Why did Ataturk change the language and the alphabet of modern day Turkey?

Atatürk changed the script firstly because the Arabic script did not work well for the Turkish language, mainly because of the Turkish vowel system. Classical Arabic had three long and three short vowels, Turkish has eight. Specific vowels were all impossible to show in the Arabic alphabet without a special notation that might have been developed, and it never even happened. This caused Turks not using their language correctly. Arabic script is already more difficult to learn (http://edition.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/09/06/arabic.difficulty.learning/) imagine what happens when it doesn't even suit well for a language.

Prof. Dr. Mina Urgan who has studied linguistics and could fluently speak Turkish, English, and French plus a little from some other languages, has a part about that in her memoir. I'll add a picture of the original text for those who can speak Turkish. She says,

"Because I was 12 years old at the time I remember the adaptation to the Latin script very well. Despite being a kid at a normal level of intelligence who could learned two languages, I couldn't read my native language properly. Due to the Arabic letters falling completely opposite to the Turkish language, I was getting totally confused by a Turkish text written in Arabic (letters.) For example, the vowels that are commonly used in Turkish, u, ö, ü didn't exist in Arabic. Instead of them there were "vav" and that "vav" could be read in five different ways. My mom and step father laughed at me reading "perveşkütür" despite knowing the word "projektör."

Not just me who didn't have elementary school diploma at the time, but also the elderly Turks who have studied for years also couldn't read their own language without a mistake. Literacy level was pathetic."
A Farewell to ع: Living Language Reform in Turkey
Chris Gratien, Georgetown University

The Turkish language's transition from the Ottoman to Latin alphabet, known at the time as the "letter revolution" or harf inkılabı and later as harf devrimi, has had a momentous impact on the way Turkey's history has been written. The framers of this change, including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, understood it as liberation, the casting off of an archaic, oppressive, and "alien" alphabet in favor of something vibrant, modern, and more faithful to the true character of the Turkish language. They argued that the change would increase literacy and accelerate the development of a modern Turkish language that would unite the disparate regions of Anatolia. It was also perhaps more cynically a means of marginalizing religious authorities and the Istanbul elite that had once dominated the realms of politics and education.

The new alphabet has not been without its detractors. In Yanlış Cumhuriyet, for example, Sevan Nişanyan has argued that the change actually slowed the inevitable rise in literacy that accompanied the spread of education. It also may have decreased demand for Turkish press and publications among a public accustomed to reading the Ottoman alphabet. And whether or not they affirm the necessity of the change, Turkish speakers today increasingly lament it as one that alienated future generations of Turkish readers from the rich literary heritage of the Ottoman Empire. Triumph or trauma, self-inflicted or otherwise, the harf devrimi is one history's truly peculiar linguistic events. Amidst all the examples of nationalistic language reforms, colonial and anti-colonial cultural politics, and the general standardization and transformation of speech that has occurred over the past century, Turkey stands alone in its adoption a completely different writing system, a measure that Geoffrey Lewis labelled "a catastrophic success."

This begs the question: what was the lived experience of the harf devrimi? In this article, my final post of 2013, I'd like to offer a glimpse of the transition from an Arabo-Persian to Latin alphabet as expressed in the tiny world of the biweekly journal of the Adana region education ministry. I will focus on the pragmatic aspects of the transition as experienced within at the education ministry's interface with the public, from the various activities involved with selling and implementing the alphabet reform to the emotional experience of parting once and for all with the Ottoman alphabet. We can see from the discourses of the period that the adoption of a Latin alphabet was in part billed as leaving the East to join civilization, two categories that seem to be taken as given by the architects and advocates of the policy. However, the alphabet change aroused visceral reactions from those it affected. It was a moment of apprehension, and that apprehension took many forms, including, as I will show here, animosity directed at the old letters themselves.

Gazi's Thunder

"Yeni Harflerimiz Hakkında," Adana Mıntakası Maarif Mecmuası, Vol. 1, No. 9 (31 August 1928) 1-2.

İsmail Habip (Sevük) spent his career in the fields of publishing and education. Born to a gendarme officer from Edremit in 1892, he briefly worked for the CUP during World War I before throwing his support behind the Kemalists through his work as an editor. During the 1920s, he was posted to superintendentships for the school systems in Antalya and later Adana beginning in 1927. There, he founded the biweekly periodical Adana Mıntakası Maarif Mecmuası, which was published until his departure in 1931. This publication served as a place where educators discussed developments in their field. They also shared poetry, songs, essays and short historical pieces regarding the local geography, culture, and heritage of the greater Adana region. It was published at a time when major transformations were afoot in Turkey and reflects the impacts of those intellectual and administrative changes.

Beginning in August of 1928, articles began to appear in the journal with the aim of preparing educators for the impending change to Latin letters. The first was an interview with Türk Sözü (a local newspaper in Adana) featuring Habip himself. Amidst the heat of a sticky Adana summer, Habip responded to Türk Sözü's questions and offered a complete endorsement of the change, saying that without such a shift Turkish would never reach the level of a "civilized language (medeni lisan)." Whatever the benefits, though, Habip struck a wistful tone, too. He referred to the reform as a major sacrifice (fedakarlık) for Turkish readers. After all, it was no simple matter to reduce oneself to the level of an elementary student learning to read for the first time. He explained that this hardship was why even those who acknowledged rationally the superiority of the Latin alphabet ran away from it. "But the voice of Gazi (Mustafa Kemal)...," he said, trailing off as he lit a cigarette.

He continued in a philosophical tone: "You know there's clouds that look like mountains sometimes." He then proceeded to construct an analogy between the seemingly insurmountable "mountain-like" tasks of the Kemalist revolution and the ease with which they could be conquered by "Gazi's thunder (gazinin gök gürültüsü)." He explained that those would-be mountains had disappeared "like clouds flying on the wings of the breeze" as "Gazi's breaths (gazinin nefhası)" dispersed them one by one. The analogy was simple but apt. The spirit of Mustafa Kemal was to be the soothing breeze that would gently ease the pain of leaving behind the Ottoman past. Habip emphasized that the sooner this change was made the better and easier it would be, indicating that they would begin teaching Turkish with the Latin alphabet with the new school year in September.

In fact, preparations were already underway. In a later interview with Türk Sözü, the deputy superintendent of education for the Adana region Nahit Cemal explained the logistical steps being taken for the roll-out of the new alphabet. The article referred to it as a type of mobilization for war (seferberlik), conjuring the memory of struggle associated with the years of the First World War. He reported a large demand for enrollment in the Adana region for the coming fall. In the face of rising enrollment numbers and a scramble on the part of students and guardians for placement, Cemal stressed that a class would be found for each and every student to learn the new alphabet. At the time of publication, 125 courses with over 5500 students had been opened in the seven vilayets of Adana, Mersin, Niğde, Gaziantep, Cebel-i Bereket, Maraş and Silifke. These numbers reveal that already classes were composed of more than 40 students each on average, and with increasing demand, Cemal reported that class sizes would be raised to as many as sixty students. Similarly, government buildings across the region were being converted into classrooms in order to accommodate the influx of eager learners. A quick and successful implementation of a new writing system meant not only tremendous time and resources spent on coordination and preparation but also reassuring the public of the benefits the change would bring.

"Yeni Harf Meselesi Etrafında," Adana Mıntakası Maarif Mecmuası, Vol. 1, No. 10 (30 September 1928) 7-8.

Writing Like The Rest of Civilization

In a subsequent speech at Adana's Türk Ocağı regarding the new alphabet published in the journal, an emboldened Superintendent Habip continued his poetic approach to language reform cheerleading. To illustrate his argument that Turkish was far too difficult, he offered a line from the poetry of Sümbülzâde Vehbî, an eighteenth century poet hailing from nearby Maraş:
فارسیدن عربیدن ایکی شهبال ایستر تا که پرواز بلند ایلیه عنقای سخن

Farsiden arabiden iki şehbal ister ta ki pervaz-ı bülend eyleye anka-yı suhen

Translation: The phoenix of discourse needs two wings of Arabic and Farsi to soar

By using a line almost entirely composed of Persian loanwords (which he anticipated his audience would not understand) Habip cleverly emphasized the point that Turkish required knowledge of not one but three languages, making it far too difficult for a country hoping to expand literacy. Of course, there is some irony in his usage of this line, since it directly refers to a notion that Persian and Arabic enhance Turkish rather than make it more difficult, but that was not a point Habip could countenance. In another attack against the Arabo-Persian alphabet, he complained, "We don't write; we draw. We don't read, we memorize."

As a supplement to this practical argument, he offered an aesthetic one through an analogy with the fez, which had recently been banished in favor of the Kemalist top hat. "We said that we look ridiculous to civilized people wearing that (bütün medeni insanlara o kıyafetle gülünç oluyoruz dedik)," said Habip, stressing that the hat reform was not just a matter of modernizing dress but also a matter of dignity in the eyes of others. But the hat reform, Habip continued, was also an issue of changing mentalities or "heads." "Just as Gazi gave us the top hat and changed the outside of our heads," he said, "Gazi has changed the inside of our heads in giving us the new alphabet."

However, just like in his interview, Habip allowed for the complications of the language reform before ultimately arguing for the new alphabet's power as a unifying force. For example, some claimed that the Arabic alphabet with its cursive flow and lack of short vowels was ideal for writing at the speed of human speech, something that many believed would not be true for the Latin alphabet. But Habip brushed this aside, saying that this is why stenography was invented. Likewise, new tensions emerged in his discussion of the political implications of the new alphabet on the domestic level. In a call for national unity, he acknowledged that the Latin spellings would expose the pronunciation differences throughout Turkey that might have been masked by the Arabic alphabet; for example, Istanbul pronounced the word for big as büyük whereas in Anatolia the pronunciation was böyük. Here, he emphasized that a new, standardized spelling would also require leaving aside these differences.

Yet, the expediency of the new alphabet extended beyond the realm of culture and politics. The advantage that adoption of the Latin alphabet would offer in the realm of economy was perhaps most convincing. Due to the rising importance of print, the Arabic alphabet and its connected letters were standing in the way of cheap and rapid production of printed texts and thus impeding progress, according to Habip. A further and more grandiose argument was that a new Latin alphabet could serve as a guide to other Turkish peoples and gradually bring the Turkish nations together, the implication also being a break with the Arabophone and Persophone Muslim world.

The overall theme of Habip's speech referred to understandings of what it meant to be civilized and with which world Turkey was to identify itself. There were rational arguments for the superiority of the Latin alphabet when writing Turkish; yet, the change was also about writing as all the other civilized countries did, emulating on paper what was already being emulated through fashion. Likewise, it was about a conscious effort to distance Turkey from not only the countries of the Middle East but also its Ottoman past.

However, Habip understood that there was an emotional distinction between ditching the fez and tossing out a writing system with centuries of history. Acknowledging the difficulty of the process, he said, "We are not changing our shirts; we are changing our writing." And just as moving to a new home could involve some discomfort, so too would adopting a new alphabet. "But who should be uncomfortable?" he asked, noting that Turkey had a literacy rate of about 15% and most of these individuals were already familiar with other Latin alphabets. He stressed that the few literate individuals who would be inconvenienced by the change must yield to the great majority of illiterate people who would benefit. In the process, he offered a backhanded compliment of the Ottoman period: by keeping the majority of people ignorant, Habip argued, the Ottomans had actually facilitated the language reform. Using the examples of English and French, old written languages with notoriously difficult orthography, he stressed the unique opportunity presented to the Turkish language. These European languages could not reform their spelling because "everybody" had already learned them. Doing so would inconvenience the entire population. But since there were so few Turkish readers anyway, language reform could be much easier.

In addressing the putative illiterate citizens in the crowd, he presented the language reform as a great opportunity, saying that with a few months or even weeks of effort, they could be rescued from their once predetermined fate of perpetual illiteracy, blindness, and darkness. And on the other side of the coin, he called the educated to undertake this mission that was not only the command of Mustafa Kemal but also the nation, inviting his audience to this struggle for freedom and for a new life as a new nation, equating it with a glorious battle for the future.

"Yeni Harflerimiz Hakkında," Adana Mıntakası Maarif Mecmuası, Vol. 1, No. 10 (30 September 1928) 1-6.

A Dry-Eyed Goodbye

In an article entitled "A Farewell to Our Old Letters (Eski Harflerimize Vedaiye)" dedicated to Köprülüzâde Mehmed Fuad (later Mehmet Fuat Köprülü), İsmail Habip opened what was to be the Maarif Mecmuası's final issue written in Ottoman letters. Published at the end of November on the eve of the Latin alphabet's official adoption, the article was Habip's last chance to use the soon-to-be-old letters to make a case against those very same letters. And so rather than a polite goodbye to what he repeatedly described as "ten centuries" of Turkish in Arabic script, Habip opted for an emotionally-charged parting shot at the alphabet he had so ardently fought against.

He described the old alphabet as a distinctly foreign presence, infiltrating the Turkish community dressed in Arab clothing: "Rising from the lands of deserts and prophets a full ten centuries ago with an agelon your head and a maşlah on your back, you entered us." This description occurred repeatedly alongside the accusation, "you became part of our sense of self and confused our sense of self (bütün benliğimize karışarak ve bütün benliğimizi karıştırarak)." Through allusions to history's great Turkish authors from Fuzûlî to Namık Kemal, Habip related a longstanding parasitic relationship between the Arabo-Persian alphabet and the Turkish people. With no shortage of rancor, he described casting off the yoke of that alphabet as more impossible than draining the seas or moving mountains to emphasize the miraculous achievement and sacrifice of his generation of Kemalist intellectuals. "There is no way that future generations will ever understand the limitless greatness of this sacrifice of ours (Yarınki nesiller bu fedakarlığımızdaki hudutsuz azameti imkanı yok anlamayacaklar)," he said. In his eyes, the educated class (münevver) was hurling itself into the darkness by abandoning their alphabet for the sake of the masses.

After this introduction, he followed with an ode to Mustafa Kemal (whom he refers to simply as "Him") and his voice as an unstoppable force of nature that came to sweep away the old. He finished with a firm statement that this historical moment was not like the parting of two acquaintances; it was for them a moment of rebirth and for the old Arabic alphabet a final and eternal death: "Your death will be our ressurection (ölüşün dirlişimiz oluyor)." Not surprisingly, this death was a welcome one. He described it as "a funeral in the procession of which there are no tears in the eyes (cenazeki teşyi ederken gözlerinde yaş yok)." He concluded his spiteful and triumphant eulogy to the moribund alphabet saying, "goodbye forever (hadi ebediyen allahaısmarladık)" to the pesky letters that had plagued the Turkish existence for over ten centuries.

Just as with his citation of deeply Persian influenced poetry at the Türk Ocağı, Habip expressed his hatred of the Arabo-Persian alphabet in the type of poetic, elegant, and stilted prose that he seemed to see as part of the problem. He had warned that future generations would not understand the sacrifices made to change the alphabet, but ironically they would not even be able to understand the dense language of this farewell even if it were to be transliterated into Latin letters. In retrospect, Habip's eulogy (we assume unwittingly) bears in form and sentiment the surreal quality of post-colonial literature such as Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, using a would-be colonial language artfully for the purposes of mocking it. İsmail Habip, a humble pedagogue from Adana, railed against the bars of a centuries-old prison that was the only language he had ever known. In describing the end of a long and fraught relationship between Arabic and Turkish, he conveyed no sense of closure or transition; rather, it was charged with the emotional material of a wounded lover making an exaggerated and final break to move on from a partner whose psychological grip was too firm to be loosened gradually or with ease. And if that partner was to be missed, it would only be long after sensing the irrevocable loss brought by that bitter and hasty end.

"Eski Harflerimize Vedaiye," Adana Mıntakası Maarif Mecmuası, Vol. 1, No. 13 (29 November 1928) 1-3.

A Sudden Break; a Gradual Transition
The performative firmness and finality with which Habip rejected the Ottoman writing system belied the reality of its inevitably lasting presence. Indeed, while the decision was implemented rather suddenly at the end of 1928 without much room for public debate, the transition was more gradual in practice. If we consider that many of those already literate in Ottoman Turkish continued to use that alphabet in their private papers, we see how the Latin alphabet was adopted initially as an official script, appearing in newspapers and official documents as a neat and modern transliteration of the Ottoman language still entrenched in the minds of readers and writers. The gradual nature of this transition is less palpable in the carefully crafted confies of the major periodicals from the period (see this front page of Cumhuriyet from December 1928 for example). Likewise, historians working in the archives might be suddenly confronted with the transition from one alphabet to another on a single page. The image below of a page from a karar defteri in the court records of Elbistan at the Ottoman archives offers an example of this effect occurring in June of 1929 some months after the official change. Yet, if we look closer at the document and find the various orthographical errors and spelling irregularities in the text, then we can see how conceptions of Ottoman spelling and perhaps pronunciation variations as well continued to impact the writing of Turkish for many years to come.

Moreover, ideas about the immediacy and revolutionary nature of reform may have overshadowed a logistical lag in implementation and the persistence of certain topics. In the case of Habip's Adana Mıntakası Maarif Mecmuası, the alphabet change meant months of inactivity. Habip may have been terribly excited about the alphabet change; but that excitement meant little without the new letters for the printing press. Between the journal's last Ottoman issue in November 1928 and its first Latin-letter edition in March 1929 stood a four month gap between theory behind the new alphabet and the problems of its immediate adoption in practice. With the new letters and a new title (Çukurovada Memleket), the journal nevertheless did illustrate a great degree of continuity in terms of content. Alongside regular information about how the new orthography should be taught, the journal maintained sections on the history, poetry (including some by Taha Ay), and geography of the Adana region as well as more offbeat material such as a bizarre section entitled "Jewish jokes."

Just like the subject matter of the journal retained traces of the past, so too did some of the journal's linguistic practices. For example, the journal regularly featured supplements on the local Turkish dialect of İçel (Mersin region). This in and of itself was an interesting way of negotiating the generalization of Istanbul Turkish by simultaneously incorporating and "correcting" the Turkish of the provinces, which in places like Adana was in competition with Arabic, Kurdish, Circassian, and a number of other languages spoken at home by newly-arrived immigrants and local minorities. After the adoption of the Latin alphabet, Çukurovada Memleket continued to run articles about the İçel dialect, which were comprised of lists of words and their standard Turkish equivalents. However, these lists, which proceeded alphabetically, followed the alphabetical order of the Ottoman writing system, with words beginning with b and p appearing consecutively and so forth. This minor but revealing linguistic illustration of history as palimpsest invites a much larger investigation into the social history of the alphabet and language reforms in Turkey and its connection to the collective memory of and debates over the Ottoman legacy.

The harf devrimi occurred in a very specific historical and social context before the overturn of modernization theory, before the colonizers lost, and before an alternative to the East/West dichotomy was well-articulated. Thus, it can be (and has been) approached as a means of interrogating those abstractions, viewed as a success or failure of the state and depicted variously as a triumph of modernity, a ludicrous and heavy-handed state project, or one of many examples of the nation-state's role in engineering culture and society. However, such understandings, including those that view the language reform as another example of a general phenomenon that can be observed in other contexts across the globe, will inevitably obscure the psychological and (as I've shown here) emotional experience of what was a virtually unprecedented linguistic event. In other words, case studies of language reform's lived impact may serve as an impetus for moving beyond a framework within which early Republican policies are taken at face value and judged in terms of their successes and failures towards an understanding of how such policies functioned dynamically in a social environment.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <img> <b> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

Sponsorlu bağlantılar