The Politics of Turkish Language Reform

Episode 290

  hosted by Chris Gratien and Aurélie Perrier
  featuring Seçil Yılmaz and Nir Shafir

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National language politics and the transformation of literacy have effected major changes in both spoken and written language over the course of the last century, but few languages have changed as dramatically as modern Turkish. The reform of the language from the 1920s onward, which not only replaced the Ottoman alphabet with a new Latin-based alphabet but also led to a radical transformation of the lexicon and grammar, has been described by Geoffrey Lewis as "catastrophic success" due to the extreme but unquestionably successful nature of this attempt to revolutionize language in Turkey. In this episode, we talk to Emmanuel Szurek about his research on the politics of the alphabet change, the language reforms, and the surname laws of the early Republican period. Our extended interview is followed by a brief conversation in French about the history of French Turcology.

Release Date: 4 January 2017

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Bonus Segment

Contributor Bios

Trained in history and Turkish studies in Paris (ENS, INALCO, EHESS), Emmanuel Szurek was a postdoc at Princeton before he was appointed as an Associate Professor at EHESS (2015). His research focuses on the intellectual and ideological elaboration of “modern Turkish” by transnational linguistics/Turcology, and the imposition of the linguistic reforms in Interwar Turkey, as studied from a socio-historical perspective. He is working on revising his PhD (*Governing with Words. A Linguistic History of Nationalist Turkey*, under contract with Oxford UP).
Chris Gratien holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University's Department of History and is currently an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. His research focuses on the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region from the 1850s until the 1950s.
Aurelie Perrier holds a Ph.D. in Middle East and North African history from Georgetown University and is a member of the Centre de Recherches Historiques in Paris. Her research interests include the social history of the Middle East, the colonial Maghreb and gender and masculinity in the 19th-century Mediterranean.
Nir Shafir is a historian of the Middle East whose research examines the intersections of knowledge production, religious practice, and material culture in the early modern world (1400-1800). He curates Ottoman History Podcast’s series on history of science in addition to being one of the co-founders of, a website that explores the archives and libraries of the Islamic world. He is currently assistant professor of history at UCSD
Seçil Yılmaz received her PhD degree in History from the Graduate Center, CUNY with her dissertation entitled “Love in the Time of Syphilis: Medicine and Sex in the Ottoman Empire, 1860-1922.” She is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Society for the Humanities and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University.

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Episode No. 290
Release Date: 4 January 2017
Recording Location: Paris, France
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Music: from - Harmandali - Recep Efendi, Cemal EfendiBaglamamin Dugumu - Necmiye Ararat and MuzafferKatibim (Uskudar'a Gider iken) - Safiye AylaIstanbul'dan Ayva Gelir Nar Gelir - Azize Tozem and Sari Recep;
Special thanks to Erik Bullot for the "Alphabet March." This march was composed by Osman Zeki (Üngör) in Fall 1928 as a homage  and incitement for the Romanization campaign. The partition was found by the cinematographer Erik Bullot and his team while preparing his film 'La révolution de l'alphabet' (Capricci 2014). For this recording (Ankara, September 2013), the conductor was Tuncay Doğu, while Kaan Yüksel was at the piano and the choir was composed of students from the Music Department of ODTÜ Üniversitesi. The sound recording was made by Jean-François Priester.
Special segments: "Talvasa" read by Seçil Yılmaz; "Brève Histoire des Études Turques en France" with Aurelie Perrier and Emmanuel Szurek
Images and bibliography courtesy of Emmanuel Szurek


"Talvasa" by Seyfeddin Galib Arkan, from Yeni Adana newspaper, January 1935

Ibrahim Necmi Dilmen is explaining the Sun-Language Theory at the third 'Language Kurultay' (Istanbul, Dolmabahçe, August 1936). Source : Album of the third Kurultay, 1936. Bulac, Paris.

Picture taken in Winter 1928 at Taksim Square. The poster on the right says: "Do not forget January 1". The one of the left goes: "The Schools of the Nation (Millet Mektepleri) will open on that day. Anyone between 16 and 40 who does not know the new alphabet is in the obligation to attend." Source: Fonds Meurisse, Gallica, BNF, Paris.
A view of the commission entrusted with task of evaluating the Sun-Language Theory at the third 'Language Kurultay' (Istanbul, Dolmabahçe, August 1936). Source : Album of the third Kurultay, 1936. Bulac, Paris.


İlker Aytürk, « Turkish Linguists against the West: The Origins of Linguistic Nationalism in Atatürk’s Turkey», Middle Eastern Studies, 40, 6, 2004, p. 1-25

İlker Aytürk, « The first episode of Language Reform in Republican Turkey: The Language Council from 1926 to 1931 », Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 18, 3, 2008, p. 275-293.

İlker Aytürk, « Politics and Language Reform in Turkey: The ’Academy’ Debate », Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, vol. 98, 2008, p. 13-30.

Jean Deny, « La réforme actuelle de la langue turque », En terre d’Islam, 10, 1935, p. 223-247.

Nergis Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Uriel Heyd, Language Reform in Modern Turkey, Jerusalem, Israel Oriental Society, 1954.

Kâmile İmer, Türkiye’de Dil Planlaması: Türk Dil Devrimi, Kültür Bakanlığı Yay., Ankara, 1998.

Zeynep Korkmaz, Türk Dilinin Tarihî Akışı İçinde Atatürk ve Dil Devrimi, Ankara, AÜDTCF Yayınları, 1995.

Ağah Sırrı Levend, Türk Dilinde Gelişme ve Sadeleşme Evreleri, Ankara, TDK, 1972 (1st edition 1949).

Geoffrey Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jens Peter Laut, Das Türkische als Ursprache? Sprachwissenschaftliche Theorien in der Zeit erwachenden türkischen Nationalismus, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2000.

Hüseyin Sadoğlu, Türkiye’de Ulusçuluk ve Dil Politikaları, Istanbul, Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2003.

Emmanuel Szurek,“Le recteur, le professeur et le Büyük Önder. La théorie de la Langue-Soleil sous l'œil de Jean Deny,” Turcica, 42, 2010, 279-303.

Emmanuel Szurek, "To Call a Turk a Turk: Patronymic Nationalism in Turkey in the 1930s", Revue d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 2013/2, 60-2 [].

Emmanuel Szurek, “The linguist and the politician. The Türk Dil Kurumu and the field of power in single-party period.” In Order and Compromise: Government Practices in Turkey from the Late Ottoman Empire to the Early 21st Century, ed. Marc Aymes, Benjamin Gourisse and Élise Massicard. Leiden, Brill, 2015, p. 68-96.

Emmanuel Szurek, "Dil Bayramı. Une lecture somatique de la fête politique dans la Turquie du parti unique.” In Penser, agir et vivre dans l’Empire ottoman et en Turquie. Études réunies pour François Georgeon, ed. Nathalie Clayer and Erdal Kaynar. Leuven, Peeters, 2013, p. 497-523.

Tuğrul Şavkay, Dil Devrimi, Istanbul, Gelenek, 2002.

Hale Yılmaz, « Learning to read (again): The Social Experiences of Turkey’s 1928 Alphabet Reform », IJMES, 43, 2011, p. 677-697.


Eric said…
Interesting discussion about surnames... recall the unfortunate surname of a recent Turkish general, Otuzbiroglu. I guess that his ancestor that chose the name didn't think much of the "choose your own surname" phenomenon.
Je découvre aujourd'hui même ce site que je trouve très riche et très intéressant. Je pense devenir un auditeur assidu, même si d'inutiles gallicismes en anglais et anglicismes en français me font un peu mal aux oreilles, que j'ai très sensibles.

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