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Turkey’s typographic revolution

Part 1

1928 is a crucial date in Turkey’s contemporary history. As part of the Kemalist reforms, which sought to modernise Turkey and break with the Ottoman past, Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, decided to replace the Arabic alphabet with its Latin equivalent. In Turkey, this reform is still hailed as one of the Republic’s great early successes, for contributing to the improvement of literacy rates. At least, that is the official line.

Mustafa Kemal, inspecting the new literacy skills of functionaries in Sivas, September 1928.

But very little critical work has been done on the concurrent reform of the alphabet and the Turkish language. Emmanuel Szurek, a doctoral student in history at the Ecole de hautes études en sciences sociales, EHESS, studies the relationship between language and politics in Turkey in the twentieth century, and in particular the invention of a Turkish alphabet.

How can we define the Ottoman language at the close of Empire?

It is characterised by a phenomenon of diglossia. This means that in theory there are two variations in a single language, a high variation and low variation (for example literary Arabic vs. Arabic dialect). In practice, it is more like a continuum of linguistic registers: people speak different variations of their language depending on the occasion, and whom they are speaking to. Simply put, the high variation is the language of the elite, the aristocracy, and court literature. It borrows many words from Arabic and Persian, which represent up to 80% of the lexicon. A large number of syntactic constructions are directly imported from these languages, which have completely different grammatical structures. Turkish is a Turko-Mongolian language; Arabic, a Semitic language; and Persian is Indo-European – three grammars, each unique from the other two. The high variation, the literary Arabic, was a very turgid and incomprehensible language for the illiterate masses, who represented about 90% of Turkey’s population in 1927.

So the language spoken by the people at that time is closer to modern Turkish?

It is hard to say. There was not a unified and standardised language that we might call ‘Turkish’ spoken, rather a mosaic of dialects. That said, low dialects used more Turkish words, that is to say words with Turkic roots. They were much simpler variations in grammatical terms, as there were not three but only one grammatical system employed: the Turkish system.

When did the Arabic alphabet come into use?

It goes back to the 10th or 11th century, when the Turks were converted to Islam. In this process, literate people were adopted by the bureaucratic systems of Medieval Muslim states in the Arab-Persian world. There is a famous Turkish-Arabic dictionary dating from 1070 and written in Arabic characters. Before adopting the Arabic alphabet, other scripts were used to transcribe the language of the Turkic peoples, including the famous Orkhon Runes, and the Soghdien alphabet.

What then were the reasons for rethinking the use of the Arabic alphabet?

We must distinguish between the question of the alphabet and the language issue. By the 1860s, Ottoman scholars began calling for the ‘simplification’ of the language. This was a question of reducing the reliance on Arabic and Persian grammatical structures, and replacing Arabic and Persian words with their Turkish equivalents wherever possible. It was during this period that a privately owned commercial press first appeared in the Ottoman Empire, seeking to sell itself, to find a readership. In fact, the emergence of a capitalist press was itself justification for the use of a simplified language.

With regards to the alphabet, there was talk of a latinisation dating from around the same time (1860). It was an Azeri, the writer Mirza Fath Ali Ahunzade, who first wanted to simplify the Arabic characters. Disregarding the sultan’s refusal, he eventually proposed his own system of Latin characters for the Turkish language. Such initiatives continued up to the Young Turks Revolution in 1908. In 1909, an association was founded to advocate for a new writing system which would differ from traditional Arabic by separating the letters in a word. In Arabic script, the same letter changes its shape depending on whether it is at the beginning, middle or end of the word, and according to the letter that precedes it. This causes problems for typography, and hence for printing.

Language became a real political issue with the Young Turks Revolution, which marks the crystallisation of a strong Turkish national identity. It became a vehicle of and for the Turkish Nation. In the years between 1926 and 1928, latinisation became increasingly popular and common among the Kemalist class including functionaries and ministers. But the concept remained alien to the majority of the population.

Poster for the People’s Republican Party (CHP), 1930. “The old alphabet was very difficult. The new alphabet has made reading and writing easier. Following the reform, schools have multiplied. The Schools of the Nation are open: Young and old, everyone is learning to read”.

Why was reform undertaken in 1928?

Reform came when the Kemalists had consolidated their control over the running of the state. Beginning in 1925, freedoms of expression were limited and the party regime took root. The reform of the alphabet was by far the most important one carried out, because it saw the Kemalists taking a position of power not only over culture and knowledge, but even over cognition. The alphabet is not simply a question of how we read and write; it also influences how we understand the world.

What were the objectives of the reform process? To improve literacy?

Exactly, and this is very important. The Kemalists were influenced by a sort of ‘missionary’ mentality: ‘we will bring knowledge, progress, and illumination to all’. It is tempting to characterise this state of mind as colonial, but we must remember that it is the same attitude which the French Republic took towards its peasants and farmers. It is in fact a rather classic logic of nation building.

At a more general level, I have identified three objectives: first, nationalism – imposing a standardised alphabet as part of a broader campaign of homogenisation; second, pragmatism – writing had to be simplified, which is why the new alphabet was phonetic, with each character corresponding to a letter and vice-versa. It was a question of facilitating the process of learning to read and write, as well as typography and printing. Third, the creation of a symbolic instrument of domination: by implementing the new alphabet, the Kemalists appropriated for themselves a monopoly on orthography, or ‘correct writing’, a role usually reserved for the intellectual elite. In concrete terms, in the Turkish village, it would no longer be the Imam or the Hodja who dominates knowledge and learning, but the state instructor certified by the regime.

Translated from French by Erin O’Halloran. The second part is here.

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