The Turkish language has an intriguing history of development, closely intertwined with the history of the Ottoman Empire. Major linguistic and cultural reforms introduced by Ataturk in the 1920s have had an enormous impact on modern-day Turkey, a country still dealing with the changes some of these reforms enacted.
Classification and Early History of the Turkish Language
Turkish is the most widely spoken member of the Altaic language family. Modern Turkish is descended from Old Anatolian, a language disseminated throughout Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks during the 11th century.
The earliest known examples of Turkish language writing appear in on the Orkhon inscriptions, two monumental slabs of stone erected to honor Prince Kul Tigin and Emperor Bilge Khan. Dating from circa 732 and 735, these monuments display inscriptions in the old Turkic language, using the Orkhon script, which closely resembles that of the Germanic runic alphabet.
From Old Anatolian to Ottoman Turkish
The Ottoman Empire was founded around 1300 by the regional chieftain Osman (“Uthman” in Arabic). Throughout the reign of the Ottoman Empire, massive expansion was undertaken in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Thanks to the aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Empire, the language of Ottoman Turkish, also known as Osmanli, was disseminated throughout many areas of conquest. Contact with other languages and cultures also influenced the Ottoman Turkish language, as it came to borrow words and constructions from other languages such as Arabic and Persian. Ottoman Turkish was written in an Arabic script.
Literary vs. Spoken Turkish During the Ottoman Period
Turkish literature during the Ottoman period was heavily influenced by the Arabic and Persian languages. Ottoman divan poetry, for example, shows Persian influences as it made use of a variety of Persian loan words as well as poetic meters commonly used in Persian literary works.
Throughout the Ottoman Empire, the official language was comprised of a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic, a language known as Ottoman Turkish. This language was significantly different from the more common spoken Turkish used in everyday life.
Modern Turkish Language Reforms Under Ataturk
The Republic of Turkey was created in 1923, and major Turkish language reforms followed shortly after. One landmark event was the declaration that the commonly spoken form of Turkish, rather than the more formal Ottoman Turkish script, would be the national language.
Another enormous development occurred in 1928, under the leadership of Ataturk, when a modified Latin alphabet was introduced to replace the Arabic-based script of Ottoman Turkish. This new alphabet, developed and introduced by a team of Turkish linguists, writers and academics, was a more appropriate reflection of the standard spoken Turkish.
Ataturk played a significant role in helping Turkey’s linguistic transition. He personally toured the country to teach the new letters and encourage their use. His efforts were supported by cooperation from educational institutions and publishing houses. As a result of these reforms, literacy rates in Turkey rose significantly.
Purification of the Turkish Language
Efforts to purify the Turkish language were another central aspect of Turkish language reforms after 1923. Under supervision of the newly-established Turkish Language Association (TDK), loan-words that had previously been adopted into the Ottoman Turkish language were removed from the official lexicon and replaced with Turkish-origin equivalents.
Many new words, based on Turkish roots, were introduced to the language. In some cases, ancient words from the Ottoman Turkish language that hadn’t been used for centuries were reintroduced into the new Turkish language lexicon. The combination of these purification efforts and the establishment of the new Latin based alphabet created the modern Turkish language that we know today.
Effects of Modern Linguistic Change: A Generation Gap
The linguistic changes that took place after 1923 were not automatically adopted by all Turkish residents overnight, of course. A generational gap appeared between older people who had spoken older forms of Turkish and younger people who had learned the modified modern Turkish language.
In fact, a speech by Ataturk himself, given in 1927, used such an archaic style of Ottoman diction that later generations have had to “translate” the text of the speech in order to make it comprehensible to later generations.
Modern Turkish Language and Dialects
Today, the Turkish language serves as the national language of Turkey, where it is spoken by approximately 60 million people. It is also an official language of Cyprus and is spoken by a significant number of minorities throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans.
The dialect surrounding the area of Istanbul is the basis for the official standard language of Turkey. A number of other dialects exist throughout the country. A few examples include the Ege dialect spoken in the Aegean region, the Guneydogu dialect spoken in the southeast of the country, and the Hemsinli dialect spoken by the eastern Hamshenis, which exhibits an Armenian language influence.
Turkish Language in Germany
Germany is home to a significant Turkish immigrant population, due to the migration of Turkish workers in the 1960s and 70s. By the mid 1950s, West Germany faced a labor shortage, a problem that was intensified by the building of the Berlin wall, which restricted the flow of immigrant workers from East Germany.
In response to the issue, West Germany began to recruit Mediterranean workers, introducing “gastarbeiter” (guest worker) legislation that allowed these workers to easily come to work in Germany. A recruitment agreement was signed with Turkey in 1961, and the first wave of Turkish workers arrived the same year.
Although the “gastarbeiter” were meant to have only temporary residency in Germany, pressure from German employers resulted in changes that allowed the Turkish workers to stay for a longer period of time. Many simply did not return to their home countries, and brought their families to Germany.
Today, a significant Turkish population continues to live in Germany. The children of many Turkish immigrants have integrated more fully than their parents, speaking fluent German and often using the Turkish language only at home.
Turkish Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Türkçe, Türkisch, Anatolian
Language Family: Altaic, Turkic, Southern, Turkish
Spoken by Approximately 57,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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