Ottoman Turkish or the erasing of memory

Old Turkish, which we call Ottoman Turkish, is a language that is derived from the values and concepts of Islamic civilization that we belong to, and enriches it and has associations with it

Ottoman Turkish or the erasing of memory

Akif Emre

Any intellectual who is right in their head should not protest against but rather expend effort to implement as soon as possible the opportunity for the youth to learn Ottoman Turkish. It seems like this issue will be a new source of polarization in this country, which is becoming increasingly polarized.

The first thing that needs to be clarified is whether Ottoman Turkish is considered a foreign language? The soundest answer to this is that it is Turkish written in the Arabic alphabet. We are talking about an alphabet that has been used since Seljuk and Ottoman times by this nation (inclusive of all its ethnic diversity), and is based on its own vocal pronunciation needs. We are talking with the painful memories of our estrangement from an alphabetic system that we used for a 1,000 years and which by using the Arabic alphabet as its basis, implemented appropriate letters and signage to suit the vocal requirements of Turkish.

Those that regard Ottoman Turkish as a foreign language are simultaneously calling the Kamus-ı Türki, written by Şemseddin Sami and one of the most comprehensive dictionaries of Turkish, a foreign-language dictionary. We are talking about intellectual ignorance, which not only opposes the teaching of Ottoman Turkish but which has failed to read the greatest resource of its own language and is a stranger to it.

The debate on Ottoman Turkish is nothing new. The formation of a notion of our civilization by only removing words with Persian and Arabic roots in the name of cleansing Turkish of foreign words is not new either. There is no one who can’t see that the project in the name of protecting pure Turkish resulted in leaving us with a language on a tribal level, which has left behind no written legacy and is deprived of memory, concept and poetry.

Rather than just defending Ottoman Turkish, the quest for an answer to the problem of why the issue of language has become an existential one in Turkey should not be sacrificed to ideological polemics.

Bernard Lewis concluded that Turkey’s most radical and revolutionary move in its attempt to westernize was the change it implemented with regard to language. Rendering us ignorant to such an extent that we cannot read and understand Ottoman Turkish, which dates back 1,000 years, and depicting it as a foreign language used by aliens, is actually nothing more than putting the country in a strait jacket in the name of modern civilization.

The distancing of this nation from texts from the Ottoman period is a far more serious problem than the ease or difficulty of the alphabet. The severing of our connection to old Turkish is the same as depriving the nation of its memory bank.

The changes and transformations that old Turkish, which we call Ottoman Turkish, went through with the passage of time is a separate topic of discussion. What matters is the severing of the ties of this nation with the values that enabled its existence. In this sense, the debate over language, which means the severing of ties with the Ottoman civilization, is extremely ideological and is not solely limited to practical realities.

Which works can be left as a legacy to this nation that is at a level where it cannot even understand the Nutuk penned by Mustafa Kemal, who implemented the alphabet revolution? This is the time to recall Goethe’s words: “Immortal works cannot be trusted for safekeeping to languages that constantly face change.” Let aside producing immortal works, they cannot even be entrusted to them for safe keeping.

It is only through cultural colonialism that the complete severance of a nation from its 1,000-year-long history -- which includes its mistakes, achievements, victories and defeat -- can be explained. In this context, the western-leaning intellectuals can be praised for their projects that made us one of the rare nations that succeeded in colonizing itself.

I remember well the time in the 1990s when a university attained permission to include Ottoman Turkish lessons in its post graduate syllabus by classifying the lesson as paleography i.e. the science of examining ancient writing modules.

Intellectuals who fear their own values and a bureaucratic elite that favored the westernization of academia joined hands and managed to implement the greatest erasure of memory in history.

Old Turkish, which we call Ottoman Turkish, is a language that is derived from the values and concepts of Islamic civilization that we belong to, and enriches it and has associations with it. The intellectual and scientific language of every civilization will, of course, vary in level. It would be an injustice to consider Ottoman Turkish as the sole purview of the elite and the palace language. Let alone that this product of the memory bank of our civilization became extremely easy to comprehend as it was simplified in the last century but still retained the concepts of Turkish.

It is impossible for an intellectual or artist to create their own style and world of notions without being able to read Ottoman Turkish or without mastering Ottoman Turkish.

There is no need to even discuss which language and cultural circles those that have attempted to destroy Turkified Turkish have surrendered to.

In this sense, it is a minimum requirement for our future that old Turkish is taught to an extent that certain texts can be read and understood. The problem lies in which trained teams will do the teaching and the quality of such education. The need to debate the necessity of teaching old Turkish only means occupying oneself with irrelevance. 

Güncelleme Tarihi: 11 Aralık 2014, 17:50

Muhammed Öylek