by Asher Kohn

In 1928, Turkey’s language revolution brought about a huge change for all citizens: the move from Arabic to Latin script. For Atatürk, eager to build a new, forward-looking nation, language was a powerful nation-building tool. One of the most zealous architects behind the reform was Moiz Kohen, a Jewish writer who indirectly became part of creating an anti-semitic bias in the fostering of Turkishness.

Each language is a living language, but no tongue has had its adolescence quite as documented as Turkish. The modern version of Turkish was fashioned out of Ottoman in the 1920s, and became the national language of millions of people. But, without any native speakers, who could teach a language that had just come into existence?

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish Republic needed not just teachers, but nation builders. The modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, grounded in a segment of the former Ottoman Empire. It was home to millions of refugees from the Balkans and the Middle East. Atatürk, along with a coterie of true believers, believed people needed to be taught what “Turkishness” meant, in order to reshape the country in a newer, more European-oriented mold. Like many others, they sought to do this in part through language.

One of the prominent men to chase this dream was Moiz Kohen. Kohen was 45 years old when he began work with Turkey’s “Citizen, speak Turkish!” campaign in 1928. He had a background that may seem peculiar now, but was quite similar to his compatriots in the five-year-old Turkish Republic. He was born near Salonica in what would become Greece and attended a French-language Alliance Israélite school as a child. In the years before World War I, Kohen was an Istanbul journalist, businessman and professor – the sort of “man of letters” in a fez, smoking a cheroot, one imagines from this era of the Ottoman Empire. But when the war came to a close and republican fervour swept the country, Kohen was caught up in the rage. He changed his name to the very Turkic-sounding Munis Tekinalp.

The polyglot Tekinalp would become key to the Turkish cause. He could write invective and propaganda, steering editors and community leaders in the single-party state to walk the party line without relying on violence. His first pamphlet in 1928, titled Türklestirme (“Turkification”), discussed the need for religious minorities to, well, Turkify. Minorities without a country of their own, like Jews, had the opportunity to find belongingness in Turkey that they could not find in older states like Britain or France. He pointed to the grand modernisation project of the Turkish nation state and the beauty of the pure Turkish language whose rules had to be fully codified.

Turkey’s Language Revolution started in 1928 with a law voted in November of that year to introduce the Latin alphabet. The Arabic script was subsequently forbidden. Its Latin script was staunchly supported by Hagop Martayan, the Secretary General of the Turkish Language Association founded in 1932. Atatürk himself would later bestow Martayan with the surname Dilaçar, or “Language opener.” Martayan was reputedly comfortable in 22 languages and formed Turkish to be both true to its Asiatic roots and comfortably European. This meant words like okul (“school”) could have a dictionary etymology of “being struck with the arrow (ok) of knowledge” and sound reasonably like the French école. Or to buy mobilya (“furniture” from the French mobilier) for a house, but the house from a gayrimenkul (from the Ottoman “not mobile,” or the French concept of an immobilier) agent.

This Turkish constructed with a dash of Asia and a helping of Europe served Tekinalp’s purposes well. He was educated by French Jews on a mission to “civilise” their Oriental coreligionists, who came from a different religious tradition than the Ashkenazi French. Tekinalp was two years older than Atatürk, who also grew up in Salonica and whose father sent him to a different Francophone school in the city. In the late 19th century, the majority of Salonica spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language that had incorporated a few Turkish words over time but was still written in an adapted Hebrew script.

Salonica was also full of Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish citizens. Multilingualism was the norm, and one could get by with a pidgin French. Tekinalp was comfortable in this milieu, but saw it crumble into horrifying wars before reaching his twenties. His investment in Turkish was a form of defense – a way for his children to have an identity, flag and army protecting them in what was very much a cultural arms race.

It was with this understanding of the world that Tekinalp went wholeheartedly into the “Citizen, speak Turkish!” campaign. However, he was shocked to see that not all of his fellow Turkish Jews agreed with him. Many Turkish Jews made a community in Balat – a run-down Jewish quarter of the city on the Golden Horn, between the Greek Patriarchate and the old Muslim pilgrimage site of Eyüp. Unlike Tekinalp, Balat was not cosmopolitan, not politically connected, and not all that interested in Turkish identity. The generally low-income community in Balat was not a self-contained ghetto like many imagine, but it did rely on relatively few interlocutors from the outside. These were mostly merchants, rabbis and politicians who would represent and serve Balat’s insular community.

Tekinalp believed that Balat’s Ladino would not do. It would keep the community – and many other Jewish communities throughout the Turkish Republic – introverted and subject to rumour, unable to properly understand the great gifts of their modern republic.

To drive this point home, Tekinalp invented the fictional Balatlı Mison (“Simon from Balat”). In his writings, speeches and diatribes, Tekinalp would excoriate the tradition-bound and simple Simon. This Simon was a man who took no care to understand the new language and would spend his time playing backgammon instead of reading the newspapers written in a script he could not read.

Public schools were opened in Balat and throughout Turkey where students would be hit for not speaking Turkish. Signs warned students against speaking their parents’ languages, and tattling children would be rewarded for telling the teacher of a classmate’s lapses. The abuse was much worse in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking areas, to be sure, since the Kurds were more numerous and more feared by the state. But that would be tough to explain to an eight-year-old in Balat who just got cuffed on the ear.

There is much irony in Tekinalp’s Turkification campaign. The first example is the clear class implications of his lessons. There was no “correct” Turkish to speak of at this time, and even in Atatürk’s speeches one can hear a clear French accent. But some accents were considered “better” than others, and the politically connected Tekinalp could bring his similar, worldly, accentto lecture the Istanbul-born on what Turkish was supposed to sound like. In the aspirational new Turkey, accents, like people, were not created equally.

The second is that Tekinalp’s excoriation of this mythical Simon from Balat became the source of actual anti-Semitic attacks. The most famous came from Akbaba (“Vulture”), a far-right publication that was dedicated to vigilantly protecting a Sunni, populist vision of Turkey from any outsiders. Its hook-nosed Jews, often with names like Solomon or Simon, were caricatured with poor Turkish and evil motives. Akbaba’s Jews were a product of Tekinalp’s writings, but they reimagined his class criticism as ethnic conflict.

It is incredibly difficult for historians today to figure out what Simon’s Balat accent might have sounded like. One can imagine that the guttural consonants of Hebrew and the spirited vowels of Spanish would have had an impact, but there are very few Ladino speakers alive today and none of them have been in a Ladino-speaking environment free from 80 years of Turkish, French, English or even Hebrew influence. What’s more, recordings are very rare. The mythological Simon from Balat would not be able to afford a phonograph, and Tekinalp’s sort would prefer to use the technology as a didactic device to prescribe “true” Turkish rather than as a sociological machine for future archives. The sounds of Balat, like the smells of its docks and the tastes of its kitchens, are mostly gone. They’ve been replaced by office blocks, chain restaurants, and more recently – hip, tourist-friendly shops.

Tekinalp would probably hate how Turkish is spoken today, with its loanwords, memes, and other vibrancies captured by websites like Eksi Sözlük (“Sour Dictionary”). He worked to create a Turkish written in stone, a language inviolate and perfect. Such a tongue has never existed, and if Tekinalp could listen to the gentrifiers playing backgammon in Balat’s gorgeous old buildings, there is no doubt he would find them far less comprehensible than any 1920s Simon from Balat. Jews have largely left the area, particularly after a series of pogroms in the 1940s and 1950s, and working-class Anatolians took their place for generations before gentrification began in the early 2000s.

The Turkish language is vibrant and fluid, and new phrases pop up every few months, most disappearing just as quickly. When Moiz Kohen changed his name and jumped with both feet into Turkishness, he believed he was giving future generations the gift of belonging in a nation state. But a few generations later, his greatest gift would seem less his attempts at controlling language, but the creation of Simon from Balat. The incomprehensible Turk that makes real, actual Turks that much more Turkish in comparison.

The Turkish language moves and skitters around every new tabloid print and internet meme. It blossoms still, and there’s nothing that Tekinalp could do to stop it. But his Simon from Balat, once a sordid enemy of progress, lives on as a sort of streetwise character. Simon has survived and thrived, unlike his rigorous and strict creator.

Asher Kohn is an editor for Ajam Media Collective. He is currently based in San Francisco, where he works for Timeline.com, and he tweets at @AJKhn.