A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 15, 2014

Erdoğan's Ottoman Script Revival and the Legacy of Kemalism

I haven't commented Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcement last week  that he intends to institute the teaching of Ottoman Turkish as a requirement in high schools. Those unfamiliar with the history of Modern Turkey may wonder why the idea of teaching people the language used in the early 20th century is provoking a backlash in Turkey.

It is not just a sign of Erdoğan's "neo-Ottoman" proclivities as well as his continuing efforts to dismantle the secular "laicist" aspects of Turkish society; it is also one of his most direct assaults to date on the Kemalist legacy.

Of all of Kemal Atatürk's reforms aimed at radically transforming Turkey — abolition of the Sultanate and Caliphate, declaring the republic, instituting secularism and a Western work week, adoption of regularized surnames, banning traditional headgear like the fez and the veil — perhaps none more thoroughly undercut traditional Ottoman ways more than the language reform of 1928, which abandoned the Arabic/Persian script used to write Ottoman Turkish and adopted a modified Latin script. At the same time and after (with the founding of the Turkish Language Association in 1932), efforts were made to purge the language of the large vocabulary of Arabic and Persian loanwords and to replace them with Turkic words.

The Kemalist reforms made much linguistic sense: Turkish is an agglutinative language in which vowel harmony plays a major role, but the Arabic script is usually written with few or no vowels. But the other side of the reform was to cut modern Turks off from their heritage; only scholars and historians still learned Ottoman, so most Turks could not read materials written before 1928 unless they were transcribed into Modern Turkish.

So by seeking to require the teaching of Ottoman and the Arabic-Persian script in secondary schools, Erdoğan is directly attempting to reverse perhaps the most sweeping of the Kemalist reforms and thus the whole Kemalist legacy, which he has been  chipping away at as long as the AKP has been in power.

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