Language Reform: From Ottoman to Turkish

History records few instances of a government's altering the language of its people as drastically and imposing that language as forcefully (and, on balance, as successfully) as in the Turkish case. Atatürk considered language reform to be an essential ingredient in the creation of a new Turkey and of new, modernized Turks, and he viewed the revised Turkish language as one of the ways to create a new national identity.

Within the Ottoman Empire, the Turks were merely one of many linguistic and ethnic groups, and the word Turk in fact connoted crudeness and boorishness. Members of the civil, military, and religious elite 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. Persian was the language ofart, refined literature, and diplomacy. What little Turkish there was usually had to do with the administration of the Ottoman Empire Turkish not only borrowed vocabulary items from Arabic and Persian but also lifted entire expressions and syntactic structures out of these languages and incorporated them into the Ottoman idiom. Thus, pure Turkish survived primarily as the language of the illiterate and generally was not used in writing. Ottoman Turkish, on the other hand, was the language of writing, as well as the language spoken by the educated elite.

Its multiple origins caused difficulties in spelling and writing Ottoman Turkish. 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 the last of these. Phonological, grammatical, and etymological principles are quite different among them.

During the nineteenth century, modernist intellectuals began to call for a reform of the language. They wanted to fashion a language that would be easier to use and more purely Turkish. Thus, the principle of Turkish language reform was intimately tied to the reforms of the 1839-78 period. Later in the nineteenth century, the demand for language reform became political. Turkish nationalists sought a language that would unite rather than divide the people. In the writings of Ziya Gökalp (1924), Turkish nationalism was presented as the force uniting all those who were by language and ethnic background Turks.

With the establishment of the republic, Atatürk made language reform an important part of the nationalist program. The goal was to produce a language more Turkish, modern, practical, and precise, and less difficult to learn than the old language. The republican language reform consisted of two basic elements - adoption of a new alphabet and purification of the vocabulary.

The language revolution (Dil Devrimi in Turkish) officially began in 1928. In May 1928, numbers written in Arabic were replaced with their Western equivalents. In November the Grand National Assembly approved the 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 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 schools, village squares, and other public places to a people whose illiteracy was suddenly 100 percent. On January 1, 1929, it became unlawful to use the Arabic alphabet.

The new alphabet represents the Turkish vowels and consonants more clearly than does the old alphabet. Composed of Latin letters and a few additional variants, it contains one symbol for each sound of standard Turkish, which was identified as the educated speech of Istanbul. By adopting the Latin alphabet, Turkey turned consciously toward the West, severed a major link with the Islamic world, and rejected a part of its Islamic heritage. By providing the new generation no need and scant opportunity to learn the Arabic letters, the alphabet reform cut them off from the Ottoman past and its culture and value system. Specifically, this new generation could no longer be educated by the traditional establishment of religious scholars.

Non-Turkish words were seen as symbols of the past, and there was great nationalist enthusiasm, supported by government policies, to get rid of them. Purification of the language became a national cause. Dictionaries began to drop Arabic and Persian words and sought to resurrect archaic terms or words from Turkish dialects or to coin new words from old stems and roots to be used in their place. The Turkish Language Society (Türk Dil Kurumu), founded in 1932, supervised the collection and dissemination ofTurkish folk vocabulary and folk phrases to be used in place of foreign words. The citizens at large were 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.

The mid-1930s saw the height of the enthusiasm for language reform, and some of the suggested reforms were so extreme as to endanger the understandability of the language. Although purist and zealot opinion favored the banishment of all words of non-Turkish origin, it became obvious to many that some of the suggested reforms verged on the ridiculous. Atatürk resolved the problem with an ingenious political invention that, though embarrassing to language experts, appealed to the nationalists. He suggested the historically preposterous but politically efficacious Sun- Language Theory, which asserted that Turkish was the "mother of all languages," and therefore all foreign words were originally 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 begun to surface. Teachers, writers, poets, journalists, editors, and others began to complain in public about the instability and arbitrariness of the officially sanctioned vocabulary. In 1950 the Turkish Language Society lost its semiofficial status, and eventually some Arabic loanwords began to reappear in government publications.

The long-term effects of the language reform have been positive, but at a price. Reading, spelling, and printing are now infinitely simpler than before, and literacy has spread because of this. Modern Turkish is more concise and direct than Ottoman Turkish, and hence better meets the demands of modern life, including science and technology. The language reform has to some degree closed the language gap that used to exist between the classes of Turkish society, and a certain democratization of language and literature has occurred. The cost, however, has been the drastic and permanent estrangement from the literary and linguistic heritage of the Ottomans. Although some pre-republican writing has been transcribed in the new alphabet, its vocabulary and syntax are now barely understandable to a modern speaker of Turkish. The loss of old words and their rich connotations has resulted in some aesthetic impoverishment of the language.

Language and language reform continued to be political issues in Turkey in the late 1980s. Each decade since Atatürk's death has been characterized by its own particular stance or stances vis-à-vis language reform or support for either a more traditional lexicon or a modern, "Turkified" one abounding in Western loans or indigenous coinages. Not surprisingly, language reform and modern usage were pushed forward during periods of liberal governments and de-emphasized under conservative governments (such as those of the 1980s). As for religious publications, they were not touched much by these reforms and continued to use an idiom that was heavily Arabic or Persian in vocabulary and Persian in syntax. In spite of the fact that coinages lack some of the rich connotations of the older lexicon, modern Turkish prose and poetry came into their own in Kemalist (1923-38) and, especially, post-Kemalist (since 1938) Turkey, as writers and poets created powerful works in this new idiom.

Secularist Reforms
In 1922 the new nationalist regime abolished the Ottoman sultanate, and in 1924 it abolished the caliphate, which the Ottoman sultanate had held for centuries. Thus, for the first time in Islamic history, no ruler claimed the spiritual leadership of Islam; this was still the case in the late 1980s. The withdrawal of Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, as the presumptive leader of the world Muslim community was symbolic of the change in Turkey's relation to Islam.

Secularism or laicism (Laiklik in Turkish) was one of the "Six Arrows" of Atatürk's blueprint for modern Turkey; these founding principles of the republic, usually referred to as Atatürkism or Kemalism, were the basis for many of the early republican reforms. As Islam had formed the identity of the Ottoman Empire and its subjects, so secularism molded the new Turkish nation and its citizens.
Establishment of secularism in Turkey was a process of distinguishing church from state or the religious from the nonreligious spheres of life. In the Ottoman Empire, all spheres of life were theoretically ruled by religious law, and religious organizations did not exist apart from the state.

The reforms bearing directly on religion were numerous. They included the abolition of the caliphate; abolition of the office of seyhülislam (Islamic ruler); abolition of the religious hierarchy; closing and confiscation of the dervish lodges, meeting places, and monasteries and outlawing of their rituals and meetings; establishment ofgovernment control over the Evkaf, which had been inalienable under Sheriat (Islamic rules); replacement of Sheriat with adapted European legal codes; closing of the religious schools (Medresses); changing from the Islamic to the Western calendar; outlawing the fez for men and frowning on the veil for women, both garments associated with religious tradition; and outlawing the traditional garb of local religious leaders.

The nationalist regime made attempts to give religion a more modern and more national form. The state also supported use of Turkish rather than Arabic at devotions and the substitution of the Turkish word Tanri for the Arabic word Allah. The opposition, however, was strong enough to ensure that Arabic remained the language of prayer. In 1932, for example, the government's determination that Turkish be used in the call to prayer from the minarets was not well accepted and in 1934 it returned to the Arabic version of the call to prayer. Most notably, the Hagia Sophia (church of the Holy Wisdom, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian's sixth century basilica, which was converted into a mosque by Mehmed II) was made into a museum.

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