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The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (Oxford Linguistics) Paperback – 1 Aug 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 202 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed edition (1 Aug. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199256691
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199256693
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 1 x 15.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 312,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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is a dramatic story, entertainingly written, and not overly long. What is more, it provides a great insight into the practicalities of language planning.... From the moment you read 'A catastrophic success' in the subtitle you know that Lewis's intention is to provide interesting, entertaining reading. The story is a great one ... and well worth the read.' (Journal of Sociolinguistics 5/2, 2001)

Professor Lewis has written a fascinating book and he deserves the gratitude and appreciation of both colleagues and non-specialists alike. Lewis has succeeded in making a demanding task seem particularly easy and even graceful. As a stylist, Lewis is incisive, sometime brutally candid, and almost always witty. The book is sure to remain the last word on the language reform for a long time to come. (Journal of Middle Eastern Studies)

Very informative - especially for the nonspecialist - and worthwhile reading ... this book can and must be recommended to anyone interested in the modern Turkish language.' (Anthropological Linguistics)

Lewis's book is learned, eloquent, and witty... Particularly effective and entertaining are those passages which he skillfully translates twice — first in their unadulterated form with their full complement of words of non-Turkic origin, then in their clean-up, "pure" Turkic form.' (Sino-Platonic Papers)

Lewis ... writes in a lively and witty style. Absolutely essential for collections supporting Turkish and linguistics departments at all levels... This book is a fascinating description of what can happen when language reform is attempted in an unplanned but enthusiastic fashion.' (Choice)

About the Author

Geoffrey Lewis, FBA 1979, has been Emeritus Professor of Turkish at the University of Oxford since 1986 and a Fellow of St Anthony's College since 1961 (now Emeritus). He was Oxford University Visiting Professor at Robert College, Istanbul 1959-68, and has been a Visiting Professor at Princeton and UCLA.

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By on 11 Aug. 2001
Format: Hardcover
While not neglecting theories of language development, which can be hard going for readers more interested in the socio-political aspects of 20th century Turkey, Lewis has produced an elegant, authoritative work on one of Ataturk's most significant reforms.
After the first world war the Ottoman Empire crumbled and Mustafa Kemal, probably the only Ottoman military commander to emerge with any credibility from the defeat, led the War of Independance that established the modern Turkish Republic. Over the following 15 years, often in the face of resistance, puzzlement and apathy, he set about creating a western-looking, democratic state capable of modernisation and future development. He was a visionary man blessed both with incredible drive and a practical approach to implementing his plans. He sought to base the new state on a common Turkish identity, an approach that, fifty years after his death, now sits ill with Kurdish people and others whose cultural and linguistic heritages are stifled.
The language reform, replacing arabic script with a phonetic version of the the latin alphabet and ridding the language of words of arabic, persian or european origin, was conducted alongside other political, religious and social reforms that continue to influence modern Turkey.
Lewis mourns the loss of some of the richness and nuance of Ottoman language while also celebrating the reinvigoration of the langauge of ordinary Turks. There is much humour, the mayors, addressed for the first time as "Sayin" (the new word meaning "esteemed") and mistaking it for the the formal command "number off" and calling out in order "one, two three....".
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 8 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
excellent although more interesting if you know some Turkish 13 Aug. 2001
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The changes in the Turkish language over the past century are fascinating, and this book does a great job of explaining some of the political and social background. The author is an expert and extremely knowledgeable on this topic. To me the most telling summary was seeing a paragraph of one of Ataturk's most famous speeches presented in the original, then in a retranslation done later, then a re-retranslation done yet later! The first retranslation was necessary because the original could hardly be understood any more, with all the Arabic-derived words etc. The second retranslation was necessary because even the first retranslation could hardly be understood today! This book will be mostly interesting to those who know at least some Turkish already (and the more the better) or to those interested in linguistic change and social engineering. As the other reviews mention, the changes in Turkish are the result of deliberate re-engineering of the language, not of the more usual processes of linguistic evolution. Imagine taking English and trying to get rid of all the words derived from Latin or French and use only Anglo-Saxon words or words newly derived from other Germanic languages, and you will get a partial picture of what happened with Turkish. The author's views are probably summed up by the subtitle: a catastrophic success. The language reform was effective and some of it was valuable but it may have gone too far in destroying some useful distinctions and making Turkish a somewhat less effective and graceful means of expression.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Readable but occasionally over-detailed look at Turkish language reform 7 Jun. 2008
By Bruce Humes - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I just finished the book -- reading 1-2 hours daily for 3 days -- and a very brief summary of what I learned might be:

*** Ataturk's insistence on converting from the Arabic script to Latin letters was a huge success in pushing Turkish citizens towards literacy (1924=9%, 1995=82.3%), no doubt among the highest literacy rates in the Muslim world;

*** For some hyper-nationalistic intellectuals, the reform became a grand excuse for ridding Turkish of Arabic vocabulary and Persian phrases/grammar, regardless of whether a) These "foreign" words had already been well integrated into Turkish anyway; b) Feasible, "truly" Turkish synonyms actually existed. The result: A 21st-century Turkish language greatly impoverished -- and not noticeably clearer -- than the one inherited from the centuries-old Ottoman empire when the republic was founded in 1923.

*** The language "engineers" who peopled the official "Language Society" during and after Ataturk's death were big on intervention and nationalist thinking but sadly lacking in professional qualifications, to put it mildly. The role of the Language Society is documented in (painstaking) detail, and this case study confirms that language is too dynamic to be shaped by committee!

I found the book well written, well researched and even witty at times. The author knows his subject inside and out, and insists on translating almost all the Turkish words and short texts into English, which made it readable even for me, a beginning student of Turkish.

However, I found the book did not address certain questions of great interest to me personally! These are:

*** One of the strongest motivations for the language reform was to rid it of unnecessary foreign vocabulary in favor of so-called "Turkish" words. Frustratingly, at no point does the author detail the history of Turkish prior to the 20th century: Where do the roots of "Turkish" lie, geographically and ethnically speaking? What is the relation of Turkish spoken in Anatolia with other Turkic languages/dialects, and when synonyms (or inspiration for neologisms) were sought in languages/dialects outside Turkey, which languages did scholars look to? And why were these languages/dialects considered "valid" when others were not?

*** Access to pre-1920 Turkish culture and history: The author mentions in passing that only a very small amount of Turkish writing from Ottoman times (in Arabic script) has been transcribed and published in modern Turkish using Latin letters. He also implies that most 21st-century Turks cannot read Turkish written in the former Arabic script. Which piqued my interest: How many of Ottoman Turkish works have been reprinted in the modern script? Are students regularly taught "classical" Turkish (script and texts) in the way that some Westerners study Latin, or Chinese in the PRC might study their own classics in traditional characters? If not, hasn't language reform effectively cut 21st-century Turkey off from an understanding of their society's role as one of the largest and ethnically diverse empires in the history of mankind?

*** Turkish as spoken by the man-in-the-street: Geoffrey Lewis focuses almost entirely on how patriotic, but often blindly nationalistic or ideologically driven intellectuals have made modern written Turkish a bit of a mish-mash. But what about "spoken" Turkish: What impact, if any, has the official language reform movement had on it?

Bruce Humes
Shenzhen, China
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
a superb review of Turkish language 12 Mar. 2000
By Fuat Andic - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Prof. Lewis' book gives the full account of the reengeneering of today's Turkish which was essentially for political reasons. The author, atrue erudite and scholar, in about 200 pages pens the process of the death of the ottoman Turkish and the birth of modern Turkish with sometimes bizarre and tragi-comic results. The book must certainly appeal to all Turkish intellectuals irrespective of their ideological position. But it is equally appealing to linguists and orientalists. I cannot praise this book high enough and recommend it strongly.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A scholarly approach to a highly politicized issue 28 Dec. 2001
By Yavuz - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Turkish Language Reform, from its beginnings in the thirties to this day, has been a highly politicized issue in Turkey. Professor Lewis, a lover of "Beautiful Turkish", gives an excellent account of the historical development of this language engineering while successfully keeping his views out of the realm of language politics of Turkey. Any criticisms he has to make about the Turkish Language Association (Turk Dil Kurumu) come subtly and delicately through the carefully selected quotations from others.
This book is a must for lovers of Turkish language, linguists, historians of language (and surely for the Turkish Language Association), and it can be a fun to read for a non-Turkish taxpayer whose tax money could not be reached to finance the whole project.
For a better grasp of the book, some knowledge of Turkish language helps; the more the better to really get the beautiful "taste" of this excellent book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Lewis' account of Standard Turkish's wacky evolution is accessible, informative and sometimes downright funny 3 Nov. 2010
By Christopher Culver - Published on
Format: Paperback
Geoffrey Lewis' THE TURKISH LANGUAGE REFORM: A Catastrophic Success is a presentation of the wild transformation of Standard Turkish over the course of the 20th century. Ottoman Turkish was an arcane written language understandable only to a tiny elite, filled with Arabic and Persian constructions. The Turkish of today is closer to the speech of the masses, but government fiat succeeded in pushing hundreds of neologisms into the language, some respecting the structure of Turkish and others bizarre inventions out of whole cloth. In any event, the average Turk today cannot understand texts from a century ago, and even works from a few decades ago (after the reform had started) can be unintelligible already. This severing of Turkey from its past is the "catastrophic success" of the subtitle. Lewis' work requires of course some basic knowledge of Turkish, but all quotations are translated and the book is quite accessible to even beginners in the language.

The initiator of language reform was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. A written language freed of Arabic and Persian elements was for him just one more part of turning the country into a westward-looking secular republic. Ataturk's goals might have been sincere but, as Lewis entertainingly describes, his views on linguistics were amateur and often downright nutty. For example, the dictator supported the notion (the "Sun-Language Theory") that Turkish is the original language of all mankind, and foreign words could be allowed to remain if it could be demonstrated that they were derived from this primal Turkic speech.

After the death of Ataturk, the language reform office that he founded, the Turk Dil Kurumu, continued its work with the generous funding established in his will. Much of the book documents the TDK's work, as well as influential figures such as Atay, Atac and Sayili. The origins of major new word-building elements like -sel (e.g. "dinsel") and -l (as in "okul") are given. Finally, Lewis tells of how the TDK was rendered more or less powerless in a 1983 shakeup, now making simple recommendations for Turkish equivalents of international terminology in computing and the sciences, but the damage is already done.

The back matter consists of an ample bibliography, as well as an index of all Turkish words cited in the book which proves quite handy.

I myself don't work much with Turkish -- my Turkic interests are the languages of Central Asia, but I found Lewis' account very accessible and often quite funny. While this is a respectable academic work, Lewis occasionally makes a wry comment on the absurdity of so much of the reform, which taxes a commentator's ability to be neutral and dispassionate. There are quite a few chuckles here. Anyone with an interest in historical linguistics or language engineering ought to enjoy this book.
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