The Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) perception of languages of the Turkic peoples

The learning of foreign languages and their use in the Byzantine world was unsystematic and purely utilitarian. Although the idea of learning foreign languages as an intellectual practice was alien to Byzantine education, the Byzantines, of course, were aware of the fact that the surrounding people spoke their own languages and that the Turks among them were no exception.


Anna Komnene knew that the Turks spoke τουρκικὴ διάλεκτος (Turkish dialect). Later astrological chorography also recognized the Turkish language among others. An anonymous treatise of the fourteenth century, entitled by the editor De planetarum patrociniis (Monac., no. 287), maintained that Saturn dealt with the Egyptian and Hebrew languages, Mars with Persian, the Sun with the Frankish language and partially with Greek, Mercury “control[led] the Turkic and Khazar languages, participating with the Sun in the Greek language.” One may conclude from this interesting passage that, along with the Coptic, Hebrew, and Persian languages, the Byzantines knew of the existence of various Turkic languages, differentiating the two species “Turkic” and “Khazar.” (The Byzantines knew that the Khazars were Turks) In the same vein, one can interpret Anna Komnene’s remark in her description of the battle at Levounion (1091) that Pechenegs and Cumans speak the same language (ὁµόγλωττοι). Apparently, Anna had in mind not so much the full identity of the two Turkic languages as their proximity. It is also interesting that Greek by its cosmological nature is similar to the Frankish and Turkic languages, sharing the Sun and Mercury as planet protectors. Thus, Greek, Turkish, and Frankish, all belonging to a closely related group, oppose “alien” Asian languages such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. An astrological connection between the Sun and the Turkic language was perhaps well known to contemporaries, as with the remark of George of Trebizond calling the language of the Turks “solar and exceedingly bright.” Only astrology gives a comprehensive systematization of languages, which, however, was rather a typical for Byzantine science in general.

The separation of Turkic and Persian into different language groups in astrological “linguistic theory” was not commonly accepted. The Byzantines do not seem to have distinguished in daily life between Turkish and Persian, sometimes mixing them.

Byzantine authors did not distinguish Persian from Anatolian Turkish.

Michael Choniates, who had a vital interest in Turks and Turkic customs, like Tzetzes, refers to the “Persian” and “Scythian”tongues as to Anatolian and Cuman variants of Turkish. The Byzantines simply did not distinguish the two languages on the level of scientific and literary discourse.

John VI Kantakouzenos repeatedly mentions his knowledge of the Persian language (Περσιστί, διαλέγεσθαι Περσιστί). However, throughout his History he constantly referred to Anatolian Turks as “Persians,” never using Τοῦρκοι (Turks). If so, one may wonder which language Kantakouzenos meant: Persian or Turkish? Most likely, he meant Anatolian Turkish under Περσιστί, although we can not exclude that both languages Persian and Turkish may be implied. Of course, on a utilitarian level the Byzantines in their speech practice could not have confused Turkic and Persian, and in particular, John Kantakouzenos, while speaking the language of the Anatolian Turks, definitely did not confuse the two languages. However, because he called the language “Persian” we do not know which language he spoke in reality, Persian or Turkish. Similarly, the reader is left in perplexity from Pseudo-Kodinos’ statement that the Vardariotai Turks at the imperial court praised the emperor “in the language of their ancient homeland, that is, in Persian” (περσιστί). It could have been either Turkic or Persian or even both (if acclamations included phrases in both Persian and Turkic), because Persian was the official language of the Anatolian Muslim courts.

Thus, at the level of “scientific” or “literary” abstract reflection, in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, the denominations “Persian language” and “Turkish language” in relation to a speaker of Muslim Anatolia were interchangeable. To a contemporary reader this paradoxical situation has an exact parallel in the Byzantine term “Roman language,” ῥωµαϊκὴ γλῶσσα, which could be equally applied to Greek and Latin. Not only could Persian and Turkic be labeled with the same term, but the generally accepted term for the very language of the Byzantines concealed two different languages. Confusion between Persian and Turkic, and between Roman and Greek, stems from the “generic” status of the locative criterion of identity, which determines most (if not all) circumstances of the existence of nations. After all, the Greeks consistently qualified Anatolian Turks as “Persians” and their language as “Persian” and never labeled as “Persian” the language of the “Scythians.” Byzantine attitude to the language of the Anatolian Turks reflects the ambivalence of the ethno-geographical terms “Persian” and “Turkic” and their interchangeability in the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries.

Although the linguistic aspect of identity was known to the Byzantines, it was used by them differently than the modern mind’s usage. For Byzantine “scientific” classification, language was of secondary importance. Language differences were not problematized by Byzantine reflection. Byzantines did not develop language typology, as we do today, and did not look for genetic links between different languages. Similarly, they did not problematize the learning and knowledge of foreign languages, which remained on the utilitarian level of everyday life.

(Source: “The Byzantine Turks, 1204-1461”, by Rustam Shukurov)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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