The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success

The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success

The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success

The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success

Synopsis

This is the first full account of the transformation of Ottoman Turkish into modern Turkish. It is based on the author's knowledge, experience and continuing study of the language, history, and people of Turkey. That transformation of the Turkish language is probably the most thorough-going piece of linguistics engineering in history. Its prelude came in 1928, when the Arabo-Persian alphabet was outlawed and replaced by the Latin alphabet. It began in earnest in 1930 when Ataturk declared: Turkish is one of the richest of languages. It needs only to be used with discrimination. The Turkish nation, which is well able to protect its territory and its sublime independence, must also liberate its language from the yoke of foreign languages. A government-sponsored campaign was waged to replace words of Arabic or Persian origin by words collected from popular speech, or resurrected from ancient texts, or coined from native roots and suffixes. The snag - identified by the author as one element in the catastrophic aspect of the reform - was that when these sources failed to provide the needed words, the reformers simply invented them. The reform was central to the young republic's aspiration to be western and secular, but it did not please those who remained wedded to their mother tongue or to the Islamic past. The controversy is by no means over, but Ottoman Turkish is dead. Professor Lewis both acquaints the general reader with the often bizarre, sometimes tragicomic but never dull story of the reform, and provides a lively and incisive account for students of Turkish and the relations between culture, politics and language with some stimulating reading. The author draws on his own wide experience of Turkey and his personal knowledge of many of the leading actors. The general reader will not be at a disadvantage, because no Turkish word or quotation has been left untranslated. This book is important for the light it throws on twentieth-century Turkish politics and society, as much as it is for the study of linguistic change. It is not only scholarly and accessible; it is also an extremely good read.

Excerpt

This book has two purposes. the first is to acquaint the general reader with the often bizarre, sometimes tragicomic, but never dull story of the Turkish language reform. the second is to provide students of Turkish at every level with some useful and stimulating reading matter. With both purposes in mind, no word, phrase, or sentence of Turkish has been left untranslated, apart from names of books and articles, as it is assumed that the reader who wishes to chase up bibliographical references will understand the meaning of the titles. the second purpose accounts for the references to the author's Turkish Grammar and for the abundance of footnotes and digressions.

The language reform is not so well known abroad as other aspects of the Kemalist revolution because, having lasted for more than half a century, it is not the stuff of which headlines are made, but its effects are evident if we compare the Turkish of today with that of even thirty years ago.

Not a few nations have gone in for linguistic engineering. By this I mean tinkering with language with the express purpose of changing people's speech habits and the way they write. I am not referring to the introduction of new words for technical innovations such as vaccination, radar, or the modem, or to the creation of new non-technical words by individuals intending to amuse or to express ideas for which they find no words in the existing language. the names that come to mind in these last two categories are, on the one hand, Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, James Joyce, and, in the middle, the American Gelett Burgess, whom we have to thank for the word blurb.In his Burgess Unabridged: a New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed(1914), he defines it as '1. a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.' An earlier (1906) success of his had been to popularize bromide, previously meaning a sedative, in the sense of a boringly trite remark. He gives as an example: 'It isn't the money, it's the principle of the thing', and points out that what makes it a bromide is not just its triteness but its inevitability. He was by no means the first such benefactor of humanity; there was, for example, the unknown seventeenth-century genius who combined dumbstruck and confounded to make dumbfounded. Nor was he the last; the earliest recorded appearance in print of guesstimate, later guestimate, was in 1936, in the New York Times, and such inventions keep coming. During the Gulf War of 1991 we were reminded by an American general of the existence . . .

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