Careful what you wish for…Erdoğan and Ottoman Turkish

5 Jan

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I always thought that the switch to Latin script was one of Atatürk’s most needless changes, and one that was most pettily symbolic and purposeless.  Yeah, no vowels are a pain, but only for non-native learners, and I also despise nationalist manipulation and deep reform of language in any situation: the Sanskritization of Urdu, for example, in India.  Closer to home, the “purification” of Greek in the nineteenth century and its reverse “demoticization” starting in the 1970s, has made it so that at this point we have no idea what a Greek that was an organic development of Byzantine and Ottoman Greek would have been like and how much richer a medium for our modern literature and speech it could have been before the ideologues got involved.

I was vehemently opposed to the dropping of classical Greek from the curriculum in Greek schools in the heady stupidity of the “Metapoliteuse.”*  You were cutting off Greek kids from the bulk of their literary tradition.  But those were two thousand-year-old texts.  The change in script and the de-Persianization and de-Arabization of modern Turkish** were so radical that by the nineteen-forties, I believe, a young Turk couldn’t read the Turkish of his own nineteenth-century literature.  I don’t think reintroducing the study of Ottoman Turkish is a bad idea and had always said so.  Of course, now — given where it’s coming from — there are Turkish friends who detest me for it.

But “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” I guess.  And ιδού (“bak”) the hero who comes to fix it all…  ERDOĞAN, malaka…  Trying to introduce Ottoman Turkish into the curriculum, but not so young Turks can read the political and ideological thoughts of their nineteenth-century ancestors and their heroic struggle to try and turn what was left of empire into a modern state, much less for the beautiful mystic and erotic poetry that the Ottoman canon consists of…  But probably so that they’re ready to read the Quran and other Arabic texts when the time comes.

I actually have to admit I was caught off guard by this one.  I mean, I knew as far back as the nineteen-eighties that “Ottomanostalgia” could go both ways.  It could turn into a means for young Turks to understand not just their own heritage, but most crucially for the region, a way of understanding their intimate, organic connection to their neighbors in the former Ottoman sphere, and take them out of that strange identity vacuum that the ethnicity-based nation-state creates: where the perception obtains that where your borders end, an entirely new universe inhabited by completely different species begins, and not — as is the historical truth — that the border is an arbitrary marker between a continuum of cultural landscapes and people/s who lived, again, organically intertwined with each other for most of their history.  And to a great degree, as an interest in the Ottoman past has spread out from a nucleus of C-town intellectuals to a broader and more broad-minded, educated middle class, that is what has happened — and to a degree that is simply incomparable to any such growth processes of consciousness in any other contemporary Ottoman successor society.

Or…  It could’ve turned into a new longing for a newly empowered Turkey for expansionist, regional influence and general bullying under a new guise.

What I didn’t expect is that it would come in the form of religious reaction.

Like I said: watch what you wish for.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* The Μεταπολίτευση: the “repoliticizing” or “re-polis-izing” (in the classical Greek sense of “polis”) — the reanimating, or re-establishing, essentially — of Greek political life in 1974 after the damage done by one of the most tragicomically ridiculous right-wing dictatorships in post-war Europe or Latin America.  It was a time of reaction to things “right” that produced some of the most embarrassingly “lefty” cultural phenomena and attitudes — phenomena and attitudes that have proven remarkably long-lived — among Greeks, and I don’t see a near future in which we’ll recover from those attitudes or be able to strike a mature balance between the poles.  I’ll have to tackle the term a little better in another post of its own.

** I think the Farsi influence on Ottoman Turkish consisted more of analytic, Indo-European structures that had crept into the language and that the “polluting” vocabulary was mostly Arabic.  I remember when I was studying Turkish, I think, wanting to start a relative clause with the relative pronoun “ki” or wanting to make it easy on myself by starting a subordinate clause with the Farsi “çünkü” (“because”) — which everyone does — and being told by my teachers that “That’s not Turkish” and being made to construct some fifteen-syllable “-için” or “-ından” clause instead, which was more “purely” agglutinatively Turkish.  Of course, like all dystopian, totalitarian, social re-engineering projects, this purification of Turkish never got nearly as far as its original orthodox intent, partly because to have done so would’ve been the equivalent of expunging Modern English of every word of Greco-Latin-Norman-French origin in this paragraph, for example highlighted in red — and creating Anglo-Saxon-derived neologisms for all of them.

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