Ottoman Empire, World War One and Language

Ottoman Empire, World War One and Language


Ottoman Empire, World War One and Language 


All wars affect languages, if only by the addition of recently-coined euphemisms (“friendly fire”, “enhanced interrogation techniques”), expressions to describe novel outrages (“concentration camp”, “ethnic cleansing”) and colourful terms imported from the language of the enemy ( “Blitzkrieg”, “kamikaze”). A war can dramatically change the fortunes of one or several languages. It is probable that World War I had an impact on a greater number of languages than any other war before it.

Consider the changed fortunes of the Czech, Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Finnish and Slovene languages as a result of the collapse of the Russian empire and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian. While it is true that many languages in Central and Eastern Europe underwent dramatic changes of status, it was in the Middle Eastern theatre of the war that the most profound changes facilitated by new political dispensations affected the ever-fascinating Turkish language.

Below is a poem by Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel, in Ottoman orthography (left) and modern Turkish orthography (right):


The orthographical differences are evident even to someone who knows not a syllable of the language. What this example does not show is the changes made to the grammar and vocabulary of Turkish. So, what changes were made and why?

In 1928 a new, Latin-based alphabet was introduced to replace the existing Perso-Arabic abjad that had been used to write Turkish since the tenth century. The purpose of the change was primarily to combat illiteracy. One of the key advantages of the new alphabet was that it allowed for all the Turkish vowel sounds to be written (front vowels: e, i, ö, ü; back vowels: a, ı, o, u). The Perso-Arabic abjad only included three vowel symbols and these were normally only written in the case of so-called ‘long vowels’ (although, to be honest, I’m not sure which vowels were designated ‘long’ as Turkish vowels are all of the same length – we’ll have to leave that matter to the more erudite Ottomanists, of which I am evidently not one. Arabic and Persian both feature long and short vowels, however, so some kind of tricky accommodation was no doubt arrived at for Turkish).

In any case, let’s take a look at the first line of Çoban Çeşmesi (‘The Shepherd Fountain): ‘Derinden derine ırmaklar ağlar’ (‘Far away rivers weep’). My attempt to Romanise the Ottoman version gives me this: ‘Drindn drinh irmaklr ağlar’, which, I think we can agree, lacks the explicatory clarity of the post-1928 version; more specifically: five vowels (so-called ‘short vowels’ but in reality the same length as the others) are excluded (although it is easy for anyone with a passing familiarity with Persian to guess that the h at the end of ‘drinh’ is a place-holder for a missing ‘e’) and no orthographic indication is made of the important distinction between ‘i’ and ‘ı’. While it is of course true that an educated Ottoman Turk could read his or her language just as easily as a modern Turk today can, it is also true that the Latinised version of Turkish is easier to learn to read.

An important feature of Turkish phonology is so-called vowel harmony, whereby there is a distinction between front and back vowels and, generally speaking, the two groups tend to avoid each other. Therefore, once we know that ‘lar/ler’ is the Turkish plural suffix and that vowel harmony is a thing, we are not totally freaked out to learn that the plural of ‘ırmak’ is ‘ırmaklar’ but the plural of ‘ekmek’ is ‘ekmekler’. The Perso-Arabic abjad used in Ottoman times ignored this important feature.

So much for orthography. In addition to the changes made to the written language in 1928, the Atatürk government also instituted changes to the language itself, especially after the establishment of the Turkish Language Association (Türk Dil Kurumu – ‘TDK’) …. Actually, at this point it might be a good idea to get back to the war and its after-effects.

Right, so, the Ottoman Empire in 1914 stretched from South-eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf and had been around since the 13th century. It was a major world power and, unlike the modern Turkish nation-state which is, well, a nation-state, it was, quite obviously, an empire: a huge multi-cultural empire and home to millions of Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Albanians, Kurds, Arabs, Jews and others as well as Turks. You didn’t have to be a Turk to get to the top (or near to the top), either. The devşirme system in which Christian boys were conscripted to become janissaries and to work in the service of the Sultan meant than it was possible for a non-Turk to achieve high status – some even rose to the level of Grand Vizier. Of 292 Grand Viziers, 30 were Albanians, quite a few were Georgians, and some others were Greeks, Bulgarians and so on. So even though we tend to think of the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish empire, it was really much more than that – and this had implications for language reform.

By the 19th century it was obvious to some people that their languages needed an update. Romanian switched from Cyrillic to Latin script in 1860. A Latin orthography for Turkish was first proposed to the Cemiyet-i ilmiye-i Osmaniye (‘Ottoman Society of Science’ – note the very Persian-style name of the Society; the modern Turkish version of the name would have the key words written in exactly the opposite order) in 1863. The Albanian language, in particular, was a subject of considerable debate, especially in the period 1878-1911 in which first one orthography (the so-called Istanbul Alphabet) and then another (the Bashkimi Alphabet) were adopted. Incidentally, the Bashkimi alphabet was eventually adopted, so I read, only after the Young Turks ceased to oppose the adoption of a Latin script (they had opposed it out of their desire for Albania to act as an Ottoman bulwark against Western Europe; their idea had been that Albanian adopt an Arabic abjad like the one used in Turkish at the time).

So, hang on, what do the Young Turks have to do with Albanians? Well, as it happens, many of the Young Turks were Albanians, so they knew a thing or two about Albania’s spelling reform arguments (by the way, the Turkish word for ‘the Young Turks’ is hilarious: Jön Türkler, i.e. ‘les Jeunes Turcs’ – ‘Jön’ being a transliteration of ‘Jeunes’). One of the key principles of the Istanbul Alphabet was that each sound be represented by a single letter, as opposed to settling for digraphs (as in the Bashkimi alphabet). The modern Turkish ‘ç’ was, I presume, an import from the Istanbul Alphabet (designed for Albanian, don’t forget), and I suspect the idea for the ‘ş’ came from Romanian. (Oh, and in case you have forgotten your high school history, the Young Turk Revolution was in 1908.)

My point in the foregoing two paragraphs is that language reform was in the air in the pre-WWI Ottoman Empire, and ideas from non-Turkish languages spoken in and around the empire were current among, well, among an incredibly tiny group of nerdy but important people.

So in 1914 the war begins. There is a teleological view of history according to which the fall of the Ottoman Empire was inevitable. This view has now been quite thoroughly debunked but, nonetheless, the empire did fall, and from it there emerged the Turkish Republic. Between those two events there was another: the War of Independence, in which the Turkish National Movement fought against the Greeks (who had invaded and occupied Smyrna and adjacent areas) and the Armenians, as well as the French, the British and the Italians. From the War of Independence (among other things) there emerged Kemal Atatürk, and from Kemal Atatürk there emerged ‘Kemalism’ (also known as ‘Atatürkism’).


There are six fundamental pillars of Kemalism, represented in the ‘six arrows’ flag shown above and one of them is reformism (‘devrimcilik’ in Turkish).  The basic idea of reformism is that Turkey should replace the traditional institutions and concepts with modern ones, and that is where the impetus came to create the new Turkish language that came into being after the establishment of the TDK in 1932. (Two interesting facts: (1) the first Secretary-General and head specialist of the TDK was an Armenian (!), Agop Dilâçar; and (2) it was the first president of the TDK, Saffet Arıkan, who coined the surname Atatürk (!!).)

Let’s go back briefly to the poet whose poem is quoted above, Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel. He was a member of a group of poets known as ‘The Five Syllabists’ who were dedicated to writing poetry in plain Turkish and easy-to-understand language. I’m not citing them because of their own specific influence but rather because of the timely nature of the desire for back-to-basics linguistic change that their movement embodied. This desire to write in a Turkish that could be understood by Anatolian peasants reflected changes going on throughout Turkish society and elsewhere in the early 20th Century, a period in which many languages reformed and repurposed themselves for use in the modern world (think of Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesia, Hebrew and, er, Modern Cornish). 20th Century linguistic reform nearly always meant putting ‘the common man’ back into languages which were perceived as having become to rarefied, intellectual, florid and/or foreign.

Nationalism (‘milliyetçilik’) is another of Atatürk’s six arrows. Ottoman Turkish had hugely influenced by Persian and Arabic, was far removed from the Turkish of the notional rustic Anatolian and met all of the requirements of ‘rarefied, intellectual, florid and foreign’. The vocabulary of Ottoman Turkish contained as much as 85% of words of Persian or Arabic origin. Let’s try and imagine the English language being purged of all its vocabulary of French or Latin origin. For one thing, the words ‘imagine’, ‘language’, ‘purged’, ‘vocabulary’, ‘Latin’ and ‘origin’ would have to be done away with. The task would be enormous – and yet this is what happened with Turkish. Below are some examples of the type of changes made (without showing the changes to the script) which give you an idea of the hardship inherent in undertaking an obligatory linguistic war:

English                   Ottoman Turkish                  Modern Turkish
Obligatory                Vâcib                                     Zorunlu
Hardship                  Müşkül                                   Güçlük
War                         Harb                                      Savaş

By 2005, the Güncel Türkçe Sözlük – the official dictionary of Turkish published by the TDK – contained more than 100 thousand entries, of which more than 85% were of Turkish origin. Kemalism had brought about one of the most thoroughgoing linguistic reforms ever undertaken in history.

The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918. Mustafa Kemal Paşa became Kemal Atatürk and President of the Turkish Republic because of the consequences of Turkey’s defeat by the Entente Powers. The utter transformation of the Turkish language was therefore a direct result of the First World War. It’s not something we think about much in New Zealand, but maybe we should. After all, there is a memorial to Kemal Atatürk on the South coast of Wellington which overlooks Cook Strait. It is there for a reason that is especially important to New Zealanders but there are other reasons to remember this extraordinary man, who was such a giant in comparison to some other contemporary statesmen whom we wish we could forget.