The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Turkey’s president wants to revive the language of the Ottoman Empire

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news conference at the new presidential palace in Ankara on Dec. 1. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1928, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish republic, enacted one of the more dramatic and radical reforms of the 20th century. Ataturk ordered the wholesale transformation of the Turkish language: He instituted a Latin alphabet, abandoning more than a millennium of writing in Arabic script, and had the language stripped of centuries of accumulated Persian and Arabic words. Instruction of "Ottoman" Turkish was banned.

The move was part of Ataturk's campaign to modernize Turkey and tilt it toward the West. In his view, as WorldViews has discussed earlier, the Ottoman Empire was a troubled, weak Islamic polity that succumbed to its European rivals. Ottoman Turkish was an ornate, baroque language, used only by the elites of the decadent Ottoman court and its detached intellectuals. Ataturk's Turkey would be staunchly nationalist and secular; the country's Turkish would be closer to the tongue spoken by ordinary Turks.

Fast forward almost a century. No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk as the country's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Erdogan, it seems, is keen on turning back Ataturk's legacy.

Earlier this week, the country's National Education Council, dominated by members who share Erdogan's Islamic-influenced politics, voted to make instruction of Ottoman Turkish compulsory in high schools. The move triggered a fierce backlash from secularist opponents of Erdogan and his religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). It led to Erdogan's prime minister insisting that the course would be an elective and not mandatory.

But Erdogan has stuck to his guns, and rounded on his critics.

"There are those who do not want this to be taught. This is a great danger. Whether they like it or not, the Ottoman language will be learnt and taught in this country," he said during a speech this week in Ankara.

The outspoken Erdogan continued, challenging his opponents' contention that Ottoman Turkish was a dead language, inscribed in folios and mausoleums. "They say, ‘Will we teach children how to read gravestones?’ But a history and a civilization is lying on those gravestones," Erdogan said. "Can there be a bigger weakness than not knowing this? This [breakaway from the Ottoman alphabet] was equal to the severing of our jugular veins."

His opponents, though, see much of Erdogan's actions and rhetoric as a sign of the creeping Islamization of Turkey's resolutely secular society that has taken place under Erdogan's watch. Bans on headscarves and veils have been lifted by Erdogan. The number of students studying in state-run religious seminaries has grown from 63,000 in 2002, when Erdogan first came to power, to nearly 1 million today — a statistic the Turkish president celebrates.

Erdogan has been careful not to directly attack Ataturk and his policies. In his speech this week, he pinned the unraveling of the Ottoman legacy not on the Turkish republic's founding father but on a reformist 19th century Ottoman sultan. "Forget about discussing all those matters related to religion in a free fashion; religion and practicing Muslims for 200 years came under systematic criticism, insults and belittling," Erdogan said, using language he routinely trots out when pandering to his pious, conservative base.

Erdogan's pride in the glories of an Islamic past — and his anger at those who would somehow diminish that history — was apparent when he, on multiple occasions, harped on the supposed discovery of the New World by Muslim seafarers.

The decision to grandstand on Ottoman Turkish, writes Istanbul-based journalist Joseph Dana, is in keeping with Erdogan's tactics.

With parliamentary elections slated for early 2015, Erdogan’s embrace of Ottoman Turkish is a preview of how he intends to spend the political capital he has accumulated over the past decade in power. If the AKP maintains its parliamentary mandate, Erdogan will not face elections for another four years and will have ample opportunity to make more fundamental changes to the way Turkey is governed.

Away from the political debates, the actual history of Turkey's ditching of the Ottoman language is fascinating. A whole population had to learn a new script overnight, while government officials had to engineer a new dictionary. The late Oxford linguistic scholar Geoffrey Lewis described the immense process involved:

[Ataturk's government] prescribed three methods for producing the words required to make Turkish independent of foreign vocabulary: to explore the resources of the spoken language, to collect words found in old texts, and, if necessary, to create new words from existing roots and suffixes.
In October 1932 the word collecting began. Every provincial Governor presided over a collection committee, with the duty of organizing the collecting of words in use among the people. Within a year, over 35,000 such words were recorded. Meanwhile, scholars had been combing through dictionaries of Turkic Languages and more than 150 old texts in search of words that had fallen out of use or had never been in use in Turkey — these totaled close on 90,000.

Lewis deems the effort a "catastrophic success." A success because it helped build up an undeniable sense of Turkish identity. It was catastrophic, Lewis argues, because it "has made everything written before the early 1930s, and much that has been written since, increasingly obscure to each new generation."

Most must hope that the Ottoman language's reintroduction would help bridge that divide, rather than create new ones.