Sunday, September 20, 2009

Alphabet Nationalism

A friend has written to me, offering this translation of a recent column by Sevan Nişanyan, in the Turkish daily Taraf ( . I am pleased to post it here, with some editing for usage. My own comments follow.

Alphabet Reform

Sevan Nişanyan - 19.09.2009

Turks are the most incomparable nation in history: okay, fine, we all know that.

But did you know this particular "incomparable" side of Turks?

Turkish is the only language in history which has used eight different alphabets. The closest language to this record is Persian, and it only used four alphabets. The languages in third place have all used only two. I don't remember one that used three.

When they first put Turkish in writing in the 8th century, they used the Köktürk alphabet. It was a home-made alphabet fitting the language. Less than a hundred years passed and Uygurs adapted the Soğd [Sogdian] alphabets and used them for Turkish. Then, when half of the Turks became Buddhist, the Brahmi alphabet imported from India became popular. In the 11th century, the Arabic alphabet was adopted for compliance with Islam and was used for 800 years. In the 20th century, half of Turkish peoples picked or had to pick the Latin alphabet [Turkey] and the other half the Cyrillic alphabet [Soviet Union].

In addition, there is quite a rich Turkish literature written with Armenian and Greek alphabets starting in 14th century.

Now, can you tell me the MEANING of this issue? In the end, an alphabet is a practical communication tool, a signaling system. But at the same time, an alphabet is the most basic, most identifying element of a culture and civilization. In a sense it's a commonality deeper than language and religion. The Greek alphabet has not changed in 2800 years and has probably been the only unchanged element of being Greek. The Hebrew alphabet hasn't changed in 2600 years and has become one with the Jewish national identity. The Latin alphabet was the foundation of Roman Empire and its continuation, Western European civilizations, for 2400 years. Likewise with Arabic alphabet, was with the Chinese, Hindu, Amharic, and Armenian alphabets as well.

So, how are we going to interpret the Turks' changing of alphabets, as if they were changing socks?

And there is more. In history, the only nation that has collectively committed to four major religions -Christianity, Judaism,* Buddhism, and Islam- is the Turks. Years ago Cemal Kafadar mentioned this during a chat, but I didn't pay much attention. Now that I think about it, it's an extremely interesting situation. (
And yes, despite the drab ending to the column, this is an "interesting situation." Actually, I think he forgot one alphabet. The Nestorian Christians from Mesopotamia and Persia (the same people who settled in the high valleys of Hakkari among the Kurds) sent missionaries to Turkestan and Mongolia over the course of many centuries in the early years of the Christian era. Many Turkish-speaking peoples became Christians, and there are grave stones from Turkestan that are written in Turkish using the Aramaic (Syriac) alphabet, the same alphabet still used by the Suryanis in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. So unless someone corrects me on this, I suppose we can make it nine alphabets.

Language is the important thing. In fact, it's been obvious for centuries that there are very few real Turks in Turkey. Kazakhs, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Uygurs: these are all distinctly Central Asian Turkic peoples with Asian features. Today's "Turks" are simply Anatolians who speak Turkish, or who have begun speaking Turkish after giving up their native tongues. (Turkish Nationalists are people who think that all non-traitorous Anatolians are Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslim "Turks.") It's the language that has endured, not the Turkic peoples themselves. Mother Anatolia, that great enveloping land, swallowed up the Turks that migrated from Central Asia and kept their language. Why? Because Turkish makes an excellent common language. Its basic structures are simple, without gender and declensions. (What a relief it must have been after the devilish complexities of Byzantine Greek!) It can easily acquire loan words from other languages, and it has, by the thousands. It has a special talent for taking foreign words and making them into verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Asahel Grant, the 19th century American physician who is the protagonist of my book Fever & Thirst, stated the case clearly in a letter he wrote home from eastern Anatolia in 1841. Everyone in his caravan, he wrote, whether, Kurd, Armenian, or Turk,** "they all speak Turkish, and in this I converse, think, and dream." (p. 163)

Thus Turkish was, and is, the language of Anatolia. It's the language that's important, not an imposed notion of racial purity.

*The Turkic Khazars of southern Russia and the Crimea adopted Judaism.
**(When 19th century travelers referred to individuals as "Turks," they usually turned out to be Albanians, Circassians, or Bosnians.)

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