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Language Reform and National Identity


Wednesday, May 07, 2008 

During the period spanning the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, many a nation reformed its written language, (the timing and nature of the reform depending on each nation's history), to make it come closer to spoken language, so common people could understand it better.1 The reform was also inspired by a Romantic ideology which went like this: the renaissance of the nation is to come from the vitality of its roots preserved in common people's manly speech, veiled by the literary language of the effeminate elite who, dependent on foreign influences, have let the nation decline. It was a step in the development of the national-popular consciousness, as well as in the process of standardization that comes with capitalism, thus a step in the formation of modernity as we know it.

At the same time, such reforms often weakened both synchronic bonds with neighboring languages and diachronic ones with the most recent past. The Turkish language reform, for instance, made the modern Turkish language possess much fewer Arabic and Persian words and rules than its immediate literary predecessor, Ottoman Turkish, did, becoming an "odd man out" following a "West European" script in the region whose cultures are deeply inscribed in Arabic, an ironic fact considering that Turkish is a more "Eastern" language (the westernmost member of the
Altaic language family) than Arabic (a Semitic language belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family) or Persian (which has kept its modified Arabic script but is an Indo-European language2).

But the purge couldn't be complete.

Here's an example: the "National Library" is

Millî Kütüphane
in Turkish

دار الكتب الوطنية
Dar al-Kutub al-wataniya
in Arabic

كتابخانه ملي
Ketabkhane-ye Melli
in Persian.

That means that the Turks have kept "kütüp" (books, the plural of "kitap") from the Arabic plural of "kitab" (book), "kutub"; "millî" from the Persian adjective "melli" (national) which derived from the Arabic
"millah" (confessional community); and "phane" from the Persian "khane" (house). ("Dar" in Arabic is "house," which is one of its several meanings in Persian; and "watan" in Arabic and "vatan" in Persian and Turkish are "homeland, motherland, patria.") The only thing Turkish in the Turkish name of the National Library of Turkey is where the adjective is placed: before, not after, the noun it modifies, unlike Arabic and Persian. Amazing that the Kemalists let this happen!

1 The historical process that eventually led to such reforms had began with the Reformation, the rejection of Latin in favor of vernacular languages. Muslims, by and large, have rejected this option to this day, preferring to study Arabic. Therefore Islam, uniquely among the Abrahamic religions, provides a powerful ideological resource that can be employed against nationalism. By the same token, secular nationalists of such nations as Iran and Turkey tend to conflate their hostility toward Islam with their dislike of Arabic: e.g., "Our Turkish is not what it used to be. It has become a heavy language filled with superfluous Arabic words and Koranic expressions. . . . A general aura of Islam is invading the language" (emphasis added, Mehmet Ali Birand, "The Gradual Islamization of Our Daily Lives," Turkish Daily News, 13 March 2008).

2 It's also ironic that the people speaking this most "Western" language in the region and following a Jacobin political script have somehow ended up with an "Islamic Republic."

Posted by Yoshie at 9:20 AM


Labels: Class, Empire, Ideology 

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