Learning Modern Turkish

Article excerpt

We called it the Grammar Wall. It started with a single piece of paper taped to the center of the wall in the study. Written in green magic marker, the basic suffixes of simple present tense were held up for passing scrutiny and a sort of constant review lesson. From that first sheet, the rest followed in a growing system of charts and lists that mapped out the basics of Turkish grammar and vocabulary.

It was 1997, in Ankara, Turkey, and I had just moved in with two fellow English teachers, Chad and Bob. We were excited like children in a surprising wonderland of culture, history, and a very strange language. Though we had been told that Turkish wasn't necessary in our jobs, we had committed to learn as much as we could. Armed only with a couple of phrasebooks and an optimistic Turkish in Three Months guide, we began the Grammar Wall and thus embarked on a tongue-twisting journey into a revolutionized language.

Often when I speak to people about my time in Turkey, I am asked--with a bit of a chuckle as though a new word were being made up--"So what do they speak there? Turkish?" "Well, actually, yes." On several occasions that fact has been met with surprise. Though I had heard of Turkish before, I was, in fact, surprised to find that over 200 million people share the tongue. Brought to Anatolia (what is now Turkey) by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, it later became the language of the Ottoman Empire. Over the centuries it has appeared in many text forms, but from the 11th century forward, the Arabic script was used. If that were still true today, I fear I would have been completely lost. However, Modern Turkish is one of the beneficiaries of the revolution of a republic not even 100 years old.

Mustafa Kemal, most commonly known as Ataturk (Father Turk), is still the national hero of the Turkish Republic. He led the Ottoman soldiers who made their brutal stand at Gallipoli in 1915 when the Allied troops attempted to take the peninsula and march all the way to Istanbul. When the Ottoman Empire lay in ruin just after the Great War, he united the Turks--men and women--to rise against the Allied partitioning and Greek military forces that had marched almost all the way to the present-day capital, Ankara. The Turks prevailed thus establishing Turkey's present-day boundaries. Kemal, in turn, abolished the sultanate and soon after became the first president of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. His vision was to keep pace with the Western world while retaining national pride and unity. Part of his revolution included the abolishment of a state religion and the public display of Islamic dress, no small accomplishment in a nation 99.9% Muslim. Though the veil has returned to public life in Turkey, the government has remained a secular one since its inception.

But what is perhaps just as remarkable was the Dil Devrimi, the Language Revolution. He sought to purify the language of the foreign influences that had inevitably permeated the vocabulary during the reign of the Ottomans. A veil or a fez can be removed in an instant; what would you do if your alphabet were abolished? In May 1928, the Latin alphabet was introduced with a few extra letters adapted slightly for some Turkish sounds. It was predicted the change would take at least five years. Ataturk demanded three months, and starting with the daily newspapers, he insisted everything be written using the new Latin alphabet. Then followed language courses with the President and Prime Minister themselves among the teachers. Finally, all school textbooks were changed. On November 1, 1928 the Turkish Parliament passed the new alphabet into law. Then Ataturk established The Turkish Language Society (later the Turkish Linguistic Association) which produced language studies with the goal of identifying authentic Turkish words which in turn were compiled into new dictionaries. Students were encouraged to use the purely Turkish words. The role of the teachers became paramount. …