Language Reform: From Ottoman to Turkish

Language Reform: From Ottoman to Turkish

Within the Ottoman Empire, the Turks had constituted merely one of many linguistic and ethnic groups. In fact, for the ruling elite, the word Türk connoted crudeness and boorishness. Members of the civil, military, and religious elites conversed and conducted their business in Ottoman Turkish, which was a mixture of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Arabic remained the primary language of religion and religious law (see Religious Life, this ch.). Persian was the language of art, refined literature, and diplomacy. At an official level, Ottoman Turkish usually was used only for matters pertaining to the administration of the empire. Ottoman Turkish not only borrowed vocabulary from Arabic and Persian but also lifted entire expressions and syntactic structures out of these languages and incorporated them into the Ottoman idiom.

The multiple linguistic influences on Ottoman Turkish caused difficulties in spelling and writing. The constituent parts--Turkish, Persian, and Arabic--belong to three different language families--Ural-Altaic, Indo-European, and Semitic, respectively--and the writing system fits only Semitic. Phonological, grammatical, and etymological principles are quite different among the three families. For these reasons, modernist intellectuals during the nineteenth century began to call for a reform of the language. They advocated a language that would be easier to read and write and contain more purely Turkish words. The principle of Turkish language reform thus was tied intimately to the reforms of the 1839-78 period (see External Threats and Internal Transformations, ch. 1). Later in the nineteenth century, language reform became a political issue. Turkish nationalists sought a language that would unite rather than divide the people. In the writings of Ziya Gökalp (d. 1924), Turkish nationalism was presented as the force uniting all those who were Turks by language and ethnic background.

With the establishment of the republic, Atatürk made language reform an important part of the nationalist program. The goal was to produce a language that was more Turkish and less Arabic, Persian, and Islamic; one that was more modern, practical, and precise, and less difficult to learn. The republican language reform called for a drastic alteration of both the spoken and the written language. This process was to be accomplished through two basic strategies--adoption of a new alphabet and purification of the vocabulary.

The language revolution (dil devrimi ) officially began in May 1928, when numbers written in Arabic were replaced with their Western equivalents. In November the Grand National Assembly approved a new Latin alphabet that had been devised by a committee of scholars. Many members of the assembly favored gradually introducing the new letters over a period lasting up to five years. Atatürk, however, insisted that the transition last only a few months, and his opinion prevailed. With chalk and a portable blackboard, he traveled throughout the country giving writing lessons in the new Latin alphabet in schools, village squares, and other public places to a people whose illiteracy rate was suddenly 100 percent. On January 1, 1929, it became unlawful to use the Arabic alphabet to write Turkish.
The new Latin alphabet represented the Turkish vowels and consonants more clearly than had the Arabic alphabet. One symbol was used for each sound of standard Turkish, which was identified as the educated speech of Istanbul. By replacing the Arabic with the Latin alphabet, Turkey turned consciously toward the West and effectively severed a major link with a part of its Islamic heritage. By providing the new generation no need or opportunity to learn Arabic letters, the alphabet reform cut it off from Turkey's Ottoman past, culture, and value system, as well as from religion (see Atatürk's Reforms, ch. 1).

Atatürk and his language reformers viewed non-Turkish words as symbols of the past. They encouraged a national campaign, supported by government policies, to purify the language. Lexicographers began to drop Arabic and Persian words from dictionaries, substituting for them resurrected archaic terms or words from Turkish dialects or new words coined from old stems and roots. The Turkish Language Society (Türk Dil Kurumu), founded in 1932, supervised the collection and dissemination of Turkish folk vocabulary and folk phrases to be used in place of foreign words. The citizenry at large was invited to suggest alternatives to words and expressions of non-Turkish origin, and many responded. In 1934 lists of new Turkish words began to be published, and in 1935 they began to appear in newspapers.

Enthusiasm for language reform reached its height in the mid-1930s. Some of the suggested reforms were so extreme as to endanger the comprehension of the language. Although purists and zealots favored the complete banishment of all words of non-Turkish origin, many officials realized that some of the suggested reforms verged on the ridiculous. Atatürk resolved the problem with an ingenious political invention that, although embarrassing to language experts, appealed to the nationalists. He suggested the historically inaccurate but politically efficacious Sun-Language Theory, which asserted that Turkish was the "mother of all languages," and that therefore all foreign words originally were Turkish. Thus, if a suitable Turkish equivalent for a foreign word could not be found, the loanword could be retained without violating the "purity" of the Turkish language.

By the late 1940s, considerable opposition to the purification movement had emerged. Teachers, writers, poets, journalists, editors, and others began to complain publicly about the instability and arbitrariness of the officially sanctioned vocabulary. In 1950 the Turkish Language Society lost its semi-official status. Eventually, some Arabic and Persian loanwords began to reappear in government publications.

The language reform's long-term effects have been mixed. The phonetically designed alphabet based on the Latin script facilitated the quick acquisition of literacy. In addition, the developers of modern Turkish consciously incorporated scientific and technological terms. By making possible a uniform mass language that soon acquired its own literature, the reform also helped to lessen the linguistic gap between the classes, a legacy of Ottoman society. Although the newly created works lacked some of the rich connotations of the older lexicon, modern Turkish developed as a fertile literary language as prose writers and poets created powerful works in this new idiom, especially after 1950. The cost of language reform, however, has been a drastic and permanent estrangement from the literary and linguistic heritage of the Ottomans. Although some prerepublican writings have been transliterated into the new alphabet, the vocabulary and syntax are barely understandable to a speaker of modern Turkish.

Language and language reform continue to be political issues in Turkey. Each decade since Atatürk's death has been characterized by its own particular stance vis-à-vis language reform: whether to support a more traditional lexicon or a modern, Turkified one abounding in Western loanwords and indigenous coinages. Language reform and modern usage have pushed forward during periods of liberal governments and been deemphasized under conservative governments such as those of the 1980s. Meanwhile, religious publications have not been as affected by language reforms as secular literature. Religious publications have continued to use an idiom that is heavily Arabic or Persian in vocabulary and Persian in syntax. The emergence of a popular religious-oriented political movement in the 1990s has resulted in the reintroduction of many Islamic terms into spoken Turkish.