A Black Sea Mystery (2): Hamshen and Its People
Hemshince, which is counted by UNESCO among the languages in danger of extinction, is a beautiful and precious language that deserves to be recorded and passed on to the next generations, like all languages.
Hracya Acaryan, one of the greatest experts in Armenian linguistics, considers the language of the Hemshinlis as one of the authentic accents of the Homshetsma, which belongs to the western branch of Armenian dialects.
In describing the vernacular spoken by the Hemshinlis, Acaryan stresses that it "contains very rare words that were used in G(k)rabar, the Old Armenian, which are not found in any other dialect."
But what do the Hemshinlis have to say about their language, “Hemshince,” do they also think it is related to Armenian? What part of the Hemshinlis owns this fact?
According to Mahir Ozkan, author of Jineps newspaper and Gor magazine, yes, "Hemshince" is an archaic dialect/accent of Armenian. "The fact that we call our language by another name is due to the historical process and the question of identity. There is no statistical data on the number of people who accept or reject that Hemshince belongs to Armenian, but it is possible to make an estimate. A significant number of people accept that Hemshince is a dialect of Armenian," Ozkan explains.
Hikmet Akcicek, one of the founders and directors of the Association for the Research and Preservation of Hemshin Culture (HADIG) and the GOR Journal on Hemshin culture, language and history, also holds the view that Hemshince is undoubtedly a dialect of Western Armenian from a linguistic point of view.
According to Akcicek, the differences between Hemshince and Armenian have widened after the 19th century due to such reasons as the fact that the Hemshinlis were completely excluded from the process in which Armenian literature and scholarship developed and the Armenian purification movement was taking place whereas the Hemshinlis experienced the modernization-urbanization process with Turkish during the republican period.
"The designation of a language as distinct, a dialect or an accent is bound up with the political conjuncture and perceptions of identity as well as with linguistic data. Therefore, there is still a debate about which of these terms should define Hemshince. I think it should be defined as a dialect of Armenian. I believe it should continue its development by taking advantage of its kinship with Armenian, but also maintaining its differences from standard Armenian," says Akcicek.
But can Hemshinlis and Turkish Armenians, or other Armenians who speak Western Armenian like them, communicate easily with each other?
Ozkan points out that Hemshinlis have a very limited understanding of contemporary Armenian, which is one of the reasons why many Hemshinlis may claim that Hemshince is not Armenian.
Aside from language, Akcicek stresses that there is a difference between speaking a language and "the choice of identity." According to Akcicek, acknowledging that Hemshince is an Armenian dialect and owning the Armenian identity are two different things, and those who agree that the language is Armenian are far more numerous than those who admit the Armenian identity.
"It is possible to meet those who argue that the language was acquired by neighborhood and marriage as well as those who argue that the language was maintained because they kept their ties with the Armenian church, and the language continued to be learned for religious, not ethnic, reasons. Others, on the other hand, accept the historical relationship and acknowledge that the language is a vestige of it, but now feel they belong to the Turkish-Islamic identity. At the marginal level, it is possible to find those who claim that the language has no relation to Armenian at all and there are even those who believe that the language is actually Turkish," says Akcicek.
On January 5, 1916, Enver Pasha ordered to change the names of the places that belonged to Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians and other non-Muslims of the country. On July 3, 1916, the Trabzon Governorate prepared a 23-page list of old and new names of villages in the region stretching from Samsun to Artvin.
Barunak Torlakian, one of the best-known experts on the ethnology of the "Hamshen Armenians" and a renowned ethnographer who was born in the village of Kushana in Trabzon, writes: "The names of the scattered settlements founded or settled by the Hamshen Armenians in the Hamshen region and in Pontus were either completely changed by the Turkish authorities or so distorted that not the slightest trace of anything Armenian remained in them."
However, according to recent studies conducted by researchers, despite all the efforts of the administrations, they have not been able to completely erase some ages-old place names, including micro place names, from the memory of the residents of Camlihemshin, Hemshin and Ardashen districts.
No matter how they define their identity, since they have managed to keep it alive for so many years, the people of Hemshin must be waging a cultural struggle, consciously or unconsciously. I ask Hikmet Akcicek what they are doing to protect their identity and culture, and he tells me that despite the dual and ambivalent approaches, the Hemshinlis have a strong sense of belonging to their own community.
"For Hemshince speakers, the language, for Turkish-speaking Hemshinlis, the specific words they use (which come mostly from Armenian), the local phonetics of their vernacular, their dances performed with the 'tulum' and 'kaval,' Hemshin tunes, characteristic clothing such as the 'pushi,' certain customs and beliefs, and the geography of Hemshin, especially the highlands, are the living elements of Hemshin identity," says Akcicek.
In addition to efforts to keep the aforementioned elements alive in social life, in recent years we have also begun to see cultural and artistic productions related to Hemshince and Hemshin culture.
The films Momi and Autumn by director Ozcan Alper, the Vova albums of anonymous Hemshin music and the Hemshin songs in the albums of Kazim Koyuncu, Aysenur Kolivar, Gokhan Birben and many other young musicians are in a sense the Hemshin people's way of saying "we exist."
In addition to the founding and publication of the journal GOR Hemshin Culture, Language and History, a number of books and publications on Hemshin culture have also made their way to the public in recent years.
Mahir Ozkan's Stories of Hemshin, the translation of The Little Prince into Hemshince, Huriye Sahin's Grammar of Hemshince, Adnan Genc's Hemshin, the Land of Diligent Women and Ugur Biryol's Homesick Cake are the most notable examples that spring to mind.
Akcicek states that Hadig (Association for Research and Preservation of Hemshin Culture) and Hemshin associations and foundations, under different names, also contribute to the survival of the Hemshin language and culture.
Mahir Ozkan notes that Hadig, founded in 2011, is the first association to focus on Hemshin language, identity and culture - rather than region - and aims to reach out to all Hemshin, all over the world.
"The association has done meaningful work so far. It has carried out activities such as language courses, compilations, video recordings and competitions. However, it cannot be said that these efforts are enough to preserve language and culture. Since 2014, we have been publishing a magazine called Gor. In addition, the music group Vova, founded by Hikmet Akcicek, and music groups such as Melusus (Mer luysi) and Entu have released albums," Ozkan explains.
There is another important issue: the relationship between the Hemshinlis and Armenians in Turkey. Knowing that Armenians in Turkey consider non-Christian, Islamized Armenians as "not so Armenian" and that some of them do not trust them so much that they are hesitant to even establish a relationship, I ask Hemshinlis about this relationship.
"Relations between the Hemshinlis in Turkey and the Armenian community in Turkey do not go beyond personal acquaintances. In short, we can say that there is a limited relationship between the libertarian sections of the Hemshinli and the more open sections of the Armenian community. But it is not possible to speak of a relationship between the communities," comments Mahir Ozkan.
Hikmet Akçiçek agrees with Mahir Özkan and admits that there are no relations. "We, who are active in the field of the Hemshin language and culture, have Armenian friends who are also involved in cultural and artistic circles, but these are all personal friendships..."
*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.