The Turkish Language Reform and Its Discontents
Updated: Jul 10
In the first years of studying Turkish, I was struck by several observations:
▼ The Turkish grammar is surprisingly easy!
Thanks to the complete reworking of the grammar by language reformists, the rules are written out as simple mathematical formulas and equations, with almost no exceptions to the rules! To a math lover like me, this was a dream come true.
▼ The Turkish spelling is phonetic, with each letter retaining its individual sound at all times.
In that, Turkish resembles such languages as Spanish, or Latin, and Russian. And that is no coincidence! Turkish and Russian have peculiar historical and linguistic connections.
▼ The Turkish vocabulary acquisition may, at times, feel like a fool's errand.
Every word in Turkish, it seemed, came in pairs of synonyms that had no significant differences. For example, such pairs as şahıs and birey, ümit and umut, beraber and birlikte, emniyet and güvenlik, or basit and kolay all share exactly the same meanings, with no nuances or shades of meaning or usage. Whenever I asked which of the synonyms worked better in a given context, I'd get a shrug or a “Aynı şey, canım...” in response. As I learned later, this unique dichotomy of the Turkish language has deep historical, political, and ideological roots.
▼ And finally, nothing could prepare me for the maddening complexity of the Turkish syntax.
Highly idiomatic, Turkish may be both mystifying and infuriating. The banality of everyday life often sounds poetic in Turkish: for example, Çişim geldi in Turkish means “I need to pee,” but literally translates as “My pee has arrived,” or “I cannot sleep” is expressed with the imaginative Uykum kaçtı (lit. “My sleep has escaped”).
The transformation of the Turkish language has been a grandiose national phenomenon, no doubt! However, after the incredible feat of Atatürk’s reforms, why does the language still feel like needing another reform? And what is behind the great Turkish lexical paradox?
Here is what I have learned:
From Runic to Sogdian to Perso-Arabic Script
In the eighth and ninth centuries, Turks devised and used a runic alphabet, known as Old Turkic or Orkhon Turkic (after the Orkhon valley in Central Mongolia). They were probably inspired by a non-cursive version of the Sogdian script (a consonant abjad), which was used in the ancient Iranian civilization of Sogdia.
Orkhon Turkic was typically written from right to left in horizontal lines, with some inscriptions later rotated by 90° into a vertical script. When written vertically, it read from bottom to top and right to left.
Turks eventually switched to the vertical Uighur script, a variation of the Sogdian consonant abjad converted into vertical columns, as it was used in central Asia.
However, in the eleventh century, upon the Turks’ fateful encounter with the Persians, they took up the Persians’ writing system, which was a combination of an Arabic and Persian scripts, a Perso-Arabic script, known as Ottoman Turkish.
So, just like the Mongolian khans in the fourteenth-century Persia and Samarkand used the now extinct court language of Chagatay Turkic for administration and decreeing while preferring to write in Persian, so did the Ottoman Turks by employing an amalgam of three unrelated languages as the state’s official language up to the twentieth century.
Before the nationalistic fervor overtook modern Turkey, the Turks seemed rather humble about their language and culture. Just like Romans of antiquity were looking up to the Greeks, Turks must have been looking up to the Persians and Arabs, having constructed a language that combined Persian and Arabic, in addition to Turkish.
In reality, using an artefact of a language like that in a multiethnic empire made a lot of sense: No language was singled out as a favorite, which had a democratizing effect, while its complexity offered ambitious men of lower birth, be they Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Serbian, or Albanian, a way to distinguish themselves and improve their societal and economic standings.
However, by the time of the Ottoman Empire’s fall and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the language used by Turks had become a confusing linguistic chimera, largely unintelligible to the average Turk or any other ethnic minority living in the Ottoman Empire.
Ottoman Turkish was indeed a strange beast: nobody’s native language but a construction devised for the elite and the distinguished by employing the material of the three natural languages. Not only did its vocabulary have elements of all three, but so did its grammar and pronunciation.
It also had its shortcomings—most importantly, the alphabet, which was unsuitable especially for the Turkish part of its vocabulary. Its main flaw was that it lacked vowels. That was not the most convenient way to write in either Arabic or Persian, both of which have six vowel sounds. It was even harder in Turkish, which has eight vowels.
Starting from the early ages of the Ottoman Empire, Arabic and Persian loanwords were so abundant that genuine Turkish words were hard to find. As the Empire increasingly opened to the processes of industrialization and modernization, the Turkish language experienced a new wave of borrowing from Western European languages, mostly French and, later, English.
To encourage the development of a new national identity by employing a new national language, the Republic's prominent writer and politician Ziya Gökalp, in his “The Principles of Turkism,” defined the zeitgeist of the language policy:
To create a national language, we need to get rid of the Ottoman language, as if it has never existed; to accept the language used in folk literature as our national language; and to write using the vernacular spoken by Istanbul residents, especially, by women living in Istanbul…
However, cutting out the heavily ornate Arabic and Persian, as well as other foreign borrowings was no easy task and required linguistic reengineering on a massive scale. For the borrowed vocabulary had made up well over 50% of the Ottoman Turkish and included nearly all abstract ideas and most of the terms used in administration, government, religion, and the law.
The “catastrophic success” of the Turkish language reform of the late 1920s, as Geoffrey Lewis famously described it, laid the foundation for the modern literary Turkish language.
The Latinization of the Ottoman Script
When debating what to do with the increasingly inadequate Ottoman alphabet, the Kemalist reformers mostly vacillated between the pre-Islamic Turkic alphabet and a modernized Arabic script. Despite their love for everything French, the idea of having to spell in a French-like fashion (that needed reforming itself) was indeed a hard sell. Just imagine having to spell chojuk, tchodjouk, or even tchodjouque instead of çocuk (child).
Yet, on November 1, 1928, the Turkish Parliament agreed to replace the Perso-Arabic script altogether with a tailor-made variety of the Latin alphabet, under the name of Turkish alphabet. The new Turkish script was a remarkable achievement: comprehensive yet laconic, with a tidy sound-to-letter correspondence.
The secret of such a swift triumph was ... the Soviet linguists or turcologists, as they were known! Eager to secularize the Soviet Muslims and to eradicate the widespread illiteracy in the region by simplifying their writing systems, Soviet authorities devised and adopted by 1926 the Latin script in the Turkic-majority Soviet republics, giving a major boost to reformers in neighboring Turkey. They found a way to match the languages with equivalent Latin spellings, without having to use French spelling oddities.
The Turkish Language Society (TDK)
Established by Atatürk’s himself as the national authority on the literary language and writing conventions, the Turkish Language Society (Türk Dil Kurumu, TDK) headed the national language purification efforts. Thanks to Atatürk’s bequeathing half of his fortune to the Society, the TDK was able to expand the Turkicization project between 1932 and 1950 with a relative autonomy.
Hunting for new words, the TDK turned to ancient Turkic texts, folklore, the Istanbul vernacular, and their own imagination. Aided by the rich morphology of the Turkish language, they came up with some ingenious finds and coinages:
▼ Colloquial findings:
Kuzey (north) and güney (south) replacing the Arabic şimal and cenup; alan (area); çaba (effort); yitirmek (to lose); kıvanç (honor); ödül (prize), etc.
▼ Coined compounds:
Altyapı (infrastructure, lit. “underneath-structure”) instead of the French imitation enfrastrüktür; sıkıyönetim (martial law); bilgisayar (computer) replacing the earlier elektronik beyin or kompüter; çağdaş (contemporary) instead of the Arabic muasır; sağduyu (common sense) replacing aklıselim; gecekondu (squatter settlement, lit. “night-put”), etc.
▼ Old text excavations:
Konuk (guest), tanık (witness), kez (times), and sonuç (result, conclusion) instead of Arabic misafir, şahit, defa, and netice; nitelik (quality); giysi (clothing); il (district); oran (proportion); tartışmak (to discuss an issue with smb., lit. “to weigh each other”); the wildly popular örnek (example, pattern) that also pushed a few buttons after having been established to be an ancient borrowing from Armenian, etc.
▼ Coinages and neologisms:
Doğum (birth); ölüm (death); uçak (airplane) replacing the previous coinage tayyare; gelenek that totally ousted the Arabic anane; okul (school) claimed to simply coincide with the French école and the English school; boyut (dimension) ostensibly coined by Atatürk himself from boy (length) as a replacement of the Ottoman buut (from the Arabic bu'd). And of course, the word neologism itself is another neologism!
The TDK’s Successes & Failures
Eager to purge of any Arab-Persian vestiges, which, in the minds of progressives, were associated with the medieval backwardness of the Ottoman Empire, the TDK ran into problems.
Doomed from the beginning were the attempts to replace the borrowings that had long since become part of the everyday life: e.g., Persian duvar (wall) and pencere (window), Arabic sandalye (chair), Greek iskemle (bench), Romanian masa (table), or Italian karyola (bedstead).
Moreover, an irreconcilable, if misinformed, purism risked producing ambiguity, total incomprehension, or tautological gridlock: e.g., yazar bir yazı yazdı (the writer wrote an article [writing]). So, when yazın was proposed as a replacement for the Arabic edebiyat (literature), it understandably hurt people’s stylistic sensibilities. Yapıt (creation, work) paled in comparison with the Arabic eser, and so did devinim (movement) next to hareket (Arabic).
Some neologisms, having failed to replace their superior predecessors, managed to survive by occupying a niche area of specialization, which was certainly needed in the increasingly industrialized world. Thus, yeğni (light) could not replace Arabic hafif, but was readily adopted by chemists: yeğni asit (weak acid). Proposed as a substitute for Arabic maddî (material, materialistic), özdeksel is nowadays exclusively used in the context of philosophy. Gökçe did not really measure up to the beautiful Arabic mavi. Still, it has survived as a common Turkish female name, meaning “pleasant, beautiful.”
Although nesne (thing) turned out to be a good replacement for the Arabic şey in its general use, it could not possibly replace the latter in its idiomatic use. Turks use şey as a common filler, similarly to yani (you know, meaning...), işte (so, you know), and falan (stuff like that, and whatnot).
The story goes that when Atatürk was trying to find a Turkish equivalent for şey, someone frustratingly remarked, “We can’t do that! At the Last Judgement, when all the millions of Turks who have ever lived are raised from the dead, the first thing they say will be Şey!”
In 1935, unable to come up with satisfying replacements for every borrowing, the TDK found a temporary respite through the introduction of the so-called Güneş-Dil Teorisi, the Sun-Language Theory, based on a draft that Atatürk had received from an Austrian Serb, Dr. Hermann F. Kvergić.
Amusingly, this theory of language development maintained that Turkish was the mother of all languages. So, it was no longer necessary to search for pure Turkish words to replace Arabic-Persian borrowings since all the words were Turkish in origin to begin with.
After Atatürk’s death in November 1938, the Sun-Language Theory was thankfully abandoned, and the Turkish Language Society continued its work of “purifying” the Turkish language.
Doublet Phenomenon in Turkish
Many of the TDK’s replacements that failed to supplant their precursors were themselves adopted, further ballooning the already existing vocabulary. For example, the ill-fated attempt to replace the Arabic istiklal (independence), inkılap (revolution), millet (nation), and the Persian şehir (city) with the newly minted bağımsızlık, devrim, the Mongolian ulus, and the Sogdian kent led to the adoption of all these words. “Space” came to have two identical synonyms: feza (Arabic) and uzay (based on Turkic uzak, “distant”). “Sunflower” inspired the creation of three neologisms: ayçiçeği, günebakan, and gündöndü, all sharing the same meaning.
In the Turkish case, lexical synonymy, a common feature of most languages, mutated into simplistic lexical dichotomy. This so-called doublet phenomenon, with synonymous pairs having no significant discrepancies, neither semantically nor stylistically, still prevails in modern Turkish. Such an abundance of unambiguous, inorganically developed lexical variants has become a characteristic feature of modern Turkish.
Why, despite the army of suffixes, Turkish vocabulary remained that of nomads rather than of town-dwellers? Why the suffix proliferation, which tends to be an organic occurrence in other agglutinative languages, had to be forced upon the Turkish language by the TDK reformers?
The Great Turkish Lexical Paradox
Throughout centuries, the Turkish rich morphology remained severely underutilized. By the time Turks settled down, their language had already absorbed Arabic-incorporated Persian, evidenced by the typically Persian phonological mutation of the Turkish words of Arabic origin.
So, when the Muslim Turks came into contact with the West, they had accumulated an arsenal of the Arabic ready-made terms to express new ideas inspired by the seminal encounter. To this day, the Turkish language struggles to describe abstractions without non-Turkic words. The spoken language's narration and conceptualization strategies often run on the autopilot use of the descriptive filler-words, e.g., şey!
Thus, the immensely fruitful element of the Turkish language remained stagnant. In the end, it was up to the TDK to take advantage of all the possibilities for the formation of new words and compounds that this rich agglutinative language had to offer.
However, without the time-tested, organic changes of the language, Turks could not be expected to guess intelligently and unambiguously the meaning of every neologism proposed by the TDK. For example, when a replacement for the Arabic mevhum (concept) was introduced as the neologism kavram, derived from the verb kavramak (to grab), the same word kavram had already been used in many regions of Anatolia. Only it meant "a handful”!
Turkish Lexical and Political Dichotomies
The hope was that the lexical dichotomies of the modern Turkish language would eventually be resolved in time. However, the use of synonymous doublets that pair old and new terms has become a political phenomenon in Turkey as, through their lexical choices, Turkish speakers often deliberately signal their politics, religiosity, and social backgrounds.
A religious person, for example, tends to borrow more words from Ottoman, Arabic, and Persian, as opposed to a secular speaker’s penchant for Franco-English calques. To illustrate such code switching between different Turkish societal “factions,” for instance, to convey the term “special” in a conversation, an Islamic conservative person would say müstesna (Arabic loanword), whereas a Turkish nationalist or a secularly minded speaker would opt for özel (neologism) or spesifik (French calque), respectively.
Given the politicization of the language reform, such doublet pairs should probably stop being viewed as synonymous. Rather, the speaker’s choice of terminology would communicate an important message about his or her ideology, and this message would be interpreted by the listener based on the listener’s own ideology.
The literary Turkish language, although, indeed, a massive national linguistic experiment, has come to be adopted as a public message board in the ongoing battle of competing political narratives over Turkey’s collective memory and identity.