A Brief Note on  Alphabet Reform  in Turkey

A Brief Note on Alphabet Reform in Turkey

Books on Hurufism, Alphabet and Ottoman CalligraphyIn Turkey, you can see examples of writing from the past everywhere. However, most people cannot read them because these writings on fountains, mosques and doors are written using a different alphabet than the one used today in Turkey. This old alphabet consists of Arabic letters with some additional characters.

The Turkish language started to use Arabic letters after the Turks embraced Islam. Although Arabic letters were used both prior to and throughout the Ottoman Empire, discussions were taking place about the compatibility of the alphabet with the Turkish language, especially during the nineteenth century. The most basic problem was the Arabic alphabet being accepted without making all the necessary adaptations. It was not possible to express some Turkish language sounds using the Arabic letter system; while the alphabet has some nuances unique to Arabic that do not exist in Turkish. This had an impact on peoples’ ability to learn to write. The very low literacy rate was one of the factors which led the newly established Turkish Republic to adopt the Latin alphabet in 1928. But of course, this should be analysed within the framework of the Turkish revolution and the modernisation/westernisation project that had begun more than a century previously.

The change of the alphabet created various reactions from intellectuals. Some welcomed it arguing the new alphabet would make it easy to read and would increase the literacy rate, whereas some claimed the low literacy rate illustrated only the economic problems Turkey faced. Such critics of the reform opposed the change, arguing it was not necessary to change the alphabet in order to be a part of western civilisation, citing the Japanese as an example. Another argument was that the change would detach the populous from the Islamic world. On the other hand, some intellectuals claimed Arabic letters were not holy, that they had nothing to do with the religion and that such an alphabet reform would complete the revolution.

It is notable that literacy rates increased dramatically after the alphabet change. The alphabet reform made it really easy to read and write in Turkish; and although the change happened after so many years using Arabic letters, maybe we should say better late than never. However, today it saddens me that most people cannot read documents they may have found among their late grandfathers’ things, or any of the writing on the fountain just across the street. Maybe some opportunities could be created in our education system to learn how to read in Ottoman.



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