Turkish cannot go back to Arabic script

Turkish cannot go back to Arabic script

“We had a language which was very suitable for science; yet we slept over it one night and the next morning it was gone. Now we have been dragged down to the level of a country which learns and teaches science in foreign languages. Thousands of words and languages are forgotten. The structure of the language, which used to be suitable for deriving new words and expressions, was curbed.”

These sentences belong to Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. He was delivering a speech on Dec. 24 in the award ceremony of Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Board (TÜBİTAK).

It was not the first time Erdoğan has mentioned this subject, though not as clearly as this time. It is important, since the remark was made in the wake of the debate to make the Ottoman language a compulsory course in the Turkish curriculum by the National Education Ministry.

Yet Erdoğan was not specific about whether he meant to bring the Arabic script back for Turkish, or whether he meant to take back the policy of “purification of Turkish.”

Both were moves by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, following a War of Independence against invading armies and a civil war against the Ottoman Sultan.

Up until Nov. 1, 1928 Turkish used to be written in the Arabic alphabet.

It was Atatürk who lead one of most radical social reforms in modern history to change it to the Latin alphabet.

It was actually part of a move to shift Turkish intellect from being an Eastern/Islamic-oriented system to a Western/secular-oriented system. In 1925, the Turkish calendar was changed from Islamic to Gregorian. In May 1928, Western numbers began to be used instead of Arabic ones. After adopting the Latin script for Turkish, the next move in 1931 would be to adopt the metric system for measurements.

What kind of scientific achievements Turks accomplished under the Ottoman dynasty through six centuries is a question mark. But the literacy rate of “old Turkish,” Turkish in the Arabic alphabet and decorated with Arabic and Persian adverbs and adjectives (which Erdoğan likes to call the Ottoman language), was estimated at 2.5 percent (7 percent of the male and 0.7 percent of the female population) when the Republic was declared. In the 1927 census it was estimated to be 10 percent. In the 1935 census, “new Turkish,” which is the same language in the Latin script, took a major jump from practically zero to 30 percent.

The other attempt by Atatürk came in 1932. In an aggressive linguistic move, Atatürk led an educational reform to “purify” the language of Arabic and Persian words, adjectives, adverbs and expressions as a part of building a “new Turkey,” actually using the same phrase Erdoğan uses today for his era. The controversial part of the 1932 move was its ideological basis, which assumed an ancient, hypothetical Turkish to be the mother of almost all existing languages on the planet. Yet it also contributed a lot to the increased literacy rate in Turkey, especially in the austere years of the 1930s and 40s.

Coming back to the debate, it is not clear which move Erdoğan means when he says losing a language overnight, and whether he is prepared to take steps to reverse them…

Going back to the Arabic script seems neither possible nor practical since the literacy rate in today’s Turkey is above 93 percent. It is not possible to reset it, unless Erdoğan would like to drag the country down into such a situation while he is talking about taking a scientific jump.

And perhaps Education Minister Nabi Avcı would like to tell Mr. President that scientific achievements are not all about the language used, but rather more related with the perspective.