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Review of The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success
Date: Fri, 25 Jul 2003 10:33:35 EEST From: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success
Lewis, Geoffrey (2002) The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Oxford University Press
First ed. Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/11/11-693.html />
Reviewed by Hurriyet Gokdayi, Mersin University (Turkey)
The Turkish language underwent a process of linguistic engineering in the 20th century. Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Arabo-Persian alphabet was replaced with a new Latin-based alphabet in 1928 and a government-inspired campaign beginning around 1930's was launched to purge Turkish of its foreign elements, mostly Arabic and Persian words. Language planning researchers have always been interested in the Turkish Language Reform (TLR) because of its rapid and unexpected success. Several researchers have published books and articles on this reform in various languages other than Turkish.
For some other works on TLR see Boeschoten (1997, 1991), Brendemoen (1990), Zrcher (1985), Gallagher (1971), Heyd (1954).
With 'The Turkish Language Reform A Catastrophic Success' by Geoffrey Lewis, we understand that the researchers' interest in TLR still continues. The book has two purposes. They are, as stated in the introduction, (1) 'to acquaint the general reader with the often bizarre, sometimes tragicomic, but never dull story of the Turkish language reform,'; and (2) 'to provide students of Turkish at every level with some useful and stimulating reading matter' (p. 1).
Lewis' book is divided in 12 chapters, which are followed by references (pp. 169-175), a general index (pp. 177-181) and another index of Turkish words, phrases and suffixes found in the text (pp. 183-190). In the introduction, Lewis states his two goals, mentioned above, and explains why he used the word 'reform' rather than 'revolution' in the title. He thinks that the linguistic engineering in Turkey deserves to be named as a "revolution" rather than a "reform," which is the case in Turkish, "dil devrimi" (language revolution), because "reform" implies improvement and "revolution" hints important change in a particular kind of human activity. However, he ends up following "Western writers [who] have always called it the language reform" (p. 2) and chooses "language reform" instead of "language revolution."
The second chapter, Ottoman Turkish (pp. 5-26), narrates a historical process in which Turks of central Asia (most of the ancestors of modern Turks in Turkey) converted to Islam in the 11th century, started using Arabo-Persian alphabet and extensively borrowing words, phrases and grammatical features from Arabic and Persian. Later, Seljukids and Ottomans continued this practice throughout the centuries to the extent that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, some Ottoman poets wrote poems containing not one syllable of Turkish but completely composed of borrowings from Arabic and Persian. Therefore, there became a huge gap between the language of ordinary people, who continued speaking mostly with Turkish words, and the language of literature and administration, which included mostly Arabic and Persian elements. There were some individual and group attempts to end this diglossic situation by simplifying the literary and written media language from mid 19th century up to the 192 0'ies. Yet, their attempts ended with little success.
In the third chapter, The New Alphabet (pp. 27-39), Lewis tells the story of replacing the Arabo-Persian alphabet with a new Latin-based one in 1928. He puts forwards that the main reason for this change was the inadequacy of Arabo-Persian letters to represent Turkish sounds appropriately and the confusion these letters caused for writing and reading in Turkish. Thus, under the leadership of Atatrk, the founder of modern Turkish Republic, the new administration passed a resolution in November 1st, 1928 and Latin-based letters were put in use while Arabo-Persian letters were banned in all kind of writing and printing.
Fourth, Atatrk and the Language Reform until 1936 (pp. 40-56), and fifth, The Sun-Language Theory and After (pp. 57-74), chapters are devoted to the activities of language reform after the alphabet change. Atatrk was impressively involved in these activities in which Turkish Language Society was established, First Turkish Language Congress was held in 1932, and a big campaign was initiated to collect Turkish words from Anatolian and Thracian dialects and from old Turkish texts. In 1935, the Sun-Language Theory was put forward. As Lewis states, "Atatrk's responsibility for the theory is not disputed" (p. 58) but people around him were in favor of the theory as well. Researchers believe that this theory was publicized to stop extreme purification attempts of Turkish from its foreign elements. According to this theory, the beginning of language was 'the moment when primitive men looked up at the Sun and said 'Aa!' (p. 57). This sound was the first-degree radical of the Turkish language (p. 58) with its original meaning 'sun.' Later, all other words and their meanings were originated from this Aa. Thus, Turkish is one of the main and ancient languages of the world and it is the origin of so many words (including many borrowings from Arabic and Persian) in different languages. Since those foreign words are originally Turkish, then there is no need to purge them from the language. This theory was not scientifically proven and later it was abandoned.
In the sixth chapter, Atay, Ata, Sayl (pp. 75-93), the author explains how three men (Falih Rfk Atay, Nurullah Ata, and Aydn Sayl) individually contributed to the purification of Turkish and the improvement of the vocabulary. Especially Ata, who is responsible for many neologisms of which many of them are still used in modern Turkish, has a special place among them.
Lewis investigates some controversial practices in TLR in the seventh, Ingredients (pp. 94-106) and eight, Concoctions (pp. 107-123) chapters. He demonstrates that many neologisms were invented during the process of the purification of Turkish. Most of these words have become a part of modern Turkish vocabulary but Lewis directs our attention to the way they were created. He thinks that most of the people involved in TLR were not language experts and tried to coin new words by adding any Turkish suffixes to any Turkish roots. When this method did not work, they easily gave up their attempt. Lewis criticizes that they basically did not have a clear, logical and systematic way of coining/deriving new words. This attitude is responsible for the replacement of many Arabic and Persian words with invented or faked neologisms.
Ninth chapter, The Technical Terms (pp. 124-132), points out that TLR has mostly failed to replace the foreign terms in medicine, law and to some degree in computing and music with Turkish equivalents. Today, there are some attempts to change English computing terms (for example "bilgisayar" for computer, "yazc" for printer, "kt" for printout). Nevertheless, Lewis does not see enough effort to use Turkish computer terms because new English words constantly come out in this field.
Tenth chapter, The New Yoke (pp. 133-139), looks at the huge influence of English on modern Turkish. It seems that English have been affecting Turkish for a while in the same way Arabic and Persian had done in previous centuries. The influx of English words is easily notable in media, business world, shop names, and in the daily speech. People have started to pronounce borrowings from French in the English way (for example informeyn in English spelling for enformasyon in French spelling "information"). The author sees little effort to block this influence.
In the eleventh chapter, The New Turkish (pp. 140-152), Lewis addresses two questions: (1) has TLR terminated the diglossia in Turkish, and (2) has it impoverished the language? Concerning the first question, he thinks that TLR almost eliminated the huge gap between the language of intellectuals and the language of ordinary people. But since no one expects these two groups of people talk the same way, a normal gap still exists. Yet, TLR has failed to change the speech habits of ordinary people who still speak the same way their grandparents did. In relation to the second question, Lewis argues that TLR has impoverished the language because Turkish has lost its rich vocabulary and modern Turks have a hard time to find exact words to express themselves.
The last chapter, What Happened to the Language Society (pp. 153-168), tells the events the Turkish Language Society, which was the leading player in TLR, has gone through after Democrat Party, which disliked the Society's activities, took over the government in 1950 elections. Then, state influence on the Society was greatly varied depending on the ideology of the government. Wright-wing governments tried to hinder it from its activities and left-wing ones supported it. In 1983, the Society's private status was abolished by a law and reconstituted it as an organ of the state, linked to the Prime Minister's office. Even though the new Society has been continuing to recommend Turkish alternatives for few foreign words, it has been mostly focused on scholarly study and research on modern Turkish, its historical periods and modern Turkic dialects.
Lewis' monograph is a short and easily readable book about TLR. It seems that the book is the outcome of a careful and extensive study of both Turkish and English resources (there is an article in French as well). He aims at summarizing the whole story of TLR for general readers in 168 pages and providing a useful book for students of Turkish at every level. I think Lewis achieves his two main goals. His up to the date summary includes major events and milestones in the process and tries to give a reasonable account of TLR to the general reader. Having already provided a stimulating reading matter for learners of Turkish, Lewis tries to make his book more useful by translating every single Turkish word found in the text and adding another index of Turkish words, phrases and suffixes (pp. 183-190). I believe these translations and the extra index will be much helpful for learners of Turkish.
I really enjoyed another feature of the book that it includes so many anecdotes and references concerning TLR. These additions make the author's account of the events more intriguing and reflect many individuals' opinions about the reform from their points of view.
While the monograph is both interesting and inspiring, it's worth to consider some minor weaknesses. First, Lewis describes TLR as "A Catastrophic Success" and uses this description as the subtitle of his book. He explains in the introduction that why he chose to call the reform a catastrophic success. Although Lewis values the rapid success that TLR achieved, he argues that it is a disaster as well. He lists the following reasons for his argument: (1) Ottoman Turkish with its rich vocabulary was lost, (2) the natural development of the language was prevented, (3) Turkish lexicon was impoverished, and (4) many neologisms were derived/invented regardless of their roots or of the methodology. Before calling TLR a catastrophe, we need to consider the real situation in Turkey in 1920's and 1930's. There was a young state with huge problems. One of them was the low literacy rate. We have to remember that it is very difficult for a language to survive with a literacy rate of 9%. Ottoman Turkish was really used by 9% of the population and the rest was not actually acquainted with it. Of course, all of the reformers knew Ottoman but this language did not exactly give them a national feeling/identity in the process of creating a nation and a nation-state from the ashes of the multinational Ottoman Empire. If the reformers and most of the population had been pleased with Ottoman Turkish, then there would not have been such a linguistic engineering.
I do agree with Lewis that TLR has unintentionally impoverished Turkish by purging many of its foreign elements without offering proper replacements and the number of words in Turkish vocabulary was reduced comparing with Ottoman Turkish. Today, some people occasionally have a hard time to find exact words or phrases to express themselves. However, I think TLR is not the only reason to blame for this outcome. In modern Turkey, literacy rate is pretty high (around 92%) but people generally do not read and reading books and printed materials are not among the popular leisure time activities. Therefore, those people who are not interested in reading and working on words, phrases and concepts do not improve their expressive abilities and usually have difficulty to find exact words to communicate their thoughts and feelings. I believe Lewis has forgotten this point.
One of the main arguments of Lewis is that, while TLR was going on, language reformers invented many neologisms and much of them became a part of the Turkish vocabulary. Sometimes, reformers invented new words without following the rules of the language. Here, I too agree with Lewis. This unmethodical and unsystematic way should be criticized. However, the number of these neologisms is not high comparing with the number of words reformers correctly derived (a few hundred vs. thousands). In addition, it is a fact that the meaning of words of a language are given by the speakers of that language. So, if Turkish people take up and use those neologisms (arbitrary signs) to represents some kind of meaning or concept, then we just have to accept their practice. Those neologisms, e.g., "genel" (general), "genellikle" (usually), "kuram" (theory), "kural" (rule), "kurul" (committee), "kurum" (society, corporation, institute), are currently utilized in Turkish and speakers do not get confused about their meanings. Thus, we can criticize the way some words are invented or derived in the reform process but since target people, i.e. Turkish speakers, accept the end product, we also have to appreciate the reformers' effort.
Second, in the seventh and eight chapters, Lewis talks about some neologisms, which were completely new inventions ("uydurma" faked). He believes that reformers without following any grammatical rule of Turkish derived words by adding English or French suffixes to Turkish roots. According to him, "yntem" (method) was derived by adding the last syllable of the French word "systme" to the Turkish root "yn" (direction). In the same way, "ikilem" (dilemma) was created with "iki" (two) plus the last syllable of the French word dilemme and "nder" (leader) is devised with "n" (front) plus the last syllable of the English word leader. Lewis does not show any evidence for these kinds of claims but he is "morally certain" (p. 123) that it happened in the way he describes. I think such claims require strong evidences rather than just "moral certainty." Without proper evidences, it seems that such assertions were put forward to ridicule or make fun of the reformers.
Third, according to Lewis, TLR's story is "often bizarre, sometimes tragicomic but never dull" (p. 1). Here, I have to ask what makes the story of TLR and the process itself bizarre and tragicomic but not dull. If TLR is bizarre and tragicomic, then all language planning activities and reforms all over the world should be the same. I think that TLR is neither bizarre nor tragicomic. It is part of creating a nation and nation-state started around 1930's. The reformers might have done some extreme purification of the language from its borrowings without providing reasonable choices but they were very serious in their activities. They all believed that the reform was a good thing for their language and for themselves. Therefore, I believe one should not look at TLR from today's point of view but should try to see the reformer's effort in the general conditions of its time.
Despite these criticisms, the book provides a reasonable account of TLR. It tries to cover the whole story and give a good summary of the entire process. I would recommend the book to language planning researchers, those who want to learn about TLR and those who want to improve their Turkish by reading a stimulating matter.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Hurriyet Gokdayi is an assistant professor of Turkish language and literature at Mersin University, Turkey, where he teaches grammar, syntax and linguistic courses. His research interests include ethnography of communication, formulaic expressions, language and culture and language policy.