How Turkey Replaced the Ottoman Language

A Turkish-British writer reflects on the country’s loss through her own experience of losing — and relearning — Turkish today

How Turkey Replaced the Ottoman Language
Historic Ottoman tombstones in the courtyard of Isa Bey Mosque in Selcuk, Turkey. (Murat Taner/Getty Images)

When I was 3, I lost my father tongue. Lose is a funny word — as if the language just dropped out of my pocket one day while I played in the park. But there is no other way to describe it.

I was born in Turkey to a British mother and a Turkish father, moving back to the U.K. at the age of 2, and was always surrounded by both English and Turkish. I have one hazy memory of watching a squeaky Turkish cartoon and knowing instinctively what the evil character meant when he shrieked “seni mahvedecegim!” (I’ll get you!). Yet in any subsequent memories, Turkish simply doesn’t exist. At some point after that cartoon, I stopped understanding the language. Perhaps it was the effect of spending my days at a British nursery, or maybe it was because my parents spoke English together at home, but either way, I could no longer comprehend what my dad was saying to me. He was forced to make the conscious decision to switch into his second language of English so that we could continue to communicate. Subsequently, a door was closed on my Turkish; for the next 15 years, I would be completely locked out.

It does not escape me, though, that a similarly strange phenomenon was experienced by the Turkish people themselves, including my ancestors, 95 years ago. In 1928, the Republic of Turkey underwent a huge language reform and, in the space of just a few months, the country completely replaced old Ottoman and its Arabic script with an early version of the Romanized Turkish used today. With this move, the Turkish people were cut off from the language that should have formed a major part of their identity — just as I was many years later.

It is perhaps not such a surprise that Ottoman was supplanted. Having learned the basics, I can attest to the fact it was extremely complicated and confusing. Made up of Arabic, Persian and Turkish vocabulary and grammar, written in Arabic script, letters could represent more than one sound, the letter form would change according to its position in the word, and vowels were often not denoted. The letter vav — و — for example, not only signifies the consonant “v,” but also represents the Turkish vowel sounds of “o,” “u,” “ö” and “ü.” A simpler, more standardized language was certainly needed.

The debate over such a change had begun during the Tanzimat period of 1839-1876, well before modern Turkish was actually implemented. Throughout this era, a series of westernizing amendments were brought in, including slightly greater access to education and an increased use of the printing press. As a result, a light was shone on the problems of the Ottoman language.

While the new schools highlighted the difficulties of teaching students to read due to inconsistent spelling, the newspaper publishers complained that the Arabic script slowed down the process of typesetting, making it difficult to spread breaking news. What’s more, with the introduction of the telegraph in the 1850s, various industries from the post office and banks to the railways and ports were already obliged to use the Latin script. Morse code at that time did not accommodate Arabic.

There were also arguments that an easier language would improve literacy rates for the Muslim majority. Figures for overall literacy within the Ottoman Empire are often placed at less than 10%. Yet the Muslim section of Ottoman society had far lower levels of literacy than non-Muslim minorities, due partly to the fact that non-Muslims, such as Armenians or Jews, were able to write Turkish using their own alphabet.

Despite attempts to simplify the language by the turn of the century — including by the infamous Enver Pasha, whose system still used the Arabic alphabet but denoted every letter separately — none succeeded. This was perhaps because, regardless of the problems that had been highlighted, many were against change. Some viewed the Arabic script as a holy connection to Islam. Others felt that the introduction of a European alphabet would affect Turkish culture. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk began working to create a modern, Western-looking state. By 1928, the time had come to overhaul the language.

In June 1928, the Language Council (Dil Encumeni) was set up to oversee and implement the reform. With the first task being the creation of a new Turkish alphabet, council members examined 20 other Romanized alphabets to find the letters that would best convey Turkish sounds. As a result, they removed the letters “x,” “q” and “w,” and added “ç,” “ş,” “ı,” “ö,” “ü” and “ğ.” Certain linguistic rules had to be decided on, and those adopted included phonetic spelling, one letter for each sound, and no consonants to be written together. Once this system was complete, the council then had to draw up plans for its execution. Giving themselves a timespan of 5-15 years, the members thought that the two alphabets — both old and new — could be taught together at schools for the first few years, while newspapers could be written in both scripts to begin with, before gradually moving over to articles written only in Romanized Turkish. When this idea was put to Ataturk, however, his reply was simply: “either in three months, or not at all.” To Ataturk, a long and slow rollout would never be successful because people simply would not bother to learn the new script. In August 1928, therefore, he announced in a nighttime speech that the Republic of Turkey would be changing its alphabet. On Nov. 1, the reform was officially passed through parliament.

A flurry of activity to teach the new letters soon began. The press was obliged to begin using the new script by Dec. 1, 1928, while state offices were given a deadline of Jan. 1, 1929. Also on Jan. 1, 1929, National Schools (Millet Mektepleri) were opened across the country, in both towns and remote villages. These were separated into “A” schools and “B” schools, each of which offered four-month courses to those aged between 12 and 45. “A” schools focused purely on reading and writing in the new script, while “B” schools taught life skills to those who were now literate. Those who passed the final exam were given a certificate, while those who came in the top three were given a copy of the constitution complete with Ataturk’s signature. This drive to educate the population in the new script would see literacy rates rise from around 10.5% in 1927 to 20.4% by 1935.

Attendance at the National Schools was supposed to be compulsory for 12-45 year-olds. Anyone not going could be subject to fines and banned from working in the public sector. In fact, by 1931, anyone who was illiterate was banned from working in state institutions or banks, at ports and railways and in large factories and farms. Yet, in reality, not everyone could spare the time — as I found out when comparing my great-grandparents. I have been told that, while both my great-grandfathers could read and write basic Ottoman and modern Turkish and so must have attended a National School, neither of my great-grandmothers could read or write at all. These people were village folk, living basic, rural lives on the land; the women had babies to look after, houses to tend to and fields to work in. Four months of school took up too much time, even if it was just for a few hours in the afternoon.

Those who did receive the education, however, were not necessarily on an equal footing. Even between my great-grandfathers, there was a difference. One learned to read and write fluently, even becoming the village “muhtar” (elected representative) in the 1940s. The other, however, never fully grasped the concept of reading new Turkish; he was known in later life to ask my father to read the newspaper out loud because his own reading was too slow. Whenever he did read, he would spell out the letters before bringing them together into a word. It may be that he was not able to regularly attend the National School due to the need to farm the land, and so was left with this childlike method of phonetic reading. I can never know. Nevertheless, the whole concept of my great-grandfathers going back to school to relearn their own language is similar to my own experience. At university, I relearned Turkish — although, instead of learning to read or write, I was studying the grammar and acquiring the vocabulary.

It is a very odd feeling to go back to the start with a language that once came naturally to you. As you delve into the grammar and slowly begin to learn how to string a sentence together, there is a rush of memory and everything suddenly makes more sense. For example, there was a phrase my father would always use when we were children: “herkes ayakkabilarini giysin” (“everyone put on their shoes”). He would call it to us every morning before school, and we’d just know what to do. It was the only bit of Turkish he’d use. To me, it was simply a stream of sound that made some sort of sense. As I relearned the language, though, the stream suddenly divided into words; I could see how the sentence had been constructed and it instantly carried far more meaning.

For my great-grandfathers, relearning to read their own language must have been a little like that. In their case, there must have been a moment when, suddenly, the signs and symbols on the page resolved into words and everything made sense to them once again.

But then, in 1932, the language reform took its next step: “Turkifying” the vocabulary. At the turn of the 20th century, it is thought that 58% of the Ottoman language used for writing was Arabic-Persian, while only 38% was Turkic. Therefore, despite the introduction of the new alphabet in 1928, Arabic and Persian were still particularly prominent in the written word. Spoken Turkish, however, was — and always had been — slightly different and less stilted. To many, spoken Turkish was seen as far more “pure.”

Ataturk wanted to bring the country’s official language closer to this vernacular, and therefore banned the use of any foreign word. The Society for the Study of the Turkish Language (Turk Dili Tetkik Cemiyeti) was founded, and began collecting words with the aim of creating a new, purely Turkish dictionary. To do so, they looked to folk literature, older forms of Turkish, vocabulary used in villages and Turkic dialects. By 1935, the first Ottoman to Turkish pocketbook was published containing 8,752 words — 4,696 of these were Turkish words already known; 415 were from Turkic dialects; 583 were “Turkified” words and the remainder were new words derived using Turkic affixes. To teach the people these new words, newspapers started printing them, together with definitions on how they were used, and radios started broadcasting language lessons.

Yet the efforts to purify the language went too far. Journalists trying to write articles without the use of any foreign words were directed to look up the new Turkish equivalent. If there wasn’t one, they should create a new word themselves. Soon, due to this scheme, no one could understand what was being written; the language had almost become incomprehensible. Even Ataturk is said to have exclaimed to Prime Minister Ismet Inonu, “We can’t speak, we’ve been left without a tongue, we’ve worked this hard and brought out a small pocketbook.” In another comment, this time to Falih Rifki Atay, who was in charge of the dictionary, Ataturk said, “We are obliged to benefit from Ottoman and other Western languages.”

With the language now in need of help, Ataturk turned to the Sun-Language Theory. This was the theory that the origins of all language lay in a proto-Turkic first spoken in Central Asia, which was inspired by the sun and over time had influenced many other languages. It was thus permissible to use some foreign words because it was thought that their roots were Turkish. As a result, the total purification of Turkish slowed a little, but not for long. After Ataturk’s death in 1938, with Ismet Inonu as president, the 1940s would see another push for proper Turkification. Such a push would occur again in 1960. As a result, there are great differences between the Turkish of the early republic and the Turkish of today.

These two stages — first the alphabet change, then the subsequent Turkification of vocabulary — affected the Turkish people greatly, although by no means always negatively. It had been obvious for a long while that continuing with the Arabic script in a world led by the West was going to cause problems. It was also clearly unsustainable to have an official language that was not systematic, was very different from the spoken vernacular and that so few could read or write properly. Some sort of action had to be taken, and it is thanks to this action that a push to educate the masses finally occurred.

But there were great downsides. One of the biggest was that the Turkish population would never again be able to easily access any written document created during the Ottoman Empire. From historical manuscripts to literature, these texts would simply no longer make any sense to subsequent generations, despite the huge role played by such texts in the culture — and therefore the identity — of a nation.

Of course, the government did not wish to cut the people off from literature completely — after all, they had just taught the nation to read for the first time. So in the late 1930s and 1940s, as some of the first generation to be taught the new script reached university age, there was a campaign to create a Turkish literary canon, or “National Library” (Milli Kutuphane). This was an effort not only to translate Western literature into Turkish, but also to transliterate works from the Ottoman past. However, the Turkification of vocabulary and the change in grammar caused immediate issues. Certain structures that were integral to Ottoman poetry, for example, could not be relayed accurately through new Turkish, while other problems of translation occurred when there was no equivalent Turkish word.

The greatest trouble with this enterprise was that works for transliteration had to be chosen. It would have been far too large an undertaking to transliterate every single piece of literature available; however, the choice of who to include in the library was open to political influence. In the 1930s, the politics of culture in Turkey favored the strengthening of Turkish nationalism. As a result, not only was older folk literature turned to — such as the epic tales of the “Book of Dede Korkut” — works that were seen to carry value, that would improve literary tastes and that would boost national feeling amongst the younger generation were also chosen. This meant that a great deal of literature, particularly by women or non-Muslims, was left out of the process and consigned to history.

To be barred from a large part of your culture truly affects your identity, and yet it’s not always immediately obvious. I had always considered myself a perfect cross of British and Turkish. I did not eat quite the same foods as my friends did and we probably danced far too much in my house, but I still drank copious amounts of tea and was always polite in every situation. I couldn’t be more British-Turkish if I tried; even my nickname at school was Turk. But when I met my husband, who had lived his whole life in Turkey, I realized just how much more British than Turkish I was.

Because I’d grown up without being able to understand the Turkish language, I had missed out first and foremost on popular culture. I hadn’t ever heard of the books and television shows my husband had enjoyed; I was clueless as to the past trends that had taken Turkey by storm; I didn’t know the songs he sang. Then I met my in-laws and I saw even more cultural aspects I was lacking. For example, certain phrases must be said at particular times in Turkey, such as “kolay gelsin” (literally: may it come easily) when someone is working, “gule gule kullan” (literally: use it with a smile) when anything new is bought, or “ellerine saglik” (literally: health to your hands) after someone has done something for you, such as making dinner. There are so many of these phrases, each one as important as the others, and to not use them is extremely rude. I didn’t — and still don’t — know them all, yet my in-laws use them religiously. Not knowing these phrases so integral to Turkish culture, my in-laws must at first have found me very impolite. Even my manners, I realized, were clearly British.

Again, there are similarities between my situation and that of the Turkish people. With no access to the majority of Ottoman documents, books or even old newspapers to learn of their past, and with a state campaign throughout the early years of the republic to move away from the memory of the empire, the nation soon felt purely Turkish; their Ottoman language and culture no longer existed.

In recent years, however, attempts to rediscover and rekindle this identity have come to the fore. For example, dramas that fictionalize the lives of great Ottoman figures — from Osman I (founder of the empire) and Barbarossa (once admiral of the Ottoman Navy) to the sultans Suleyman and Abdulhamid II — are shown by major TV networks and are extremely popular among viewers.

This rise in interest has also been influenced by politics, with current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a longtime advocate of neo-Ottomanism. In 2014, for example, a debate on whether to teach obligatory Ottoman language lessons at high school surfaced. While the education minister at the time was in favor of offering Ottoman as an optional subject, President Erdogan was supportive of compulsory classes, saying, “Whether they like it or not, Ottoman will be taught and learned in this country.” However, almost 10 years later, the teaching of Ottoman in high schools has still not come to fruition, perhaps because there aren’t enough teachers with sufficient knowledge of the lost language.

Nevertheless, a new project may be about to change everything. The AKIS: Ottoman Transcription Tool Project has been funded by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey and is run by Sabanci University — one of Turkey’s top private institutions — in conjunction with Istanbul Medeniyet University and the University of Vienna. It aims to use AI to automatically transliterate any Ottoman text into modern Turkish in the space of a few seconds. The project uses an advanced recurrent neural network, which is part of the deep learning process and is similar to the technology used by Google Translate and Siri. “As we began the project, one of my master’s students had just finished working on a state-of-the-art technique for handwriting recognition in English,” said Professor Berrin Yanikoglu, the director of the project. “We decided we could use the same model and train it with new Ottoman data. It worked.”

The nature of the Ottoman language, such as missing vowels, has not made the project easy. “We are not just recognizing the shapes of the characters, but rather we are trying to recognize the words themselves and match them with the Turkish equivalent,” said Assistant Professor Esma Bilgin Tasdemir, one of the head researchers on the project, explaining how her team is working around the challenges presented by the language. “This is a much more direct method and it is something completely novel in its field. There is nothing like this elsewhere.”

The tool will go live in the very near future and will be open to everyone, from academics, scholars and archivists to any member of the public interested in being able to read an Ottoman text. Any user can upload a photo of the Ottoman document and, within 10 seconds, the tool will have broken down the text and transliterated each line into Turkish. Currently working with an approximate 95% character recognition rate, the efficiency and accuracy of the transliteration is expected to improve as time goes on. “The more data the tool has, the more capable it will be,” said Tasdemir. “We’re currently dealing mainly with the later period of the Ottoman Empire, but once we have the technology and enough data, then it’s transferable. We’ll be able to process different types of fonts and other kinds of documents.”

The aim is for the tool to recognize printed fonts but also handwriting from materials of varying ages. After all, any documents from before the Tanzimat period, when the printing press took off, were all handwritten. “The first thing for us is to crack handwriting, then in the future we might be able to add other features, whether that’s a dictionary for the words that are no longer in use, or transliterating whole PDFs in one go, or combining the word where it has been split,” added Yanikoglu.

The tool is already garnering a great deal of interest from across Turkey on social media, and academics are hoping that it could help new aspects of Ottoman history come to light. “Because of limited resources and lack of time, historians generally prioritize the documents they are going to transcribe. Therefore, there’ll be some documents that they just haven’t touched,” Tasdemir explained. “This tool will help process all the data they have, rather than part of it, so things that haven’t been seen or read before may well come to light. This will then teach the country even more about its past.”

Almost a century after they were first locked out of their original history, culture and identity, the Turks have almost broken back in. Soon, Turkey could have the best of both worlds; a simpler and more systematic modern language, as well as the option of effortlessly accessing its once-forgotten tongue. Unknown novels may be discovered, poetry found, plays unearthed, historical accounts dug up or official decrees uncovered. This has the potential to change perspectives on the Ottomans and even cause a shift in national identity. Just don’t expect Turks to suddenly start wearing the fez and trying to conquer the world again. After all, old habits die hard — I would know, I still talk to my dad in English.

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