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My Web of Words – 5 – Greek


I wrote in my last post that in the Levant, the words roumi and roum were sometimes synonymous with ‘Greek’. I had planned to make some further points, but then decided to save these for a separate post so as not to burden the article with overlong digressions.

While roum describes those Christians that adhere to the Greek rite and, in historical texts, the Byzantines, the everyday Arabic word used for Greece is al-Yunan, while its corresponding adjective is yunani. We find the word again in Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Mandarin; and we can find its cousins in the languages of many Asian countries, from Azerbaijan to Indonesia.

It’s generally accepted that the Arabs, and probably all those other Eastern nations mentioned above, followed the example of the Turks, who call Greece Yunanistan, literally ‘the land of the Ionians’.

Yet Ionia nowadays is not in Greece but in Turkey, on the shore of the Aegean Sea, with the city of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) at its centre. Ionia is the region of Asia Minor that remained ethnically Greek for the longest, so much so that at the end of the First World War, when it looked like the defeated Ottoman Empire was about to be carved up, Athens tried to annex Ionia. Ataturk took up arms against them, and the Greeks’ rash venture ended in tragedy: massacres, a massive exodus, and a huge fire that, in September 1922, ravaged Izmir, destroying the greater part of the city and, according to some sources, more than 100,000 people.

The name Yunanistan, and all those derived from it, could therefore be explained by the fact that Ionia was one of the principle Greek strongholds in Asia Minor, at a time when the Turkish population was becoming the majority1.  Whatever the case, the region was an important centre of civilisation and encompasses places that left their marks on history, places such as Ephesus, Phocaea, the island of Samos, the Meander River and Miletus, home of Thales, one of the ancient world’s great scholars2.

It should come as no surprise that the Turks, Arabs and other nations of the Orient have their own names for Greece and its people, given that the nations of the West don’t know that country by the name its inhabitants give it either. Greeks call their country Ellada or, in a historical context, Hellas, and call themselves Hellenes, whereas most European languages know that country as Greece and its people as Greeks, or by some variant of these.

In this, the Greeks are far from alone; many people are surprised, amused and at times horrified when they hear the name given to their country by people in other regions of the world.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yet the word could be even older, since the Bible knows Greece as Yavan, phonetically close to Yunan; if this is in fact the case, however, one would have to assume that the Greeks’ assimilation with the Ionians occurred long before the Turkic migrations, which brings to mind this article in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: At certain moments in history, the name ‘Ionia’ included what is now known as Greece, encompassing Athens, Attica and the northern Peloponnese. Yet it seems the ‘Ionian’ Islands such as Corfu, Ithaca, Kythira and Cephalonia had nothing to do with that Ionia — the two words are simply homonyms and are not written the same way in Greek. []

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