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  • The Turkish language reform: A catastrophic success by Geoffrey Lewis
  • Ali Eminov
The Turkish language reform: A catastrophic success. By Geoffrey Lewis. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 190.

Language reform in Turkey was a deliberate campaign to ‘purify’ Turkish by eliminating ‘the Arabic and Persian grammatical features and the many thousands of Arabic and Persian borrowings that had long been a part of the language’ (2) and substituting Turkish grammatical features and words for these. Language reform in Turkey, like many others elsewhere, was undertaken for nationalistic purposes. Ataturk, the founder and first president of the modern Turkish republic, initiated the language reform to promote national unity and identity, to bolster a sense of pride in the citizens of the republic, to boost morale seriously sapped by many years of war, and to reorient Turkey toward the West. This book tells the story of that reform.

A proper understanding of language reform in modern Turkey requires familiarity with the history of Ottoman Turkish. In Ch. 2, Lewis traces the development of Ottoman Turkish back to the conversion of Turks to Islam in the eleventh century. Over the next several centuries Turkish experienced an influx of Arabic and Persian lexicon and grammatical features. Persian, having an ancient literary tradition, became a model for Turkish poets and writers by the fifteenth century. The development of Ottoman Turkish, used largely by administrative and literary elites, created serious obstacles to communication between the rulers and the ruled. This communication gap led to individual attempts to simplify Turkish very early on. More organized efforts at language reform coincide with the introduction of the printing press to Ottoman Turkey and the appearance of the first official and unofficial Turkish newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century. The Turkish national awakening at the beginning of the twentieth century led to the establishment of formal Turkish associations to promote language reform. The lack of a unified program and disagreements among members of these associations about the direction of language reform limited their success. Nevertheless, many progressive Turkish writers and poets, on their own, made conscious efforts to avoid Arabic and Persian words in their work so that by the end of World War I, the duality between Ottoman Turkish and the language of ordinary folk was beginning to disappear, and many people came to think of their language as Turkish, not Ottoman.

Ch. 3 provides a brief overview of the alphabet reform that preceded language reform. Traditionally Turkish had been written with an Arabo-Persian alphabet, an alphabet seriously deficient for writing Turkish. Beginning in the nineteenth century several unsuccessful attempts were made to modify this alphabet to make it more suitable for writing Turkish. Only in the early twentieth century did the idea of replacing it altogether with a Latin-based alphabet gain currency. The strongest advocate for such a change was Ataturk. He felt that such a fundamental reform was needed ‘to break Turkey’s ties with the Islamic east and to facilitate communication domestically as well as with the Western world’ (27). An Alphabet Commission was established in May 1928. After prolonged and contentious discussions, the commission produced a draft proposal for a Latin-based alphabet which Ataturk found acceptable. Almost immediately Ataturk personally launched a nation-wide campaign to introduce the new alphabet to the people. Within a short time publishing houses, newspapers, journals, and schools successfully adopted it.

Ch. 4 focuses on the initial plans for language reform. In 1932, under Ataturk’s guidance, the first Language Congress established a committee with the task of ‘(1) collecting and publishing the treasures of the Turkish language existing in the popular language and old books; (2) clarifying the methods of word-creation in Turkish and employing them to extract various words from Turkish roots; (3) uncovering and publicizing pure Turkish words which may be substituted for words of foreign roots widely used in Turkish, especially in the written language’ (49). Between 1932 and 1934 long lists of words from Turkish speakers throughout the country, from old dictionaries and texts, and from other Turkic languages were compiled and published. In 1935 newspapers began to publish lists of proposed Turkish replacements for Arabic...


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