My copy of The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, by Geoffrey Lewis, has just arrived (thanks, Ken!), and I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been hankering to read this book since it was first mentioned in a comment thread, perhaps by Christopher Culver here; just opening it at random I hit on the sentence “Readers who have seen the point need not bother with the rest of this paragraph,” which makes me warm to the author immediately and suggests that the blurb calling the book “incisive, sometimes brutally candid and almost always witty” is telling the truth. Having read the brief Note on the Text (which ends, charmingly, “I beg the reader’s indulgence if on occasion I have misapplied ‘OT’ [Old Turkic] to a Middle Turkic word”) and the almost as brief Introduction (which, in a paragraph describing German attempts to rid the language of French encroachments, quotes Friedrich Wilhelm I’s “celebrated declaration to his nobles: ‘Ich stabiliere die Souveraineté wie einen Rocher de Bronze'”), I will reluctantly set the book aside until I have finished Svetlana Boym’s Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia; I’m sure it will inspire further posts as I work my way through it.


  1. A paragon of educated funniness that I always wanted to translate into Chinese. I tried but failed to convey the style, though.

  2. John Emerson says

    From one of the Google reviews: As the other reviews mention, the changes in Turkish are the result of deliberate re-engineering of the language, not of the more usual processes of linguistic evolution.
    Based on what I know of Ottoman Turkish, good riddance. It would be fascinating as an object of study, but as a means of communication it’s on a par with a href=””>Law French: Richardson, ch. Just. de C. Banc al Assises at Salisbury in Summer 1631. fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony que puis son condemnation ject un Brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist, & pur ceo immediately fuit Indictment drawn per Noy envers le Prisoner, & son dexter manus ampute & fix al Gibbet, sur que luy mesme immediatement hange in presence de Court. (1688).
    A friend of mine fluent in modern spoken Turkish, Arabic, and Persian tried to study Ottoman Turkish, and even though he was in an ideal position for the study he found it very tough going (probably because Ottoman Turkish was not only macaronic but also archaic in all three languages).
    The case is comparable to a different friend of mine who tried to find a Chinese scholar who tried to find someone to translate her eminent grandfather’s 1900-era correspondence in classical Chinese 文言 and found that even well educated Chinese couldn’t read it.
    I may have missed something and am willing to be corrected, but as I understand the Turkish language reform was more like switching the written language from Latin to the vernacular than it was like a “language reform”. As in China, it was a deliberate process, but it was part of the general process of moving Turkey from the 14th century or thereabouts to the 20th.

  3. michael farris says

    My understanding is that you can divide the reform into good and bad ideas:
    Switchover to the current alphabet, which has its flaws but which is much more suited to Turkish phonology than the Ottoman version of the Arabic alphabet.
    Ridding the language of excessive archaism and bringing the formal language more in line with speech (by getting rid of Persian constructions that were alien to the spoken language among other things).
    Purism and the desire to rid the language of Arabo-Persian vocabulary that was in no need of replacement (in that is was familiar to everybody already).
    Creation of lots of artificial vocabulary in pursuit of said purism. Is this still ongoing? Recently a very educated speaker of Turkish told me he finds it very difficult to impossible to read books written 30 or 40 years ago.

  4. @John Emerson: The thing comparable to the Chinese language reform is Late Ottoman/Early Republican Turkish — that is, throwing off the literary baggage and calquing of Western journalistic norm. Nobody expects that the elaborate codes like Classical Ottoman or 19-th century written Chinese would be understandable by the public at large once the elite structure collapsed. The difference is that, any educated Chinese reads early 20-th century newspapers just fine, the educated Turkish, however, will find even the most common concepts like “success” (başarı) was expressed by everyone in a completely different way (muvaffakıyet).

  5. @michael farris, No, the problem with books from 30-40 years ago is not that more vocabulary is being created, but that the mass of vocabulary that was created during the reform was (and is) still “settling out” of the language – the populace was still working out which of the artificial vocabulary would become common and which would fall out of use.
    This was illustrated to me by my two native speaker Turkish teachers (of two different generations) disagreeing on whether “varsil” actually existed as the opposite of the very common word “yoksul” (meaning “poor,” in the monetary sense).
    (For what it’s worth, “fakir” is also common for “poor,” and “zengin” for “rich” – and both words have non-Turkic roots.)
    (Hello! I don’t think I’ve ever commented here before, though I’ve been reading enthusiastically for a couple of years.)

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    John Emerson, I can puzzle out your Law French example quite well despite never having formally studied Modern French and despite having attended law school over two and a half centuries after the final formal abolition of French from Anglo-American law (early in the reign of Geo. II). So maybe that’s not the best critique of Ottoman?

  7. John Emerson says

    Well, you have legal training and apparently have studied French informally. So perhaps you’re not the best guinea pig? And fragments of Law French remain in law, as I understand — maybe “le dit” here?

  8. John Emerson says

    I’d say that to the extent that the innovations are becoming part of the actual speech of Turks generally, it’s just one version of language evolution — in this case, top down and intentional. If there’s something substantively noxious about the new language (as with enforced Nazi or Communist language reforms) it would make sense to object, but I can’t see objecting on general principles.
    The development of English since 1066 hasn’t been as fast or as clearly intentional as this, but it has definitely been top-down in considerable part. Of course, the English development has involved the gradual elite injection of Latinisms and Frenchisms, whereas the Turkish reform has involved the accelerated extraction of Persianisms and Arabisms, so they’re not identical.

  9. I remember reading in a Nâzım Hikmet’s poem a character asking, is there conscience anymore, and getting a reply, no, of course it’s gone, having been replaced by some meaningless Chagatai construct.
    Did the reform succeed in distancing Turkish from other regional Turkic languages such as Azerbaijani which supposedly kept most of their Farsiisms?

  10. have to admit I kind of dig the quaintness of this kind of artificial vocabulary infusion (even though I share the reservations about their motivation).

  11. @Leslie
    the mass of vocabulary that was created during the reform was (and is) still “settling out” of the language
    This is reminiscent of the early stages of the modernisation of Chinese/Japanese vocabulary. It took some time before words like ‘politics’, ‘economy’, etc. came to have stable accepted equivalents, and by and large it was the Japanese coinages that were finally adopted. I’m not sure how understandable some 19th century translations of Western works would be to a modern Chinese/Japanese speaker, but the language would certainly look quaint.

  12. @Bathrobe
    I dished out Yan Fu’s /天演論/ for a check. Sadly, it’s a very paraphrasing translation, into kosher Classical Chinese peppered with a few keywords calqued from the English (“survival of the fittest” etc.) So it’s indeed very comprehensible, but maybe not a good example.

  13. @MOCKBA
    And did not do much of rapprochement to the Central Asian languages, either, as most of the new words are fabricated de novo. Even the Central Asian loans sound strange back to its original context: bilim (from bil-, to know) is taken to replace ilim (science), but bilim in the Central Asian languages means exactly what bilgi means in Turkish — “knowledge”, i.e. the default nominal derivation of “to know”. So formerly, if a Central Asian wanted to learn Anatolian Turkic, “ilim” meant “ilim”, and “bilgi” meant “bilim”; now “bilim” means “ilim” and “bilgi” means “bilim”. Much ado for less than nothing, in my very humble opinion.

  14. And fragments of Law French remain in law, as I understand
    Governor general, attorney general and solicitor general spring to mind. The words are English, but the construction is French.
    There’s also voir dire, which Black’s Law Dictionary (seventh edition) defines as 1. “A preliminary examination of a prospective juror by a judge or lawyer to decide whether the prospect is qualified and suitable to serve on a jury. 2. A preliminary examination to test the competence of a witness or evidence. 3. (Hist.) An oath administered to a witness requiring that witness to answer truthfully in response to questions.”
    Wikipedia has a good entry on the subject.

  15. @minus273
    Thanks for checking that! I did have Yan Fu in mind as a possible example, but since I haven’t got any samples of 19th century translations to hand, my comment was a bit of a stab in the dark. I’d seen studies of the way that modern vocabulary evolved when I was much younger, but unfortunately with the arrogance of youth, which tends to assume that anything over 50 years’ old is ‘old hat’ (apologies to LH for choice of expression), I didn’t pay it much mind.

  16. Just as Turkey remains a deeply religious country, so the effort to purge the language of Persian and Arabic elements has been pretty much a failure. The great trade-off has been increased literacy coupled with an almost complete severance from the culture’s own past. To my mind, that latter fact is the great tragedy of the so-called reform.
    Anyone who has read any Arabic from the Mamluke period or later has had to deal with “Ottoman” elements, sometimes in great profusion. Similarly, most serious Persian writings are combinations of Arabic and Persian. Mulla Sadra, the great 16-17th century philosopher wrote most of his works in “Arabic,” but it is an Arabic that flows in and out of Persian constructions, sentences, phrases, and words, quite macaronic, as J Emerson notes about Ottoman Turkish above. It is none the less quite beautiful to read, full of subtlety, and for those who used it in discourse even unremarkable.
    The bifurcation of the culture caused by Ataturk’s attempt to stifle the religious identity of the people is a tragedy mirrored in Central Asia in areas where the Russians similarly replaced the Arabic alphabet with Russian one.

  17. In the light of recent discussions about the stifling influence of Classical Arabic, would Mulla Sadra’s Arabic be accepted nowadays, or would it be rejected as not following the usage of the Quran?

  18. John E: “Le dit” is gone from Law English, but its calque “the said” remains: a verbatim translation like “Richardson, Chief Justice of Common Pleas at the assizes at Salisbury in Summer 1631, was assaulted by a prisoner condemned for felony, who after his condemnation threw a brickbat at the said justice which narrowly missed, and for that immediately [there] was [an] indictment drawn by Noy [the clerk] toward the prisoner, and his right hand amputated and fix[ed] on the gibbet, on which he himself [was] immediately hanged in presence of [the] court” would be fully intelligible to any lawyer (at least one who is old enough to have heard of Common Pleas).

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    minus273, does the current modern educated Mandarin reader read early 20th century newspapers “just fine” even if that reader was educated solely in the PRC with simplified characters? If so is it because people of a certain level of education these days just learn how to read traditional characters as well or are the differences small enough that at a certain level of education/sophistication they become largely transparent? I have long assumed that both Maoists and Ataturkists viewed the side effect of script change that those educated under the new regime might be unable to read books published under the ancien regime (or, in the case of Mandarin, abroad) as very much a feature rather than a bug.
    I have, by the way, myself praised Lewis’ fine book on prior comment threads on this fine blog, but perhaps not quite as early in time as Mr. Culver did, so I will let him have the credit for inspiring Hat’s interest.

  20. michael farris says

    I think if written Ottoman were more functional changing the official alphabet wouldn’t greatly affect the ability of the interested in learning to read it.
    And it’s more than script, there are a lot of questions about discourse style, general diglossic-ish situations and changing preferences for different kinds of grammatical constructions – a couple of years ago I found out that without special training Koreans can’t undertand written Korean of a hundred years ago (even if it’s entirely in hangul).

  21. @J.W. Brewer
    I can speak only for my (1980-1990) generation.
    The characters don’t pose a big problem. Understanding the other set of characters when you understand one is no big deal; additionally, there is an considerable amount of passive exposure to traditional characters. First from the childhood there are shop signs, which often use traditional characters for the, uh, tradition or for coolness, because Hong Kong and Taiwan was, and still is quite cool for the uncultivated Mainlanders. Similarly, imported gadgets came with their manual, translated, of course, into only Traditional Chinese. HK/TW books and websites are quite popular too: the Taiwanese, incidentally, produced the largest bulk of Mandarin-language amateur pornographic literature on Internet.
    The passive script ability is now working in the reverse way: academically-oriented Traditional Chinese users usually have a good understanding of Simplified Chinese now, because much more translations of western works are produced on the other side of the script gap.
    If one is having difficulty reading early-20th newspapers, I guess the main difficulty lies in the Classical Chinese diction, in the sheer amount of literary context to familiarize oneself with. This should be one of the best indicators of Chinese literacy.

  22. I would say that every educated Chinese person learns both simplified and traditional characters, and has for centuries. The only difference is that in the PRC the simplified forms (most of which are drawn from informal styles) are now learned first.

  23. In an extremely gross sense I agree with John Cowan. But the sense is so gross that I wonder whether it’s a meaningful generalisation at all.
    The division of characters into Traditional and Simplified character sets is a very modern construct, and moreover I don’t think you can really just equate it to old distinctions (Traditional characters to the formally correct characters of old, and Simplified characters to the informal, abbreviated or simplified characters of old). The decision to create a Simplified character set was not just a matter of getting people to learn the informal forms first; it completely altered the landscape of Chinese characters, in which there was originally a kind of gradation from characters in their Sunday best to characters in bathrobes (ahem!) lounging about the house. What the reformers did was take a particular subset of clothing styles (often involving bathrobes but also other styles) and decreed that Sunday best no longer existed, except in museums. I’m not sure that this can really be characterised as learning Simplified first and Traditional later, or vice versa.

  24. I entirely agree with your characterization.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    bathrobe, do you agree with minus273 that despite all that those who learned to read under the new regime in the PRC can still read the labels perfectly well when they have occasion to visit the museum (whether because of the incentives created by Taiwanese-origin Sunday-best porn or otherwise . . .)?

  26. For a PRC-educated like me, it feels very strange to read the real simplified characters of yore. Chao Yuen-ren, in his /A Grammar of Spoken Chinese/ (still the best one), uses his daily set of simplified characters. The principles are the same: grass script, substituting placeholders when information-theoretically redundant and so on; but they are not applied in the same way — sometimes they look half-simplified or over-simplified, sometimes the form taken from grass script isn’t familiar to me… So even for me, who am fairly experienced with Chinese characters (PRC Simplified, PRC handwriting, Traditional, Japanese …), sometimes I do need context to read the characters. (It doesn’t help that the romanized Chinese is in Gwoyeu Romatzyh)

  27. Hey, it could be worse. Dhyao Qiuan-Remm also invented General Chinese, which tries to handle Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Min, and Hakka equally well. The characters are used as a pure syllabary with 2802 syllabograms, but it so happens they are standard in about 90% of running text. The romanization tracks Middle Chinese, except without distinctions that have been lost almost everywhere. Here’s his sample poem to chew on.
    Si Zuucuec Yee (Hu Shiec)
    Nii sim-lii ay ta,
    Moc shot but ay ta.
    Iaw konn nii ay ta,
    Tsiee deg ren hay ta.
    Tag yeo ren hay ta,
    Nii ruho duey ta?
    Tag yeo ren ay ta,
    Caeq ruho dhay ta?

  28. Which might be a quite viable project, if not for Chao’s excessive graphical parsimony.

  29. Graphical parsimony in Latin characters, you mean? I agree. It wouldn’t kill him to keep the three modern versions of ta, either.

  30. In my experience educated Mainlanders can read Traditional characters ok, although they may get stuck on a few curly ones. But even the curly ones can usually be worked out from context.
    Besides Taiwanese porn, karaoke is another important vector for familiarity with Traditional characters. Many karaoke discs available in China use Traditional characters. (Karaoke is also a vector for familiarity with Cantonese pronunciations as found in Cantopop).
    But passive knowledge of Traditional characters does not equate to comfort reading them. In my experience, Mainland Chinese find it quite awkward and even rather tiring to read Traditional characters, especially in long stretches. I am pretty sure that most people would baulk at reading an entire book in Traditional characters. They somehow look alien and ancient, and added to certain differences of terminology feel like a different world from the shared experience of Mainland Chinese. (I have read on LH or elsewhere about the shared experience of Soviet times that unites people in Russia and now-independent CIS countries. I think the same applies to the Chinese experience. Like it or not, all people in the PRC have a shared background — including CCCP rule, Chinese-style socialism, Cultural Revolution, etc. — that their ethnic brethren in other countries, Han Chinese or otherwise, do not have.)

  31. @Bathrobe
    Have you noticed that some Chinese words have altered meaning because of their places in PRC applied Marxism? Like “矛盾” (contradiction), that means only the contradiction between ideas, or impersonal, historical forces in Taiwanese Chinese, but personal conflict in PRC Chinese.

  32. This article, which I got from Chinesestack, notes a few usages like this, e.g., 单位 and 爱人 (which, unless I’m mistaken, seems to be disappearing from Mainland usage).
    I’m sure I’ve seen other usages of a similar nature, although I can’t think of any examples offhand.

  33. I’d like to reiterate that I found grackle’s comment on Arabic quite interesting.
    In writing about MSA, John Cowan said: “I think part of the problem is that Modern Standard Arabic is an underspecified norm. The only fully specified part of it is the Classical Arabic register, which is too remote and too lexically impoverished to use as a modern standard language. Otherwise, writing and especially speaking MSA is a delicate compromise between Classical, certain agreed-upon simplifications (more of them in speech than in writing, certainly), and one’s own colloquial.”
    But grackle makes this comment: “Anyone who has read any Arabic from the Mamluke period or later has had to deal with “Ottoman” elements, sometimes in great profusion. Similarly, most serious Persian writings are combinations of Arabic and Persian. Mulla Sadra, the great 16-17th century philosopher wrote most of his works in “Arabic,” but it is an Arabic that flows in and out of Persian constructions, sentences, phrases, and words.”
    What I am wondering at is the hint of a much more nuanced and richly textured past against a spartan and puritanical present. I know nothing about Arabic, so what is going on here? Has modern Arabic become more intolerant and puritanical (possibly for religious or nationalist reasons)? Or were Ottoman or Persian elements always considered to be outside of Arabic proper? How would modern Arabs react to Mameluke-period Arabic? If it is indeed the case that Arabic, like Turkish, has been narrowed down and impoverished, then the case against MSA would seem to be a very real one, and not simply the ravings of a fringe element. Can anyone at LH fill me in on the actual situation here?

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