The Turkish Language Purification; the benefits and drawbacks

“It’s a pity, it really is,” my friend said.  “Our history is so rich, and now we are cut off from a lot of it.”  My co-worker and I were discussing the modern Turkish language reformation that happened sometime in the 1930’s under the direction of Turkey’s modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  It’s something I’m going to dig deeper about later, but first as background, the Turkish language went through a transformation most languages in the world don’t get….it got purified.  All during the famous Ottoman Empire the lingua franca was Turkish’s predecessor Osmanlaca (depicted above), which had similar grammar and vocabulary to the present Turkish spoken in Turkey now, but was written with Arabic characters.  Ataturk’s dream for his new country was to exist and partner with the West, but he noticed a problematic trend.  All the surrounding Muslim nations, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, were all large strides behind the West in terms of modernity, ability for communication and civilization.  His heart for Turkey was for her to keep up with the West, and the way to do that was to get rid of the extremely large communication barrier of language, or at least break down to manageable fences.  He did this by overhauling the language Osmanlaca and got rid of the Arabic characters and replaced them with Latin characters, thus the Turkish we know today.

My friend and I were talking about this reformation and how it had both great and not so great consequences on Turkey.  The terrific effect of Latinizing the language was the shortening of the language bridge of Turkish to English and vice versa.  The downside to this transformation of language was Ataturks “other” motive.  In getting rid of the Arabic characters, he also wanted to “purify” the Turkish language.  You see the Ottoman Empire was an extremely ethnically mixed empire. Christians, Muslims and Jews co-mingled peaceably, and with the various ethnicities there were many dialects of Osmanlaca.  Bulgarians, Romanians, Arabs and Persians lived in this empire, and as is the nature of two languages living side-by-side, they lend to each other.  Up to the transformation of the Turkish language, it consisted of Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and various European linguistic flavors.  Ataturk’s goal was in effect to place a language filter under Osmanlaca, so that as it dripped through only pure Turkish comes through to the other side, getting rid of “foreign” influences.

Well this succeeded for the most part, sadly.  My friend was telling me that most of the youth don’t know old Turkish, but simple modern Turkish.  Well what’s the problem with that, you might ask.  Language is inextricably linked to culture.  One defines the other.  One feeds into the other.  The presence of certain words in a culture can speak volumes to the ethnic history of a people group.  You take away one’s language, you take away their culture.

The same day my friend and I had this conversation, I saw students walking around with course-books for Osmanlaca.  To my joy and the benefit of Turkey, Universities are offering the old Ottoman language as a language you can learn.

If we forget where we came from, how can we know where we are going?

Can you think of any phrases or words we have borrowed from other languages, that make ours more rich?  For example, “cest la vie” (its the life).

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2 thoughts on “The Turkish Language Purification; the benefits and drawbacks”

  1. I can’t how keeping the ARABIC script and the innumerable ARABIC loan words in Turkish would be conisdered “preserving TURKISH heritage”. I think what Ataturk did was brillant, the language reforms replaced a lot of Arabic, French and Persian words with TURKISH words.

    People are often bias about this subject, the general trend being to protest against French and English loan wordsand but welcome Arabic and Persian words (for religious purposes obviousy). It seems to me that your friend is a fundamentalist and has ulterior motives of his own.

    1. It is utterly weird how some Turkish people view the use of loan words from other languages and older vocabulary as a problem somehow.

      Take a look at my language, English, which has absorbed words from nearly every language in the world, and many by being conquered by the Normans, Vikings, etc.

      All it has done is make our language more subtle and expressive than most languages of the world… And we don’t avoid using old or obscure vocabulary – on the contrary, we enjoy finding rare and unique words that help us to express ourselves. I wish that Turks would take a look at English and realize the richness and power that comes from embracing your entire linguistic range.

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