History of the Turkish Literary Language: Many Poets, Few Grammarians
Updated: Jul 10
The literary language used by Turks today is rooted in the Ottoman Turkish, an amalgam of the Turkish, Arabic, and Persian languages. Eventually, the Arabic and Persian elements gave way to French and some English influences.
Major Influences on the Turkish Language
Arabic and Persian Elements
Turkish literature, and with that the literary Turkish language, began to develop rapidly in the 14th century under the strong influence of the Arabic and Persian languages. Blindly imitating foreign forms and themes, much of the earlier Turkish literature and poetry was written in Arabic and Persian.
This amalgam of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian (all three languages belonging to different language families) was used for administrative and other literary purposes, mostly by the educated elite of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, it came to be known as Ottoman Turkish (Osmanlı Türkçesi or Osmanlıca).
Even though its grammatical structure retained the Turkic characteristic features, the Ottoman Turkish incorporated many forms of Arabic and Persian grammars: namely, Arabic and Persian plural forms, Arabic grammatical gender, and Persian izafet compounding.
Thus, the difference between the written Ottoman Turkish (the literary, upper-class Fasih and Orta Turkish) and the spoken Turkish language (the lower-class Kaba Turkish) was so great that, to most Turks, the former was largely incomprehensible.
In addition to Arabic and Persian elements, borrowed extensively due to the influence of the Arabic Islamic religion and the Persian literary and scientific tradition, the Turkish lexicon also contains borrowings from Western European languages.
Early Greek and Italian Borrowings
The oldest borrowings were from Greek (through appropriating Greek feudal institutions and by directly communicating with Greeks) as well as Italian (due to the existing trade relations with Italian city-states).
The Greek and Italian influence was reflected in the bourgeoning Ottoman marine navigation technologies of the 14th–16th centuries, which continued until the abolishment of the elite Janissary corps in the standing army of the Ottoman Empire, often recruited from the Empire’s conquered peoples.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Empire grew increasingly weakened by its frequent military defeats. Deeply concerned with their inability to compete with the modernizing world, Ottomans decided to Europeanize their army based on the French military model. This ushered in a new era of the French influence on Turkish society.
After two and a half centuries of an unprecedented coalition between a Christian and Muslim state, the Franco-Ottoman alliance played an essential role in shaping the modern Turkish society and culture. The 19th century, in particular, became the heyday of Francization of the Turkish language.
As the Ottoman Empire continued losing ground militarily during the 18th century, it recruited numerous French experts as part of its modernization efforts. French engineers oversaw the construction of the first Ottoman railways, and, as Ö. Özen (2003) jokingly put it, on them arrived “cars filled with French words!”. Several elite lycées, featuring instruction by native French teachers, opened in Istanbul, while receiving education in France became a common experience of every privileged youth of the Empire.
With the French loanwords becoming more prevalent, the medieval Arabic–Persian layers of Turkish vocabulary grew increasingly obsolete, eventually being replaced by French and, later, English. Despite these changes, however, the literary Ottoman Turkish remained heavily ornate and bureaucratic and therefore inaccessible to ordinary folks.
[Read more about the French language in Comparing French and English Styles and Punctuation Patterns: A Few Introductory Style Remarks]
The Turkish Language Reform
Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the new class of mostly French-educated Turkish intellectuals looked for ways to reduce the gap between the intelligentsia and the uneducated population—as part of the larger Kemalist project of modernization. The project, most notably, involved the purification of the national language by weeding out and replacing any foreign words with those of the Turkic origin.
Finally, it was the French influence that led to the decision to adopt a Latinized alphabet for the new language of the young Republic of Turkey. Unlike the vowel-starved Arabic script, the Latin alphabet was largely viewed as a better fit for the Turkish language, which has eight vowels. The new alphabet also provided an obvious rapprochement to the West.
[Read more about the language reform in The Turkish Language Reform… Is Still Ongoing]