Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Language Reform and National Identity

During the period spanning the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, many a nation reformed its written language, (the timing and nature of the reform depending on each nation's history), to make it come closer to spoken language, so common people could understand it better.1 The reform was also inspired by a Romantic ideology which went like this: the renaissance of the nation is to come from the vitality of its roots preserved in common people's manly speech, veiled by the literary language of the effeminate elite who, dependent on foreign influences, have let the nation decline. It was a step in the development of the national-popular consciousness, as well as in the process of standardization that comes with capitalism, thus a step in the formation of modernity as we know it.

At the same time, such reforms often weakened both synchronic bonds with neighboring languages and diachronic ones with the most recent past. The Turkish language reform, for instance, made the modern Turkish language possess much fewer Arabic and Persian words and rules than its immediate literary predecessor, Ottoman Turkish, did, becoming an "odd man out" following a "West European" script in the region whose cultures are deeply inscribed in Arabic, an ironic fact considering that Turkish is a more "Eastern" language (the westernmost member of the Altaic language family) than Arabic (a Semitic language belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family) or Persian (which has kept its modified Arabic script but is an Indo-European language2).

But the purge couldn't be complete.

Here's an example: the "National Library" is

Millî Kütüphane
in Turkish

دار الكتب الوطنية
Dar al-Kutub al-wataniya
in Arabic

كتابخانه ملي
Ketabkhane-ye Melli
in Persian.

That means that the Turks have kept "kütüp" (books, the plural of "kitap") from the Arabic plural of "kitab" (book), "kutub"; "millî" from the Persian adjective "melli" (national) which derived from the Arabic "millah" (confessional community); and "hane" from the Persian "khane" (house). ("Dar" in Arabic is "house," which is one of its several meanings in Persian; and "watan" in Arabic and "vatan" in Persian and Turkish are "homeland, motherland, patria.") The only thing Turkish in the Turkish name of the National Library of Turkey is where the adjective is placed: before, not after, the noun it modifies, unlike Arabic and Persian. Amazing that the Kemalists let this happen!

1 The historical process that eventually led to such reforms had began with the Reformation, the rejection of Latin in favor of vernacular languages. Muslims, by and large, have rejected this option to this day, preferring to study Arabic. Therefore Islam, uniquely among the Abrahamic religions, provides a powerful ideological resource that can be employed against nationalism. By the same token, secular nationalists of such nations as Iran and Turkey tend to conflate their hostility toward Islam with their dislike of Arabic: e.g., "Our Turkish is not what it used to be. It has become a heavy language filled with superfluous Arabic words and Koranic expressions. . . . A general aura of Islam is invading the language" (emphasis added, Mehmet Ali Birand, "The Gradual Islamization of Our Daily Lives," Turkish Daily News, 13 March 2008).

2 It's also ironic that the people speaking this most "Western" language in the region and following a Jacobin political script have somehow ended up with an "Islamic Republic."


Unknown said...

Dear Yoshie,

I have thought about this matter a lot, as I have lived in Turkey for some time and I speak Turkish, Persian and Arabic. It is especially disconcerting that the linguistic engineering was eagerly embraced by the leftists as well.

I have been faced with hostility countless times for my love of things Ottoman and Arab. Within their intellectual framework, a leftist who loves Arabic is not supposed to exist. As you know, another symptom of this is the utter ignorance of all things Iranian in Turkey.

Much could be written about this, but if you have not read Geoffrey Lewis' book on the language reform, a Catastrophic Success, do so. His politics are quite awful, but as a linguistic and cultural study, it's a masterpiece.

In solidarity,


CEJ said...

The Ottomans were as much a 'European' power as they were an 'Asian' one. Europe has plenty of non-Indo-European languages, and the Indo-European ones really come from Asia anyway. Hungarian might well be as related to Turkic languages as it is Finno-Ugric ones--and some want to put them all into a much larger group as well.

I was recently looking at words of Turkic origin in, of all languages, Yiddish--such as 'knish'.

The Zionists used language policy to turn a large population of Yiddish speakers--and Russian and Polish speakers--into 'modern Israeli Hebrew' speakers. Hebrew is actually still extinct, but Yiddish lives on 'Israeli Hebrew'.