Turkey’s typographic revolution

Part 2

In this second part of the story about Turkey’s typographic revolution, Clément Girardot continues discussing with Emmanuel Szurek about the impact of the language reform in Turkey and the practical steps undertaken to implement it.

Ibrahîm Hilmi, Yeni Harflerle Resimli Türkçe Alfabe, Hilmi Kitaphânesi, 1928 (an illustrated alphabet of the Turkish language with its new characters), pages 20-21. The teaching of the new alphabet is linked to the celebration of the Turkish Nation and the personality cult of Mustafa Kemal.
Ibrahîm Hilmi, Yeni Harflerle Resimli Türkçe Alfabe, Hilmi Kitaphânesi, 1928 (an illustrated alphabet of the Turkish language with its new characters), pages 20-21. The teaching of the new alphabet is linked to the celebration of the Turkish Nation and the personality cult of Mustafa Kemal.

What were the implications of latinisation for the Turkish language?

Changing the alphabet also changed spelling and, over time, vocabulary. This is why the alphabet and language reforms are connected. Latinisation broke the link between Turkish script and its Arabic vocabulary. These words became like orphans from their semantic family, and so they lost their powers of evocation and connotation. The Latin script distorted Arabic words, instead facilitating the transcription of words from Latin languages. Thus latinisation encouraged the entry en masse of words with Western origins into the Turkish language. This is one of the great paradoxes of the language reform, since the Kemalists spent their time declaring that it would liberate the Turkish language from foreign tutelage. Arabic and Persian words and syntax were presented as a kind of ‘foreign invasion’, the linguistic equivalent to the occupation of Turkey by foreign armies during the First World War.

What was the impact of language reform in Turkey, beyond the alphabet itself?

Today, an 18-year-old would not necessarily understand a text written in the 1940s or 1950s without the aid of a dictionary. You could say, as a generalisation, that certain texts from the 1570s in France – Montaigne’s essays, for example – have the same status as some literary or even scientific texts written in Turkey during the twentieth century. This is the result of the language reforms undertaken between the 1930s and 1970s, as the Turkish vocabulary was ‘refined’. That is to say, Arabic and Persian words were largely replaced by ‘pure Turkish’ neologisms, by newly created words or new imports. The lexicon has changed so much that the old vocabulary has become incomprehensible to the majority of today’s Turks.

What do these reforms say about the Kemalist image of the Arab-Persian world?

The Kemalists completely internalised the Western vision of ‘the Orient’, producing their own Orientalism with regard to the Arab world. This already existed under the Ottoman Empire. Kemalist progressivism contrasted itself with this Orient, with the ‘fanaticism’ and ‘backwardness’ of Arab societies. This reflects the sociology of the Kemalist cadres. They were influenced by Western, and especially French, culture. They had internalised if not self-hatred, then at least a strong hatred of the Orient. They were keen to break with Turkey’s Eastern past, in order to ‘enter’ into Western civilisation. But this is not the only possible explanation. The Orientalism of the Kemalists can also be explained with reference to their exclusive and ethnically defined nationalism; by their will to construct a homogenous and turkified national society – at the expense of, notably, the Kurdish minority.

At the time, official historians, journalists and publicists of the regime used a religious register when speaking of the change in alphabet – it was a kind of revelation, or nurlanma. There is a sacred aspect given to the transfer from the Arabic (and Koranic) script to the new Turkish alphabet. Mustafa Kemal takes on the role of the Prophet, in the etymological sense of the term – he who speaks before, he who brings the Good News (mujde). The whole of the Kemalist discourse consisted of opposing what had come before 1928 – darkness, ignorance, superstition – with what came after: illumination, knowledge, reason. It in some ways draws on Islamic theology, which establishes a firm distinction between the period before the Mohammedan revelation, known as the Age of Darkness, and the period after.

The new Turkish alphabet, immortalised in bronze

How were the reforms carried out?

In a context where the majority of the traditional elite – notably the intellectuals – were hostile to the reform of the alphabet, the regime adopted a strategy of circumvention. They pursued their goal in the political arena, which was much easier to control than its academic counterpart. So in June 1928 a commission was established, full of intellectuals close to the regime, and they published a report justifying Latinisation. The reform was implemented in the State, by the State, for the State. The process began with high functionaries in all the various administrations, who were tested on the new alphabet that autumn. If they failed, they were dismissed. This purging of the bureaucracy allowed for the implementation of a new norm. And here we begin to see how complicated the censorship could be. The censorship policy in place since 1925 was supplemented by what I call ‘censorship of a second degree’, or métacensure, which required anyone wishing to speak out against the regime to do so in the new form and according to the new norms imposed by the regime itself.

How did the public react? Was the response positive or did they resist?

Because of censorship, the only sources we have are State sources. ‘Schools of the Nation’ (Millet Mektepleri) are created beginning in December 1928 to teach everyone aged 16-40 how to read and write. Although the real numbers are surely different, according to official statistics from 1935 2.5 million people passed through the ‘schools of the people’ and 1.2 million people left them with diplomas, out of a population of 13 million.

Certainly, the climate of coercion would have been strong. The goal was for the number of new literates to rapidly supersede those who had mastered Arabic script, making it impossible to reverse the reforms. According to official statistics, in 1927, Turkey had a 10% literacy rate, versus 20% in 1935. Even if we can quibble about the numbers, it is a massive and unprecedented phenomenon. Voices of resistance are difficult to make out. My favourite example is that of a stonemason who was put on trial in 1932 because he persisted in inscribing the names of the dead on tombstones in Arabic characters. As if death could not be divorced from the sanctity of the Koranic script.

Doesn’t the concept of language reconstruction seem a bit Orwellian?

Yes, except that in Orwell there is only a dictatorial aspect: thought control. Undoubtedly, to change a word is to change reality; this has an Orwellian quality. But the reforms also provided access to knowledge, culture and written fluency. This change had an emancipatory effect. In the third world and progressive literature which came into vogue in the 1970s and 80s, we were all obsessed with improving literacy rates, with ‘progress and development’ …now, it seems we’ve adopted nearly the opposite logic: ‘oral cultures and traditions are wonderful!’ We castigate ‘modernity’, we cultivate a nostalgia for our lost ‘heritage’, including the invention of an idealised past. We must find a balance – this reform, as violent it was, also symbolises the destruction of feudal structures, the end of religious oppression, and the advent of the people’s access to information.

Translated from French by Erin O’Halloran. Find part one here.

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