Pure speech and its day of political power

The Turkish Language Reform
February 11, 2000

Very little has been written in English about the Turkish language reform, and this book will be compulsory reading for foreign students of Turkish. Geoffrey Lewis's account of one of the most thorough campaigns to purge a language of foreign elements will also attract the more general reader. There are substantial quotations from Turkish writers, and most will be thankful for the translations.

Purging Ottoman Turkish of Arabic and Persian was a major element of the Kemalist revolution. Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) transformed the multi-racial Ottoman empire into a westward-facing nation state. Ottoman Turkish was not the language of the people - to most it was incomprehensible. After the Turks adopted Islam, a vast Arabic and Persian vocabulary, together with their grammatical conventions, entered Ottoman Turkish. The formal language became a mix of Arabic, Persian and Turkish that had little in common with the language of ordinary Turks.

After replacing the Arabic script with a Latin alphabet that expressed the sounds of Turkish more effectively, Kemal founded the Turkish Language Society, which had language reform as its specific remit. In 1932, he declared: "Turkish is going to be a language as free and as independent as the Turkish Nation." Revolutionaries, however, are not always impeccable in their academic approach, and Lewis, who is meticulous in tracing the genesis of a number of the new "pure Turkish" words, is severely critical of the methods used to coin the neologisms.

The story of Turkish language reform is essentially political, though Lewis does not emphasise this.

After Atatürk's death in 1938, language reform continued, but its subsequent progress was disrupted by political upheavals. After the 1950 elections, some Ottoman terminology was reintroduced. In the early 1960s, the government actively promoted language reform.

When right-wing politicians were in power, they attacked reform and lists of banned neologisms were issued. The choice of language used by a newspaper, or by an individual, became a political matter. Lewis inclines to the right-wing view.

After the 1980 military coup, Ecevit, the current prime minister and a proponent of language reform, and his right-wing rival Suleyman Demirel were detained and banned from politics. The Turkish Language Society - blamed for having damaged the language - was subsumed into a new organisation.

So ended the official promotion of "pure Turkish". In spite of this, it has become the language of the younger generation. For them, the reform has been a success, and not a catastrophic one.

Bengisu Rona is lecturer in Turkish studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success

Author - Geoffrey Lewis
ISBN - 0 19 823856 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 190

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