The meaningless Ottoman Turkish debate

The meaningless Ottoman Turkish debate

Turkey’s post-modern civil war continues to produce confusion on the conceptual level. The latest example is the meaningless debate about Ottoman Turkish in high schools. It is currently taught as an optional lesson, but here was a discussion during last week’s National Educational Council to make it compulsory.

This is the latest topic in the bitter battle between Islamists and secularists. Needless to say, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also jumped into the fray. Addressing the Religious Council a few days ago, he insisted that Ottoman Turkish will be taught in high schools “whether some like it or not.”

Those who oppose Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) see this as another reactionary step aimed at overturning the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Supporters of Erdoğan and the AKP, for their part, see this as another way of undermining the secularists.

One of the simplistic assumptions in this battle centers on the Arabic script used by the Ottomans and its relationship to the Quran. To argue that knowing the Ottoman script enables one to read the Quran, however, is like arguing that the Latin alphabet enables one to read the Latin Bible.

Ottoman Turkish is not Arabic either, although it uses many Arabic and Persian words. Its relationship to modern Turkish is similar to the relationship of Middle English, which uses many French words, to modern English.

Although knowledge of the Ottoman script does not enable one to automatically understand the Quran, those who know it are able to read what their grandparents wrote. My grandfather, Bekir Fahri, an Ottoman intellectual born in 1876, was Turkey’s first novelist inspired by Emile Zola’s naturalism and a well-known literary critic of his day.

His outlook was also secular, before the secular republic was founded, and he believed in the value of modern education, democracy, equality between races and the rights of women.  However, I cannot read my grandfather’s works in their original script.

I also find it difficult to understand the original vocabulary he used and even need a dictionary when I read his writings in the Latin alphabet. If I knew Ottoman Turkish, I would not have this difficulty.

Fortunately, I can read him in the Latin alphabet and in the Turkish that I can understand.

Being able to read and understand Ottoman Turkish would, nevertheless, have opened up a new world for me in literature and history, but it would not have made outlook any less secular or enhanced my Islamism, if that happened to be my inclination.

Ottoman Turkish is a difficult and elitist language in terms of its script and vocabulary, and intentionally separated common folk from those who ruled over them. The speed with which the Latin alphabet was adopted by Turks and the purer form of Turkish that took hold under the republic attests to this.

Ottoman Turkish is also largely redundant today, when almost everything written and said by the Ottomans has been rendered into modern Turkish and can be read easily in the Latin alphabet.
Nevertheless, keeping it optional in schools for the young people who are interested in it – and there are many who undoubtedly are – makes sense. It is like keeping Latin on the curriculum in Europe for those who are interested.

Turkey has a great need for people who are trained to read the Ottoman script, given the millions of documents that are stashed away in vaults waiting to be deciphered and used by modern day researchers.

But forcing Ottoman Turkish down the throats of high school kids or opposing it purely on the basis of ideological arguments does not make any sense. The arguments used by both sides in the current battle on Ottoman Turkish are, to a great extent, meaningless.