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Alphabets & Politics: Reflections On The Modern Turkish Language

Nearly a century since the post-Ottoman reform of the Turkish alphabet, which replaced the Arabic letters with Latin based ones, the issues it evokes on both the personal and political level are still very much alive.

photo of a cat sleeping on boxes of books

In Istanbul, the bookseller's cat

Ali Yaycıoğlu


ISTANBUL — The modern alphabet reform of 1928, which replaced the Arabic letters with Latin based ones, was a dramatic event for Turkey — and it came at a certain cost as every big decision does. Nonetheless, the national literacy campaign progressed with this new alphabet.

For me, the best part of being Turkish is the language.

I loved the old Ottoman script. I have tried to learn the old script but I was not much of s success. Later, I started studying Arabic because I wanted to work on Middle Eastern politics at the university. However, I only mastered the old script and especially started to read archival resources and manuscripts in my postgraduate years with Halil İnalcık at Bilkent University.

I have never looked back since then. Ottoman Turkish and the old script became the most important parts of my life: Naskh, Diwani, Taliq, Nastaliq, Riq’a and finally Siyakat.

Fighting over history

I have been studying Siyakat, the writing and calculation technique of the Ottoman finance bureaucracy, for years now. I even would like to write a book exclusively on the history of this technique; maybe one day. However, I should note that even the educated Ottomans could not read this kind of writing. Kâtip Çelebi, the great scholar, had said he learned the Siyakat writing and calculating technique in a year.

I have spent the last five years wrestling with a great finance book that is 70% full of Siyakat writings and calculations (I don’t know if people who are not interested in these kinds of things can comprehend what I am saying!). I have learned a little about this art of calligraphy and accounting after five years, sort of. No historian should be too bold on this matter. Old scripts would not tolerate cockiness. My best friend when I read the scripts remains as the dictionary.

But never mind my story, the 99th anniversary of the modern Republic of Turkey led to interesting fights over history once more. Mahir Ünal, former parliamentary group chair of the leading Justice and Development Party (AKP), got big reactions to his comments on the 1928 reforms of the language and the alphabet. Ünal said that the “Culture revolution,” as he described it, mentally impoverished the society and claimed it destroyed the people’s dictionary, alphabet, language and “in short, all [the] thinking sets.”

Not limited to literacy

Changing the writing style that a society has been using for centuries is a dramatic event, without doubt. It isn’t hard to picture the depths of the effects of such a change if you consider the importance of writing and calligraphy in the Ottoman cultural life. One can say this reform is not that dramatic as thought because less than five percent of the Ottomans were literate.

Writing is a visual union of symbols as much as a tool to read and write.

However, let us not forget that the place of writing in our lives is not limited to literacy. Writing is a visual union of symbols as much as a tool to read and write. Writings on walls, books, tombstones, epitaphs, signs gets coded in people’s minds even if they cannot read. Their cultural vision is shaped with that visual.

Let us not also forget that calligraphy was highly developed in Turkey and this art was intertwined with religion. The old ones used to say: “The Koran was descended in Mecca, read in Cairo, inscribed in Istanbul.”

The matter gets only more interesting if we consider the divinity of writing for the people. We can consider the place of the alphabet, which the Koran was inscribed by, at the hearts and minds of the Muslims, even if they cannot read read the writing. Or, consider the Hurufi movements which were shaped exclusively on the divinity of the letters. They are not really welcome in orthodox Sunni circles but the affect of the Hurufi sciences in the world of Ottomans is not small at all. It’s a fascinating subject.

Isn’t the old script still with us?

The alphabet reform definitely did not eliminate calligraphy. Books, epitaphs, signs and tombstones that are written with the old script are still with us today. There are many opportunities for those who want to read in the old script. It is a very good decision to have old script as an electable class in school as a subbranch of literature as well. It was strange to not to have that class. You understand the Arabic words in Turkish better and pronounce them better if you know about the Arabic alphabet. It would be beneficial for the people’s grammar to know about the certain verb patters of Arabic and connectives in Farsi, for example.

However, it should be noted that a few classes of middle school or high school would not gain one to read the ability to read beyond the printed text; manuscripts, archival documents, epitaphs, signs and the tombstones of the elders would still be unreadable.

This would be hard even in the times of the Ottoman Empire in case you have not get a good education. You needed to master different calligraphic techniques besides many different texts written in separate time periods and their uncommon words and expressions. This would require long years working on the subject. Today also, it is a joy of an occupation if you have the time and patience.

“In short,” yes, the alphabet reform was a very dramatic event. It came at a certain cost as every big decision does. But it brought great benefits as well. The national literacy campaign progressed with this new alphabet. The theory of the Latin alphabet being more suited to Turkish because it requires a lot of vowels is not wrong at all. Let us also add: a lot of societies were in attempt of alphabet reform back then. Eventually, such a decision was made and the society embraced the new alphabet and grammar. This reform was successful. A historian (and a politician who is interested in history) should look for a detailed answer to the question of how such a radical reform could be embraced by the society.

photo of a turkish book open with a book marker

Dig into Turkish literature

Hasan Basri Akirmak

Turkishification in words

The language revolution, or the “Turkishification” of the official and literary language is not isolated from the alphabet revolution but it is different by nature. I percieve this matter as such: the oral language and written language in the Ottoman life were far apart. The partially wrong named Ottoman [language] is actually the name of this written language. “Ottoman” was a form of Turkish for writing but it also heavily featured words and expressions from Arabic and Farsi as well (I do not mean the alphabet but the language per say). The language of the law, literature and the administrative Turkish language was “built” via vast word pools of Arabic and Farsi and the use of long sentences. The written Ottoman language should not be term as an artificial language but it was sort of a language that was “built.” In time, these building techniques lost their function daily life, art and at administrative level.

The language revolution was an attempt to reduce the distance between the spoken and written languages in favor of the former.

The history of the written Ottoman language and its building techniques is quite an interesting subject on its own. Yes, the written Ottoman language is very expressive for those who’s interested; it provides a rich content due to the usage of the offerings of Arabic and Farsi. However, on the other hand, the Ottoman written language could not benefit from the offerings of Turkish as much. The language spoken by the people was not completely reflected in the written language. Think about the historically beloved shadow puppets Karagöz and Hacıvat: Hacıvat speaks academically while Karagöz expresses himself with the daily language. They cannot understand each other and comedy comes from those misunderstandings. This great shadow theater is actually a criticism of the “Ottoman [language].”

I guess we can say that the thing that is called the language revolution was an attempt to reduce the distance between the spoken and the written languages in favor of the former. The early republic digs for the vast wording and expressions pool of the Turkish language and puts it in the circulation. Spoken Turkish is plain compared to the written Ottoman language.

In spite of that, it has a power of expression that is very suitable for abstraction. At the very least, let me express this about myself: for me, the best part of being Turkish is the language. Thinking in Turkish; expressing my feelings in Turkish and founding common ground with the society via Turkish makes me who I am, makes me happy. When you look at it from this side, I believe we can say that the event that is called the language revolution made a very important contribution to Turkish and revealed its plainness, richness, elegance and the power of abstraction.

​Language is a living phenomenon

But this story does not end here. There is not much reason to think that a radical purist Turkish movement would help. Similarly, there is no possibility of isolating Turkish from Arabic and Farsi and it would not be an effort to enrich Turkish. I also do not think some actions from the Turkish Linguistic Institute aiming to standardize the language were of benefit of the language either, such as the elimination of the lines over the long vowels.

As we debate on all of these things, the matter of the other languages of Turkey not being valued and getting much attention should also be discussed within a wider frame. For even as the republic attempts to unearth Turkish with all its layers, it was uninterested in the other languages of the country. And let us confess, it was openly hostile towards some.

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