The Return of the Repressed

By Kaya GençDecember 11, 2015

The Return of the Repressed

HERE IS AN ALTERNATE HISTORY of American English: For whatever reason, circa 1920, a revolutionary leader wants to change the English alphabet for the Cyrillic one, and somehow he manages to achieve this. Fresh generations of Americans start writing the old language using the newly learned script. Literacy rates drop first, but then increase greatly, while the volume of readable texts decrease.

Older generations of Americans, for whom the Latin script becomes a vague childhood memory, struggle to keep up and even take writing classes to be able to write in their own language. The revolutionary state sponsors efforts to “translate” Dickinson’s poems, Melville’s novels, and Poe’s stories into the newly devised “Cyrillic English.” Wharton and James fan clubs continue their operations in New York and Atlanta, posting their announcements in the Cyrillic script.

In the eight decades that follow, American writers produce great works using Cyrillic, far outweighing the Latin script books in volume. Although the latter script purportedly becomes a thing of the past — not unlike dinosaurs — some keep up the tradition underground, setting Latin letters on paper in secret pamphlets.

Then, one fine day, a daring American leader proposes to make it mandatory for students to learn, apart from the customary Cyrillic script, the Latin one as well, explaining that people should be able to read their classics, The Awakening and Moby-Dick, in the original script. He defies protests that authors who produced works before the change of script into Cyrillic had not wrıtten in English. “It was English,” he says, albeit in “a different script. I can prove it!”


Arabic is one of the six most spoken languages in the world today, with more than 400 million people using one of its varieties. Unlike English, it has not exactly become the language of globalization, but it certainly has a global reach. In the past, Arabic had a strong connection with the Turkish language. Turkey’s current alphabet, consisting of letters written in the Latin script, was introduced in 1928, as part of one of the boldest language reforms in history, replacing the Ottoman script, which was a variation of the Persian-Arabic alphabet. Today, Turkey’s education ministry wants this defunct language to be taught again, having announced plans for making Ottoman language classes mandatory for all school students in the country.

For those like me — who went to high school in the 1990s, were never taught the Ottoman script, and possibly learned it privately — the problem is purely hypothetical. We didn’t have to learn Ottoman to graduate from high school, and have been allowed to keep on with our daily lives without any knowledge of the language. Just imagine our surprise when 18-year-olds, freshly graduated from high school, will suddenly start writing in the language of our great-grandparents. For many 30-year-olds, who can only speak modern Turkish, this will come as a shock.

Hypothetical as it may be, the Ottoman language issue concerns me in numerous ways. Not only because I happen to be writing a history of Turkish literature, but also because, as a bookworm, I am of a split mind on the issue. Imagine that you are required to take a one-year language class to be able to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in its original, produced before some imaginary language reform. Would you spare the time? If the learning of a script made up of unfamiliar letters stood between you and Melville’s words just as he put them on paper, would you go the extra mile?

It is not terribly difficult to learn the Ottoman script. But it is not very easy either. It is written from right to left, has 36 letters (unlike the Arabic alphabet, which contains only 28), and there are a number of websites that teach the usage rules from the comfort of your computer screen. Here is where it gets a bit complicated, though. Any letter of the Ottoman script takes different forms when used to make up words. If the letter is placed at the beginning of the word, it takes one form; if it is in the middle, another; if it is at the end, yet another. And when used separately, the letter takes a totally different form. Finally, there is a difference between rik’a, handwritten Ottoman, and matbu’ hat, the printed letter.

Once you master the Ottoman script, however, it offers you a priceless glimpse into the past. “— Hello, Ottomans!” It is an odd feeling: all those foreign letters, which you knew nothing about, suddenly reveal a language that sounds very familiar — your own native tongue in fact. As schoolchildren we were taught that the language we speak today is completely different from the language our ancestors spoke before 1928; learning Ottoman shows you this is not exactly the case. Beneath those so-strange-looking-letters are hidden some of the same words you used last week, during a Skype chat with your friend about the new Franzen novel.

The same but not quite, as James Wood might say. Arabic and Persian words, which you may have heard of but not used before, start surfacing on pages as you browse through those Ottoman books. All in all, a more serious and genteel language, out of date and impractical, but quite beautiful. Since most of those words and grammatical constructions are rooted in Persian and Arabic, you need to have at least a basic grasp of the two languages in order to get the full picture of your own.

And what about the rewards? Vankulu Lügati, the first book by an Ottoman writer to be printed in the empire, came out on January 31, 1729. It was an Arabic dictionary, translated into the Ottoman by Mehmed Efendi Vankulu, and printed by İbrahim Müteferrika (his printing house was the first in the empire). The Süleymaniye Library in Istanbul’s Fatih district hosts around 40,000 manuscripts and books in Ottoman Turkish; Istanbul University’s Rare Books Collection houses 25,375 printed books in the same script and language. It would take more than a few decades to read them all.


All things considered, it is a good thing that we are no longer writing Turkish with the Arabic-Persian alphabet. In The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Geoffrey Lewis describes the difficulty of writing in it: “Its intrinsic beauty aside, there is nothing to be said in favour of the Arabo-Persian alphabet as a medium for writing Turkish,” he writes. “All of its letters, including alif, the glottal stop, are consonants, some representing sounds not existing in Turkish and one, k, which may represent Turkish g, k, n, or y.” In pre-reform times, printers and scribes had great difficulties with word divisions, and as Sir Charles Eliot slyly observed, Mehmed paşa oldu (“Mehmed became a pasha”) and Mehmed Paşa öldü (“Mehmed Pasha died”) could easily be confused because of the script’s inability to accurately represent the sounds of the language. The main problem was the inability of the Arabic-Persian alphabet to generate meaning accurately in the Turkish language:

If you meant the former [Mehmed paşa oldu], you would resort to a circumlocution such as ‘Mehmed was elevated to the rank of Pasha.’ If you meant the latter [Mehmed Paşa öldü], you would write ‘Mehmed Pasha departed this world and journeyed to Paradise,’ ‘Mehmed Pasha attained God’s mercy,’ or at the very least ‘Mehmed Pasha expired.’

In short, the old script made the communication of information a torturous process.

Efforts had been made to write Ottoman Turkish in a simplified script. Minister of War Enver Pasha proposed the so-called Enverpaşa yazısı (“Enver Pasha writing”), meant to simplify military correspondence. But it was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who was behind the major language reform. As early as 1914 he wrote a letter to a friend in Turkish, but he composed it phonetically, with French spelling. In 1922 he thought it was not yet time to adopt the Latin script; six years later, however, he felt the time had come. An “Alphabet Commission” produced a new Turkish alphabet, proposing to make it mandatory after a period of transition when “the two systems of writing would be taught side by side.” So, the “newspapers would begin with half a column in the new letters, which would be gradually extended.” Yet Mustafa Kemal Atatürk didn’t like the idea: “Even when the newspapers are down to only half a column in the old writing, everyone will read that bit in the old writing,” he said. “If anything goes wrong in the meantime, a war, a domestic crisis, our alphabet too will end up like Enver’s; it will be dropped immediately.”

On November 1, 1928, the Grand National Assembly passed the law “On the Adoption and Application of the New Turkish Letters,” which forbade the use of books printed in the old characters and ensured that “no books were to be published in the old letters after the end of the year. All correspondence between private citizens and government departments would have to be in the new letters from 1 June 1929.” The day marked the moment a centuries-old script was defeated by a modern state apparatus; from now on, the shape of the Turkish words would be decided by a centralized power.


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner’s words perfectly apply to Turkey, where two competing ideologies (“let’s speak exactly like Ottomans did” vs. “let’s not use one Ottoman word”) take the past as their starting point. Not long ago, one of the most skilled and insightful historians of the Ottoman Empire, Cemal Kafadar, gave an interview to a Turkish newspaper where he voiced his concerns about this never-ending clash. “We have not yet digested Ottoman history,” Kafadar said. “It is an era we have not yet made peace with. If you boast too much of something, it shows that you have not managed to make peace with it.” I have yet to read a better analysis of Turks’ constant boasting and hatred of Ottoman history, of which the debate about the Ottoman language classes is but the latest example.

Does it make sense today to learn the Ottoman script whose transformation into modern Turkish took so much effort? In Turkey the answer to this question depends on one’s interests and position in life. For the humanist scholar, learning the old script is often a must. For the engineer, the website creator or the veterinarian, not so much. For the bookworm interested in reading 19th-century Turkish novels in their original script, learning Ottoman is an irresistible prospect. She will be able to read such classics as Şemsettin Sami’s The Love of Talat and Fitnat (first serialized in 1872), just as she will be able to enjoy Ahmet Mithat’s novel Mister Felâtun and Râkım Efendi (1875) about two eponymous characters who represent different outcomes of the Westernization of Ottoman society. She will have access to the original text of Namık Kemal’s 1876 novel The Awakening: The Adventure of Ali Bey, the first Romantic novel in Ottoman literature, written while the author was exiled in Cyprus.

Yet such bookworms will soon be faced with a curious fact. Learning the Ottoman script does not provide one with full access to the literature produced in the empire; Ottoman was not the only script used to write in Turkish. Indeed, the first Turkish novel, Akabı’s Story, was penned by Vartan Pasha, an Armenian statesman who served the Ottoman state and wrote Turkish using the Armenian script. His novel is dated 1851 and attests to the difficulty of having a full grasp of 19th-century Ottoman literature without learning a number of scripts beforehand.

It also testifies to the vast and multicultural nature of the Ottoman literature whose full exploration requires years of multilingual and multicultural education. The discovery of its depths pre-requires that great human quality: curiosity. There is no way Ottoman language will open doors for a Turkish student if she is not curious about those thousands of books that speak her language but use different scripts. If she is curious, though, learning the Ottoman script may help her see Turkey’s paradoxes and problematics much more lucidly. It may even serve as a reminder for her that, while fascinating for linguists and historians, the actual reign of the Ottomans ended quite a while ago.


Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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