Language Barriers

The Purge of the Turkish Language

By Lucia Alia

During his presidency, the first President of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, wanting to westernize the Turkey of the Ottoman Empire, carried out a series of reforms on the political, economic and cultural spheres. His main goal was to modernize every aspect of Turkish society, including the language, and discard any trace of the Arab-Persian culture. In order to achieve this he separated the Islamic law from the secular law, eliminating laws which did not permit the education of women, thereby empowering Turkish women with greater freedoms and bringing Turkey closer to Western European countries.

“Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible for humankind to grow by the improvement of only one part while the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains that the other half can soar into skies?”

“Culture is the foundation of the Turkish Republic”.

― Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Not only did he increase literacy in Turkey by educating women, but also through linguistic reforms that he carried out in 1928 in which he altered the language. These reforms not only focused on changing the Arabic alphabet into the Latin alphabet (or so called ‘Latinization’ of the alphabet), but also on purging the Turkish language from loanwords, especially Arabic and Persian loanwords, thus maintaining pure Turkish words. Arabic and Persian loanwords were substituted with already-existing Turkish words, or replaced by new words derived from Turkish roots. He considered each manifestation of the Arabic culture within the Turkish culture to be an impediment to establishing closer relations with Western societies.

“The cornerstone of education is an easy system of reading and writing. The key to this is the new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin script”.

― Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

What might have seemed, and still might, an inane manifestation of chauvinism turned out to be a solution to Turkey’s significant illiteracy problem. Along with the decrease in Turkey’s illiteracy rate; however, came other consequences such as the politicization of language use. For instance, some of the “new words” are commonly used in the spoken language, whereas others are not used at all, and still others coexist along with the old-Arabic words. This has come to define, depending of the selection of words used, the way each individual speaks and writes the Turkish language, as well as differences in language use between the generations.

This Turkish duplicity is used by writers to create their own “persona”, giving their writing different connotations depending on the vocabulary they choose to use. On the other hand, it makes it harder to for translators to find equivalents in other languages, such that these differences in language use are preserved. The translation of the Turkish language, however difficult, is possible, though it poses an arduous job for the translation services providers.

Atatürk, with his linguistic reform of the Turkish language, was able to improve his country’s literacy. In order to acquire that literacy the language was simplified such that the alphabet, vocabulary, and expression of ideas were changed significantly. If we keep in mind that a language has its own intrinsic culture, this means that in order to gain recognition by Western European countries, the Turkish culture had to lose something of itself, perhaps something that can not be replaced.

Now, was it worth it? Was it an excellent way of educating the country or was it a foolish way of simplifying a people’s effort to learn, a foolish effort to enlighten/instruct people by reducing the complexity of the subject to be learned as if they wouldn’t be able to assimilate something richer?


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