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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared that, starting immediately, Turkish students would begin studying the Ottoman language in school. Erdogan defended the move by explaining that learning Ottoman, an older version of Turkish written the in Arabic script and used in the Ottoman Empire up into the early twentieth century, would help citizens “reconnect with their past.” But Erdogan’s critics condemned his decision as yet another heavy-handed attempt to promote a conservative version of Ottoman nostalgia, akin to his efforts to build a replica Ottoman barracks in the center of downtown Istanbul and a replica Ottoman mosque on the city’s highest hill.
For anyone who has ever struggled to learn the notoriously difficult Ottoman language—sometimes described as a practical joke played on historians—forcing it on a generation of schoolchildren might seem like the quickest way for Erdogan to destroy his popularity (and the Ottoman Empire’s as well).
In fact, wrestling with Ottoman texts could give students a newfound appreciation for modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who transformed the Turkish language by adopting the Latin script in 1928. More seriously, if even a tiny percentage of students do manage to learn more than just enough to pass their tests or sound out inscriptions on old tombstones, they could present a major threat to Erdogan’s carefully cultivated version of a pious Ottoman past. Last year Erdogan famously lashed out at the directors of a popular soap opera for suggesting that Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, spent more time in the bedroom than on horseback. Who knows what he would he do if young students could suddenly read the wealth of homoerotic poetry composed in the Ottoman centuries.
Among the many reforms through which Ataturk distanced his new republic from its Ottoman past, the linguistic transformation was one of the most dramatic. Within three months in 1928, Turkish citizens went from writing their language in the Arabic script to the Latin script. Alongside a sweeping shift in vocabulary—new replacements appeared for some of the most common words, for example “school,” “north,” “south,” and even the phrase “for example”—the alphabet changes eventually rendered anything written before 1928 completely illegible to the vast majority of modern Turkish citizens.
There was, admittedly, a real mismatch between Turkish sounds and Arabic letters, although by 1928, they had been successfully used to write Turkish for a millennium or so. Ottoman script included a few characters Arabic didn’t have—an extra two dots to distinguish “p” from “b,” for example—but Arabic’s dearth of vowels was poorly suited for the vowel-heavy Turkish. As with English, jarring inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation mounted with time: the Turkish word for “later,” now straightforwardly written and pronounced as “sonra,” was tortuously rendered in characters akin to s-u/v-k-r-h in the Ottoman script. A modified Arabic script could have solved these problems; indeed, Ottoman reformers had already made proposals to this effect in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But Ataturk wanted to bring the Turks closer to the West, and so he chose the Latin script and severed Turkey from its past.
In addition to the switch in alphabets, the transition from Ottoman to Modern Turkish also entailed replacing words of Arabic and Persian origin with authentically “Turkish” alternatives (as well as words from French, the modern European language par excellence at that time). Some replacements were found in the everyday speech of rural Anatolian villagers or the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, both of which were assumed to have preserved an untainted original Turkish. Others were simply invented by a special committee, then inserted in classroom instruction and dictionaries, where some stuck and some didn’t.
At best, in its early stages, this effort rendered an elite written language comprehensible to the masses—the equivalent, perhaps, of replacing Latinate legalese like “sine qua non” with a plain English term like “necessary.” A decade later, though, the reforms themselves became an ideologically driven barrier to understanding, as perfectly commonplace words were replaced with new, artificial-sounding creations. Imagine the government mandating that all “Exit” signs instead read “Goplace.” Eventually the effort was abandoned, and people satirized its absurdities by imagining fake new terms like “oturaklı götürgeç,” or “sitting-place-having bringing-thing” for “bus.”
Historians have increasingly criticized Ataturk for his revolutionary zeal and the authoritarian nature of his reforms. Many have plausibly claimed that his insistence on fitting a diverse society into the straitjacket of modern secular nationalism led successive governments to respond brutally when citizens wanted to keep speaking Kurdish or wearing headscarves. But as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry hints in The Little Prince, fault also lay with the Europeans, whose prejudices led them to see these reforms as necessary and, say, to take Turks in top hats more seriously than Turks in fezzes.
Likewise, although there is no denying the radical transformation that Ataturk brought to his country’s language, or the speed with which he did so, the break was not as sudden as many now assume. In the early 1900s, the vast majority of Turkish citizens couldn’t read or write in any script, and among the elite that could, many were already familiar with Latin letters from studying French. And what’s more, for decades following 1928, many Turks—and, according to rumors, even Ataturk himself—continued to keep diaries, write to friends, and jot down shopping lists in the Arabic script they first learned in school. In a sense, Ataturk’s language revolution was only fully realized in the 1970s, when the first generation of adults came of age without any knowledge of Ottoman.
All this history makes Erdogan’s mandate to bring Ottoman language back to the classroom somewhat ironic. Erdogan’s gesture was aimed as Turkey’s pious masses, who have largely come to accept the idea that this language is part of “their” heritage. But, for much of the past century, it was actually the ruling class of well-educated secular elites, lawyers, and diplomats, in particular, who were most comfortable with ornate and obscure linguistic holdovers from formal Ottoman.
Ataturk’s language reform was an integral part of his populist nationalism, which sought to differentiate his new revolutionary regime from the old, often oppressive and unpopular, Ottoman government. But such rhetoric hid the autocratic nature of his own regime and the continuities between the Ottoman elite and Turkey’s twentieth-century leaders. It is only after decades of frustration with this often undemocratic secular elitism that teaching the language of the Ottoman court can be interpreted as a populist gesture. But if the Turkish population learns to read Ottoman for itself, popular Islamic Ottoman nostalgia could be the first victim.
Many accounts make it seem as though modern Turkish Islamists, under Erdogan, were the first people to embrace their country’s Ottoman past after almost a century of secular neglect. But it might be more accurate to say that they are simply the most recent and successful group in Turkey to appropriate Ottoman history for their own ideological ends.
The first group, in fact, was Ataturk and his supporters. Although Ataturk denounced the Ottoman royal family for its misrule, he was quick to claim the successes of the Ottoman army—feared from Yemen to the Gates of Vienna—as a tribute to the martial spirit of the Turkish nation. In the 1940s and 1950s, Turkish nationalists celebrated Ottoman military achievements, as well as the architectural, cultural, and scientific achievements of the empire’s fifteenth-century golden age. Generations of Turkish children have grown up with cartoons and action movies that reveled in Ottoman-era military heroics.
Some secular nationalists even went as far as to claim that Ottoman sultans such as Mehmet the Conqueror had invented religious tolerance and helped inspire the European Renaissance. Most recently, a rival interpretation of Ottoman history made inclusive multiculturalism the empire’s defining feature. Emphasizing the coexistence of religions and cultures under Ottoman rule, this version has appealed both to Western liberals looking for counter examples to the clash of civilizations, as well as Turkish progressives seeking to build a more inclusive identity for the Turkish state.
Modern Turkish Islamists have worked hard to graft an Islamist reading of the Ottoman past onto these nationalist and liberal traditions. Some contemporary secularists’ allergic reaction to all things Ottoman is, if anything, a sign of the Islamists’ success. In a less polarized political climate, many of the opposition figures now criticizing Erdogan’s move might have welcomed it as part of a patriotic effort to reconnect with a glorious chapter in Turkish history. But teaching Ottoman seems suspect when presented alongside elementary school religion classes and new restrictions on alcohol, all part of Erdogan’s plan to create a “pious generation.”
It’s an odd moment when old Orientalist clichés about Ottoman decadence and corruption seem a necessary corrective to a romanticized Ottoman history purged of even normal levels of human depravity and oppression. Armed with a knowledge of the Ottoman language and a politically motivated desire to refute Islamist myths, plenty of Turkish academics have already begun to dig out evidence of a less idealized Ottoman past. Alongside poems about bathhouse assignations and royal drinking bouts, this includes more substantive material showing how Ottoman citizens themselves criticized official corruption or religiously justified abuses of power. Just one hint of what might lie in store for Erdogan comes from a 1951 issue of the then-popular magazine History World, whose editor claimed to have combed through the archives to find the most “hair-raising” verdicts of Ottoman judges, guaranteed to “surpass even a twentieth-century murder novel in bloodiness.” Readers, he promised, would be shocked by accounts of judges “feeding human flesh to dogs, chaining men by the nose as if they were bears, and hanging women from their breasts and men from other parts.”
Hitting closer to home, a commentator on the antigovernment channel Halk TV joked that perhaps if people learned Ottoman they would finally be able to read Erdogan’s grandfather’s criminal record. Erdogan’s party has resorted to multiple forms of censorship in trying to control what Turkish citizens can read. But, as this jab suggests, teaching a new language is fundamentally inimical to this kind of control. Making students learn Ottoman will be hard. Even harder will be controlling how they use their newly acquired skill.