Tag Archives: Turkish

Turkey offers to end a ban on Kurdish-associated letters of the alphabet

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based reporter Dalia Mortada

Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population – around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.

Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet – X, W and Q – because they are associated with the Kurdish language.

The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.

Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.

“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”

One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.

There are also plenty of Kurdish language instructional videos on YouTube.

Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.

But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.

Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.

But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.

Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.

Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.

Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.

Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.

“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.


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To Change or Not to Change Script: Turkish vs Persian

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Ashley Cleek

On a Wednesday afternoon, seven students sit in a darkened classroom on the campus of Bosporus University in Istanbul. They squint up at a projection of a 100-year-old, handwritten letter.

The letter is written in Ottoman Turkish—that is, Turkish in the Arabic alphabet. Slowly, the students read the script aloud from right to left. When they get stuck, Professor Edhem Eldem writes the word on a chalkboard.
It takes the class an hour and a half to read four pages.

Ottoman Turkish looks nothing like today’s Turkish. In the Arabic script, vowels are not marked. That’s confusing enough in Turkish. But Arabic script doesn’t differentiate between consonant sounds like G and K. “You can write something in Ottoman Turkish that can be read gel, which means come or kel, meaning bald,” says Eldem.

And there are hundreds of examples like this: different words, written exactly the same in the old script.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed an alphabetic revolution. The Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish was banned. And a new Turkish alphabet was invented based on Latin letters. Turkey’s population was mostly illiterate, and the story goes that Ataturk traveled the countryside with a chalkboard teaching villages to read this new Turkish.

The new alphabet is so phonetically correct that, “If it is written properly there is no where you can go wrong when reading a Turkish word,” says Eldem.

Literacy skyrocketted. But Ataturk’s alphabet revolution brought on a symbolic shift. “Arabic is the East and the Latin script is the West,” says Eldem. “It is artificial, but…people believe in it.”

Eldem says that while his rational side supports the Latin script, he also feels the cultural loss: “I am in a position to see to what extent the loss of that script has dispossessed Turks, especially students of history, with some kind of a contact with the past.”

A fountain outside of the Egyptian Bazar in Istanbul. This is one of the hundreds of Ottoman fountains around Istanbul. Only those who have learned Ottoman Turkish can read the inscriptions (Photo: Ashley Cleek)


It’s true. Unless they study Ottoman Turkish, educated Turks cannot read the inscriptions on their great grandfathers’ headstones.

What Turkey did was radical. It was not just a script change. It was a cultural shift. Only a handful of countries have attempted to remake their alphabet. Most have stuck with the script they have. Iran, for example.

This is one of the dozen or so YouTube videos explaining what Persian would look like written in the Latin alphabet. Some websites have even transliterated Persian poems into a Latin-based script.

Persian, like Ottoman Turkish, is written in a slightly modified Arabic script, adopted around the 9th century when Persia converted to Islam. And like Turkish, some say it’s not the best fit.

Vowels are not marked. There are two letters for the sound T. Three letters for S and four for Z.

As a university student in Tehran in the 1970s and 80s, Hossein Samei dreamed of revolution. He and his classmates argued for the adoption of the Latin script.

“We wanted to change the world and because we were students of linguistics, we wanted to do it in language,” Samei says, smiling.

Today, Samei is a lecturer in Persian at Emory University in Atlanta. With a soft salt and pepper mustache and a worn orange polo shirt, he doesn’t look much like a revolutionary anymore. Those were youthful ideas, Samei says. Now he thinks the Persian alphabet is fine just how it is.

The script, says Samei, links Iran east to Afghanistan and south to India. It’s a connection to history, to literature and art. Changing the script would not just mean reprinting books, it would place a barrier between the present and the past.

“We like our culture. We like our literature. We want to change, but we believe more in reform,” says Samei. “Even this recent election shows that.”

Instead, Samei says, he sees authors and bloggers reforming the Persian language. Some writers mark vowels to indicate the sound. Some add an extra letter to make a word more legible. Still it’s a real struggle to reading in Turkish. Especially for those outside Iran.

Fariz Piruzpey teaches her daughter, Wyana, to read in Persian

Every evening at their home in New Zealand, Fariz and Medio Azadi sit with their daughter, Wyana and help her sound out words in Persian. Persian is Wyana’s native tongue, but her dad says she has a hard time reading. “She’s still struggling, that’s my observation, she is struggling with connecting the words,” Medio Azadi says.

Azadi is a linguist. He’s frustrated with the Persian script. But he also sees it as an expression of national character.
“It’s like the doctors writing a prescription, it looks mysterious,” he says. “If you are able to read the text, you are an insider. If you’re not able to read it, you’re an outsider.”

Azadi wishes Iranians would get behind a few small reforms that would make the script clearer. That way, his daughter would be more likely to master it.



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From Cicero to Lynne Truss with Robert Lane Greene

As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids,  done with proper research.

Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.

Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists:  Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”);  Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”).  Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.

This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).

Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.”  She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.

Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.

Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.

Listen to the podcast here, or below via iTunes.


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Turkish, Stalin, and just say non!

The avidly pro-Western Georgian government has just torn down a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. Many people think of Stalin as Russian, but he was Georgian, much to the embarrassment of many Georgians today. There’s an exception: Georgians who live in Gori adore the former Soviet leader; for them it’s a case of local boy made good bad and all of that. As it happens, I visited Gori in 2005, and filed a story from there on Stalinphilia and the language of denial.

The newest star of Germany’s national soccer team is an ethnic Turk. And the  popularity of Mesut Özil is one of the reasons why Turkish has become just a little more accepted in Germany today. There are other reasons: the emergence of a small middle class, as well as  the rise of writers, filmakers and politicians (our report from Cyrus Farivar includes comments from Cem Özdemir, Germany’s first member of parliament of Turkish descent). Turkish in Germany remains nowhere near as prominent as Spanish is in the United States. It’s the exception rather than the rule to find a German corporation marketing a product to ethnic Turks in Turkish. Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Germany to offer Turkish as a language of instruction in high schools.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by promising more bilingual education. Related articles: a blanket ban on foreign languages at one German school, and the influence of Turkish and Arabic on urban, spoken German.

World Cup notes:  this World Cup is breaking TV viewing records from China to Chile. A story here on U.S. TV ratings, which are especially impressive on the Spanish-language Univision channel. The Argentina-Mexico game was the most-watched  Spanish-language telecast in U.S. history, with nearly 10 million viewers. Combined with English-language coverage, that game attracted nearly 14 million viewers — impressive for a contest that did not feature the United States. In contast, a combined 19  million watched the U.S.-Ghana game.

And there’s a nice video montage from BBC Mundo here of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

Finally,  British politician Chris Bryant has called French a “useless” language to learn. He suggested that children should instead learn Chinese or Arabic. After he made those comments, the BBC hauled him into a studio to defend himself, and to debate the issue with a German diplomat. (Late replacement for a French diplomat? Peut-être.)



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A language speed-dater gets serious, and a cross-dressing, cross-linguistic singer

A language-learning marathon is over, as the author of a blog called 37 Languages decides which language to learn for real. The first time I talked to Keith Brooks he’d speed-dated 13 languages: he read up on each one,  learned a few phrases, and posted a summary and a points-based evaluation on his blog. Of the original 37, six got a call back: Swedish, Albanian, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Croatian. On these second dates, Keith tried to immerse himself in the language for at least a week, again documenting his observations online.   Now, he’s chosen the language we wants to live with. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s in the podcast, and by the time you read this, it may be on the 37 Languages site.

Next up is the story of a new film that documents a year in the life of an elementary school in Turkey. The kids speak only Kurdish, their teacher only Turkish. After a year, the teacher can speak three words of Kurdish. This is set against a backdrop of official supression of the Kurdish language, that the Turkish government is only now addressing. It has recently relaxed regulations so that it’s now possible to broadcast and publish in Kurdish. There’s huge opposition in Turkey to even these changes.

Finally, we profile one of Ukraine’s most beloved performers: the cross-dressing Verka Serduchka. Serduchka is the alter ego of Andriy Danylko. Serduchka is a bossy, Soviet-era train conductor turned trashy singer.  She represented Ukraine at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, and ended up in second place.  Danylko uses Serduchka to satirize Ukrainian life– and especially Ukranian-Russian relations. As part of that Serduchka uses a dialect called Surzhyk that had been viewed as a uneducated hybrid of Russian and Ukraine. But Serduchka has re-popularized Surzhyk, so that young Ukrainians now use it in a knowing, ironic way.  To get a sense of Serduchka talking, singing and dancing with her creator Andriy Danylko, check out this video.



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