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Review of  The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success

Reviewer: Hürriyet Gökdayı
Book Title: The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success
Book Author: Geoffrey Lewis
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Turkish
Issue Number: 14.2029

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Date: Fri, 25 Jul 2003 10:33:35 EEST
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>

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
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
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

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


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,
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).
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
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
"n" (front) plus the last syllable of the English word leader. Lewis
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 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.

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