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Ottoman History
Ottoman History

Ataturk's language reforms

In 1920s and 1930s Turkey things changed rapidly. The speed of the reform movement that had started in the nineteenth century accelerated after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came to power in 1923 and launched his modernization program soon afterwards. In order to enable Turkey to regain its position among the world’s leading nations the Turkish elite looked West. Few terrains escaped their attention. Atatürk’s language reforms changed both the written and the spoken language, so that linguistically too there would be a break with the Ottoman-Islamic past.
Atatürk’s language reforms were based on two important pillars: the replacement of the Ottoman-Turkish alphabet with the Latin alphabet and the purification of the Turkish language. Until 1928 Turkish was written in the Arabic script, that did not particularly fit the Turkish vowel system very well. An extended version of the Latin alphabet would be more suitable to the Turkish language, according to the Turkish elite. And so a new alphabet was introduced overnight. The president himself travelled the countryside, teaching the new alphabet to illiterate villagers. This sudden change of the alphabet however also meant a clear break with the Ottoman-Islamic past, cutting off the new generations from their own history and heritage.

Changing the alphabet was only the first step. Purging the language of foreign loan words was next. Ottoman-Turkish had borrowed extensively from Arabic and Persian, with purely Turkish words forming a small minority. Finding Turkish words to replace these Arabic-Persian words with became the main tasks of Turkish linguists in the 1930s, reflecting the replacement of Turkey’s old Islamic identity with a new national post-Ottoman identity. In some cases new words were derived from already existing Turkish words or from Turkish dialects, but in other cases old Turkish words that had been obliterated for centuries already were reintroduced. Although supervised by a government body, the Turkish population was encouraged to actively participate in the reform by sending in new words.
Language reform had first been suggested in the nineteenth century, from a purely practical point of view. Long before Atatürk it had however also turned into a political issue, when language became one of the ways to keep together a divided Ottoman Empire. It too became an important focus for the newly establish Turkish Republic, that so urgently needed to reinvent itself as a post-Ottoman nation. Only by the late 1940s the pace of the language reform somewhat slowed down, with some Arabic and Persian words even making a comeback in Turkish. What remained however is the politicization of language and language reform in modern-day Turkey.


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