Another quote from Farewell to Salonica (earlier discussed here):

Ever anxious to increase his proficiency in literary Turkish, Father read the works of Dumas in that language, translating into Spanish as he went along, for our benefit. Every now and then he would interrupt himself to find the exact meaning of a word in a thick dictionary, while we waited in silence.

Wherever Father went he took with him one or another of these novels, studying the language assiduously. Once, on a trip to Albania, alone in the compartment of the train, he was reading The Queen’s Necklace when, at a small station, a venerable old Turk entered his compartment and took a seat opposite him. After the usual polite greetings Father closed the book on his lap and placed it on the seat next to him. From across the way the old Turk surveyed him for a moment, then, arising, he picked up the book, kissed it reverently, and laid it on the rack above Father’s head. “My son,” he remonstrated kindly, “praised be Allah! It is praiseworthy of you to be reading the words of our prophet. But you should never treat the Holy Book with such disrespect as to place it where people sit.”

“Why didn’t you tell him it was a novel?” Mother asked.

“A novel!” Father exclaimed smilingly. “To the simple old man, what other book could I have been reading but the Koran? What other book is there but the Holy Book?”

Besides his study of Turkish, Father was working to perfect his Bulgarian…

I don’t know what “thick dictionary” the elder Sciaky was using, but the standard in English for well over a century has been that of James Redhouse (English-Turkish 1861, Turkish-English 1890); imagine my delight to discover both parts have been digitized by Google and are online and searchable! Even the reprints cost over $100 on the used-book market. I’m also pleased to discover that there’s a Turkish site on the Ottoman language (with its own dictionary, though the words are written in the modern alphabet and of course defined in Turkish), a University of Michigan resources page (with links to texts where you can mouse over a word or phrase to see the transcription and modern Turkish and English meanings, e.g. a fairy tale and a poem), and a University of Leiden course page where you can not only see “Leiden is where you study languages” in Ottoman Turkish, you can hear a .wav file of it read aloud [no longer the case in 2023 — LH] (as you can for all their other languages, even Akkadian!). I’m glad to live in a time when even a defunct language like Ottoman Turkish, which I had assumed was receding into oblivion despite the centuries during which it was a major world language, has so many resources available for the prospective student.

Incidentally, Charles Wells’s Introduction to the second edition of Redhouse (pp. v-xi? [Google has unfortunately omitted one or more pages after x]) is well worth reading, giving a sad picture of the state of Turkish studies in the late nineteenth century:

Persons wishing to become student-interpreters, or officials in any part of Turkey, in Asia Minor, or in Cyprus, should be required to possess, at least, some knowledge of Turkish before being appointed and before leaving England, as they will find the want of proper teachers in Turkey an insuperable barrier against beginning its study in that country. The only persons who teach Turkish in the East are Greeks and Armenians, most of whom appear physically incapable of pronouncing Turkish correctly [!], and possess in general little or no knowledge of the literary language… It is a strange fact that the number of Englishmen who can read and write Turkish is so small that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.


  1. Orhan Pamuk describes the same assumption that anything in Arabic script was holy in his ‘The White Castle’, as a motivation for the survival of the manuscript that the book is theoretically based on.
    Can you see the full contents of Redhouse? I can’t, maybe it’s my German IP :-/ .

  2. Yes, I have the full view (well, except for the bits Google didn’t copy).

  3. Google books has a number of older books for learning Ottoman Turkish (or simply Turkish, as it was written and used when these books were written). Unfortunately, most are evidently not available to users outside the US, do to copyright concerns. Some I found are:
    Ottoman-Turkish Conversation-grammar: A Practical Method of Learning the Ottoman-Turkish Language By V. H. Hagopian (published in Heidelberg in 1907)
    492 pages long, it’s actually a textbook to learn Turkish, which at the time was written in the Arabic script, but it has lots of short lessons, clear explanations, etc., and takes the reader all the way into the Arabic and Persian grammar and vocabulary used in Ottoman as well as the Turkish part of the language. You can download the text in PDF format at: j0u9Mw-TsyIC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=hagopian+turkish&as_brr=1#PPR 2,M1
    (Should this URL be too long, just go to the Google books page and search for “Hagopian Turkish”, and it’s the first item that comes up.
    There was a separate key published to the book, but that’s evidently not available on-line. Even so, this is the most user-friendly way I know to get a feel for Ottoman Turkish, even if you don’t know modern Turkish ahead of time.
    There’s also another old English book for Ottoman available on-line; it’s
    A Practical Grammar of the Turkish Language (as Spoken and Written), by Charles Wells, published in London in 1880. It’s not nearly as easy to learn from, but does have some interesting reading samples, as well as useful comments on style and usage, for after you’ve progressed a way in the language. It’s available at: bYqvxt5wQrcC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=wells+turkish&as_brr=1#PPP4,M 1
    or if that doesn’t work, go to the Google books page and search for “Wells Turkish” (which will also turn up a book of readings that Wells wrote:
    The Literature of the Turks: A Turkish Chrestomathy … with … Translations in English (London, 1891)
    Which starts out with proverbs and the like and then gradually works into more sophisticated texts.
    Also, there are:
    Grammatik der Türkisch-osmanischen Umgangssprache By P J. Piqueré, (Vienna, 1870)
    Türkische Grammatik mit Paradigmen, Litteratur, Christomathie und Glossar By August Müller (Berlin, 1889)
    Allgemeine Grammatik der türkisch-tatarischen Sprache, by Aleksandr Kazem-Bek (Leipzig, 1848)
    Materialien zur Kenntnis des rumelischen Türkisch…: Türkische volksmärchen aus Adakale … By Ignácz Kúnos (Leipzig, 1907)
    Materialien zur Kenntnis des anatolischen Türkisch By Friedrich Giese (Halle, 1907)
    (These last two are not Ottoman Turkish per se, but rather transcribed folklore texts.)
    A small correction, though: The “big” Redhouse Turkish-English Lexicon of 1890 is not available on Google Books; the version available is the much smaller and earlier edition. The “big” one (over 2,200 pages from just Turkish to English) has been reprinted in both Turkey and Lebanon, though, and so reprint copies are usually not too hard to find in Turkey.

  4. I had a friend fluent in modern Persian, Arabic and Turkish (and Koranic Arabic) who tried to learn Ottoman literary Turkish. He may have quit too soon but he found it fearsomely difficult and never succeeded. I think that it’s the same reason that contemporary Chinese scholars who are not specialists have trouble with pre-1911 classical Chinese — both, I think, have highly artificial, intricated-crafted ways of saying even quite ordinary things.

  5. Thanks very much, Forrest!

  6. This reminds me of the time when, as a 16-year-old in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I decided to work on my Spanish by reading the school library’s translation of Ivanhoe. My father had been trained in the immersion methods of the Foreign Service and was appalled, so I stopped. (It could be that would-be students of Ottoman Turkish would make better progress if they could track down a copy of The Queen’s Necklace.)

  7. Where can i learn old turkish im albanian and i live in albania tirana please

  8. Annette Pickles says

    Xhino, by “old Turkish”, do you mean Ottoman Turkish (the subject of this post)? If so, before studying Ottoman Turkish and trying to read Ottoman texts, I would recommend you learn the basics of modern Republican Turkish. It will make deciphering the Turkish words in Arabic script a lot easier. You will also then be able to use the many introductory textbooks for Turkish university students beginning the study of Ottoman. In my opinion, you should also know at least some classical Arabic and some Persian before beginning the study of Ottoman. If you are studying in English, you can use the superb textbooks An Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic and An Introduction to Persian, by Wheeler M. Thackston, professor of Persian and Near Eastern languages at Harvard. (Pirated pdf’s of these works can be found easily online. Also, pirated pdf’s of Geoffrey Lewis’ very old but very good Teach Yourself Turkish can also be found online. In my opinion, it is still the best introduction to Republican Turkish in English.) In fact, a good, logical progression would be Koranic Arabic, then Persian, then Republican Turkish, then Ottoman. In my experience, Ottoman is actually very enjoyable and even easy to learn when approached in this fashion. In a sense, you don’t learn anything new, you just put the pieces together in a new way.

  9. marie-lucie says

    All these recommendations make me sorry that I have my hands full with other languages and don’t have the leisure to learn Ottoman or even Modern Turkish.

    Helen de Witt: as a 16-year-old in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I decided to work on my Spanish by reading the school library’s translation of Ivanhoe

    That’s exactly what I would have done (or the equivalent with another well-known novel). Of course it is not the same as the immersion method, but it teaches you a lot and is a good complement to it. It is one of the things I recommend to language students.

    I remember a few years ago commenting on the fact that i had bought a translation of Hamlet into Basque. Unfortunately I did not go past “To be or not to be”.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    My grandfather arrived to do a higher degree in Germany in the 1920’s knowing no actual German. His tutor (evidently an unflappable sort) asked him to name his favourite book, and duly got him a German translation of “Pickwick Papers” (which I’ve still got, somewhere, in all its glorious Fraktur.) Never looked back. He corresponded with Jung about psychoanalysis …

  11. SFReader says

    – i had bought a translation of Hamlet into Basque. Unfortunately I did not go past “To be or not to be”.

    I downloaded free copy of Basque translation of Les Liaisons dangereuses for the same purpose.

    I haven’t started reading yet, but long sentences look formidable

  12. I have a Catalan translation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key somewhere (it’s a wonderful novel, as good as The Maltese Falcon), and one of these years I’ll finally take up Catalan and read it.

  13. marie-lucie says

    If you read Spanish it is not too difficult to read Catalan, especially if you know the book already. But pronouncing it might be more of the problem.

  14. Oh, I can pronounce it well enough — I’ve got Teach Yourself Catalan and a good dictionary with pronunciations.

  15. I had a co-student way back at university who, whenever he took up a new language, would buy Le Petit Prince in that language. He had a nice little collection. One of my professors used the story of the prodigal son as sample text whenever possible. I remember reading this story in Classical Armenian and some creole languages.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Hans: Le Petit Prince sounds like an excellent choice!

    In a similar spirit I have the Alice books in French, Italian, German and Russian in a Dover collection that seems to consists of facsimiles of original editions. The Russian version is by Nabokov, so I am sure it must be good, but it uses an older spelling and some obsolete letters, so that complicates things.

    I also have a book with the Lord’s Prayer in over 200 languages, which I found it very useful for teaching comparative linguistics. Unfortunately I could not use versions using Chinese, Japanese and other difficult non-European scripts, but there were still plenty of languages to choose from.

  17. One of the biggest challenges of translating Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland must be how to handle the mock turtle, who speaks almost entirely in puns.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Apparently no less a literary figure than Tanizaki did a version of “Jabberwocky”, but I haven’t been able to track it down.

    There’s a perfectly cromulent Yiddish “Vini der Pu”; Eeyore was born to kvetch in Yiddish.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Talking of difficulties with puns, the English version I’ve got of Stanislaw Lem’s wonderful Cyberiad shows amazing linguistic virtuosity, and I’ve often wondered how it relates to the original. I’m confident some Hatter will actually know …

  20. Ditto The Futurological Congress.

  21. I also have a book with the Lord’s Prayer in over 200 languages, which I found it very useful for teaching comparative linguistics.
    I remember that we had a book like that in the library of our linguistics department. Perhaps it even was the same book.

  22. marie-lucie says

    The book, a fairly large one, red with gold trim, is a 1975 reprint (including a long preface in Latin) of an 1875 original, both published by the Vatican in order to publicize both the global scale of its missionary linguistic activity and the skill of its printing press (each of the languages or dialects uses a different font or script), and probably sold by subscription as a fundraiser, which would explain why a formerly Catholic institution had the book. Although held by the library, it has no sign of the usual library identifications with letters and numbers, nor of who might have owned the book privately.

    I did not buy the book myself, a non-linguist colleague found it in the “discards” pile at the university, bought it for one dollar, and gave it to me “in case I was interested”!

    I publicized this find among linguists, one of whom eventually wrote a paper about differences between the modern version of the language she was studying and the (probably) 17th century translation by a Spanish missionary. Of course, translations by missionaries of other Christian denominations were not included.

  23. As far as I remember. the book in our library had a simpler binding. But I assume books like that may have been published by other denominations or missionary organisations as well.

  24. David Marjanović says

    I remember a few years ago commenting on the fact that i had bought a translation of Hamlet into Basque. Unfortunately I did not go past “To be or not to be”.

    taH pagh taHbe’… sorry.

  25. Eşanlamlı says

    You may also use which you may search with ? (question mark) instead of an illegible letter.

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