chapter  10
16 Pages

Ottoman languages: Christine Woodhead

The Ottoman Turkish language was a product of empire, a consciously developed political and cultural tool. By around  formal, written Ottoman had evolved from its base in the colloquial Turkish of Anatolia into a prestige language dominated by elements from Persian, the inherited language of early administration and literature, and from Arabic, the first language of religion and scholarship. This amalgam was considered a natural and appropriate reflection of Ottoman imperial status in relation to the Islamic cultural heritage, appearing in varying degrees of complexity in both chancery documents and literary works. By the nineteenth century, however, there was increasing criticism, particularly among reformers in Istanbul, of this official language as an unnecessarily complex and artificial hybrid, understandable only with constant reference to dictionaries. Ottoman Turkish appeared to many as symbolic of an inward-looking, complacent conservatism responsible for late Ottoman decline, and as a barrier to political and social reform. In the post-imperial, nationalist era of the s and s, this language was, by definition, redolent of a failed political entity and had few supporters. Official use of ‘Ottoman Turkish’ came to an abrupt end in November , when the Republic of Turkey adopted a specially devised alphabet in Latin characters to replace the Arabic script in which Turkish had been written for almost a millennium. Atatürk’s language reform movement then proceeded to purge from the written language most ‘foreign’ Arabic and Persian elements, aiming to produce a vocabulary and grammar as purely Turkish as possible. By the mid-twentieth century, less than fifty years after the end of the empire, Ottoman had become effectively a dead language, its literary and historical works rendered largely inaccessible and alien to subsequent generations of Turkish speakers. So rapidly did the political and cultural outlook change that even the language of Nutuk, Atatürk’s definitive address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly given over five days in October , soon had to be simplified and modernized for most readers.