Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants students to learn the Ottoman language

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tags: Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish President



Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared that, starting immediately, Turkish students would begin studying the Ottoman language in school. Erdogan defended the move by explaining thatlearning Ottoman, an older version of Turkish written the in Arabic script and used in the Ottoman Empire up into the early twentieth century, would help citizens “reconnect with their past.” But Erdogan’s critics condemned his decision as yet another heavy-handed attempt to promote a conservative version of Ottoman nostalgia, akin to his efforts to build a replica Ottoman barracks in the center of downtown Istanbul and a replica Ottoman mosque on the city’s highest hill.

For anyone who has ever struggled to learn the notoriously difficult Ottoman language—sometimes described as a practical joke played on historians—forcing it on a generation of schoolchildren might seem like the quickest way for Erdogan to destroy his popularity (and the Ottoman Empire’s as well). 

In fact, wrestling with Ottoman texts could give students a newfound appreciation for modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who transformed the Turkish language by adopting the Latin script in 1928. More seriously, if even a tiny percentage of students do manage to learn more than just enough to pass their tests or sound out inscriptions on old tombstones, they could present a major threat to Erdogan’s carefully cultivated version of a pious Ottoman past. Last year Erdogan famously lashed out at the directors of a popular soap opera for suggesting that Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, spent more time in the bedroom than on horseback. Who knows what he would he do if young students could suddenly read the wealth of homoerotic poetry composed in the Ottoman centuries. 

Among the many reforms through which Ataturk distanced his new republic from its Ottoman past, the linguistic transformation was one of the most dramatic. Within three months in 1928, Turkish citizens went from writing their language in the Arabic script to the Latin script. Alongside a sweeping shift in vocabulary—new replacements appeared for some of the most common words, for example “school,” “north,” “south,” and even the phrase “for example”—the alphabet changes eventually rendered anything written before 1928 completely illegible to the vast majority of modern Turkish citizens. 

There was, admittedly, a real mismatch between Turkish sounds and Arabic letters, although by 1928, they had been successfully used to write Turkish for a millennium or so. Ottoman script included a few characters Arabic didn’t have—an extra two dots to distinguish “p” from “b,” for example—but Arabic’s dearth of vowels was poorly suited for the vowel-heavy Turkish. As with English, jarring inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation mounted with time: the Turkish word for “later,” now straightforwardly written and pronounced as “sonra,” was tortuously rendered in characters akin to s-u/v-k-r-h in the Ottoman script. A modified Arabic script could have solved these problems; indeed, Ottoman reformers had already made proposals to this effect in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But Ataturk wanted to bring the Turks closer to the West, and so he chose the Latin script and severed Turkey from its past.... 




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