Süer Eker and Ülkü Çelik), the Urum people migrated from Anatolia to the highlands of K’vemo K’art’li in Georgia at the beginning of the 19th century; since then, “they conserved the variety of Turkish that their ancestors were speaking in the time before emigration, enriched by influences from the languages in their new environment, in particular from Russian” (p. 1). The influences of Russian are particularly pronounced because most of the Urum people “are bilingual in Russian” (p. 1). Moreover, the Urum people are Orthodox Christians and “practice their religion in Greek, Georgian and Russian churches” (p. 2). As Russian often serves as the liturgical language of the Urum, there are a number of Russian loanwords related to religious concepts: for example, gimn ‘hymn’ from Russian gimn, episkop ‘bishop’ from Russian episkop, etc. (see Skopeteas, p. 4). Although these words are ultimately of Greek origin, their form suggests that they must have been borrowed into Urum via Russian rather than come directly from Greek: compare Greek ímnos, epískopos. In fact, “very few terms in this field come directly from Greek”, such as hristugin ‘Christmas’; compare Greek hristujena (Χριστούγεννα) and Russian roždestvo (Рождество). Still, despite the influence from the languages of other Orthodox Christians, Urum has many religious terms of the Turkic origin: for example, allah ‘god’ or cänäm ‘hell’ (compare Turkish allah, cehennem).

More generally, Russian loanwords are numerous in Urum and found in many other areas of the vocabulary, especially in culture-specific areas such as the modern world, warfare/hunting, law, house, clothing, and agriculture. As noted by Skopeteas, as much as 70% of the vocabulary items for concepts related to the modern world are of Russian origin; in other areas mentioned above, 20-45% of the lexical items are loanwords from Russian. In contrast, in the so-called “basic vocabulary” (e.g. words related to kinship, time, sense perception, quantity, body parts, and spatial relations) less than 10% of lexical items are of Russian origin, and the overwhelming majority of words are of Turkic origin.

All in all, Russian is by far the largest source of loanwords in Urum; studies of the most common vocabulary (about 2500 words) reveal that some 20% of them come from Russian. Despite ethnic links, Greek is a relatively minor source of Urum loanwords: they are restricted to religious concepts and constitute less than 1% of the examined vocabulary. Urum also has some loanwords from Georgian (the official language of the state where they live) and Armenian (with which Urum has been in contact even before the migration from Anatolia). According to Skopeteas (p. 34), “Georgian words (14 words; 0,5% of the vocabulary) are only present in some culturally specific fields such as ‘food/drink’. There are few elements for which an Armenian origin is hypothesized (6 words; 0,2%), but not a substantial amount of loanwords from this language.”

Among the different parts-of-speech, nouns are by far the most commonly borrowed words in Urum, as is generally the case in lexical borrowing. Notably, such borrowed nouns are subject to Turkic-style agglutinative morphology and the general morphophonological rules of the language, such as vowel harmony and nasal assimilation. For example, the word slon ‘elephant’ is a Russian loanword; its plural is slon-nar ‘elephants’, formed by the addition of the plural suffix -lar, found in many other Turkic languages and subject to nasal assimilation—compare, for example, the Sakha Eveen-ner ‘the Even people’ (literally, the plural form of ‘Even’).

Interestingly, Russian has been the source of not only lexical items (particularly, nouns), but also of grammatical words, such as coordinating conjunctions i ‘and’ and ili ‘or’ (cf. Skopeteas, pp. 31-32). Another grammatical word that was borrowed by Urum from Russian is the comparative particle čem ‘than’ (cf. Skopeteas, pp. 27-28). Importantly, importing this comparative particle gave Urum a new way of expressing comparatives, in addition to the “native” construction with the second term of comparison an ablative noun phrase (parallel to the Russian comparative with the second term in the genitive). Thus, Urum now has two ways of expressing comparison: one “native” and one acquired through contact with Russian; examples from (Skopeteas, p. 28) are given below:

a. comparative construction with ablative phrase

o bän-dän uzun-dur.
3.SG 1.SG-ABL tall-COP[3]
‘(S)he is taller than me.’


b. comparative construction with loan conjunction

kirpič duvar-i daha pärk-tir, čem gav-ın duvar-i.
brick wall-POSS.3.SG more hard-COP[3] than adobe-GEN wall-POSS.3.SG
‘The brick wall is harder than the adobe wall.’


These two comparatives are parallel to the two comparative constructions in Russian:

a. comparative construction with genitive phrase

ona vyše menja.
3.SG taller 1.SG-GEN
‘(S)he is taller than me.’


b. comparative construction with loan conjunction

kirpičnaja stena bolee tvërdaja čem glinjannaja stena.
brick(ADJ) wall more hard than adobe wall
‘The brick wall is harder than the adobe wall.’


An interesting parallel emerges with Yiddish: Yiddish too has two comparative constructions, one “native” and one acquired through contact with Slavic. Unlike Urum, Yiddish had a Germanic-origin comparative construction with the particle vi ‘than’, which appears with the nominative noun phrase, as in Er is rajxər vi der man (lit. ‘he is richer than the.NOM man’; Jacobs 2005: 183). (Note that in a comparable construction in English, pronouns—the only words showing case marking in modern English—tend to appear in the accusative/object form, as in He is taller than him, probably because the comparative particle has been reanalyzed as a preposition; but more on that in a future post perhaps.) The vi-comparative of Yiddish is parallel to the Russian čem ‘than’ comparative (e.g. On bogače, čem tot čelovek lit. ‘he is richer than <that man>.NOM’). But Slavic languages have another comparative construction where the standard of comparison is expressed by the genitive form, with no preposition: On bogače togo čeloveka lit. ‘he is richer <that man>.GEN’. Yiddish “borrowed” that construction but rendered it through its own preposition fun ‘from, of’, whose function in Yiddish is parallel to many of the uses of the genitive in Russian (and of ablative in Urum!). (The Yiddish preposition fun ‘from, of’ is followed by the dative noun phrase, as in Er is rajxər fun dem man lit. ‘he is richer from the.DAT man’; cf. Jacobs 2005: 183.) To recap, both Urum and Yiddish borrowed from Slavic the comparative construction that they did not already have.




Additional source:

Jacobs, Neil G. (2005) Yiddish. A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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