Tag Archives: phonetic

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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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.


Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:



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