A Linguistic History of Nationalist Turkey


A review of Ruling by the word. A linguistic history of nationalist Turkey by Emmanuel Szurek

This dissertation is an investigation of the linguistic policies of nationalist Turkey from 1926 to 1946, at a period defined by Erik Jan Zürcher as one of “hardcore Kemalism”. The main originality of Emmanuel Szurek’s work is to deal with this much researched topic as a historian, therefore trying to assess the intertwining of language and power. Szurek’s thesis is neither the work of a linguist nor a mere political history of language policies in Republican Turkey: the author succeeds in making what he calls a “linguistic history” of the period. Language transformation is dealt with as a government method – “Ruling by the word” – rather than just one of the numerous radical policies undertaken by the Kemalist party. Therefore Szurek uses the study of language to give an in-depth comprehension of Turkey’s Kemalist elites – their political project, their inner conflicts, and Mustafa Kemal’s tactics of ruling, but also some elements on the reception of language reform at a local level.

This approach makes it possible for the author to include the multiple factors that influenced the authoritarian transformation of language in Turkey: the structure of language itself, but also its social use, as well as the formation of a transnational knowledge about language. The author undertakes a critical evaluation of the source material, which makes it possible to avoid the strong influence of “historiographic Kemalism”, a heavy trend in the literature about Republican Turkey.

The dissertation is organized in three main chapters. In the first chapter, the author embraces all the dynamics that gave way to the perception of Ottoman (and then Turkish) language as being a political issue, all along the 19th and 20th century until 1926. Technological progress (as telegraphic communication and the massification of printing techniques), but also social trends (progress in education, enforcement of state administration, emergence of a media system) were all relevant factors. More importantly, Szurek shows, very precisely, how the discourse on language, both scientific and political, shaped an agenda pushing for reform. Ottoman – and then Turkish – language began to be perceived through comparative grammar as different from Arabic and Persian languages, while the lack of linguistic comprehension between the Ottoman-speaking, well-read elite and a dialect speaking, illiterate people was conceptualized as a social – and therefore national issue. Therefore Szurek clearly demonstrates how intimately language was linked to the cultural affirmation of the national self in the late 19th- beginning of 20th century.

In the second chapter, the author gives a thorough analysis of the reform of the alphabet itself. Although the conviction that a reform was necessary grew among the intellectual circles during the late Ottoman period, almost no one supported as radical a change as a Romanization of the alphabet, as late as 1926. The “linguistic coup”, as the author puts it, was imposed by Mustafa Kemal and a few supporters around him on an elite class – not only intellectuals, but also the republican elites – whose majority was strongly attached to the Arabic script. Along with that, the author gives insights into the international context, assessing Turkish participation at the Baku congress of 1926, where Romanization was decided for the writing of Turkic languages in the USSR. Szurek also looks at how the reform of the script – and the “return to school” of a vast adult population – was implemented and received in Turkish society. Here the archive material, either administrative production or accounts given by foreign observers, is deceiving: both sources are very much biased as they suggest that the new alphabet was enthusiastically accepted by everyone. The author still succeeds in maintaining a critical approach, in order to understand the few indications of resistance to the reform of the script, even if they are mostly to be understood as a kind of resilience more than a political opposition (the use of Arabic script in private correspondence, as late as the 1960s, even by major Kemalist figures, is one of them). Szurek also shows that the reform of the script is very closely related to a turn in the cult of Mustafa Kemal’s personality. Szurek presents the authoritarian schooling of the adult population as an original kind of power engineering: the metaphorical transformation of a whole nation into a classroom, Mustafa Kemal being the primary school teacher, providing knowledge and punishing the “bad students”. An act of daily routine – writing – was therefore transformed into an allegiance to the new regime. Szurek points out the outstanding potentialities of the reform to silence any intellectual opposition, as all journalists and writers were facing a dilemma that the author calls “publish or perish” – either refuse the new alphabet and change your profession – or accept it and write in the new alphabet.

The third chapter revolves around the purification of Turkish language, which is distinct from the reform of the script – but takes its roots in it. Here Szurek insists on the ideological and political, rather than on the communicational motives of the reform. He firstly shows Turkish linguistic racialism as the result of a long intellectual tradition, both European and Turkish, by exploring the emergence of “Turcology” as an academic subject that was, at first, a philological one. The reform of family names, beyond practical considerations, is a good example of this “linguistic racialism” as the author puts it, replacing names expressing a lineage by names related to nationalist myths. In this chapter, Szurek focuses on the main actor of that purification: the Türk Dil Kurumu (TDK), “Turkish Language Institute”; that was created as a non-state organization, pretending to be nothing but a mere private association. The “Turkish Language Institute” was in fact a hybrid institution, academic circle, patriotic club, mass organization and propaganda center altogether. This flexibility made it an outstanding political tool to neutralize all political opposition, displaying a scientific legitimacy that was taking its roots outside and beyond state power. At a local level, the TDK was related to the party branches and a thorough effort was made to mobilize population; the author looks at linguistic propaganda in provinces, by commenting on photographs taken during a “language feast” (dil bayramı) in 1936 in Denizli, a small town of West Anatolia. The republican ritual is analyzed as a way of subduing local notabilities to a “republican order”. In the last sub-chapter, Emmanuel Szurek explores the intellectual roots of the Güneş-Dil Teorisi, the Sun-Language Theory, that emerged not as a tactical move to stop the suppressing of Arabic and Persian words from Turkish language, as it has been seen until now, but rather as the most comprehensive expression of racialist theories that were flourishing in academic circles at that time – not only in Turkey but all around Europe.

The impact of this considerable work is to replace language at the core of Kemalist policies between 1926 and 1945, language policies being the very way Mustafa Kemal and a few of its followers imposed their vision of Turkish nation – even against the Republican Party itself.

Béatrice Garapon
Phd candidate at Sciences Po Bordeaux/Centre Emile Durkheim

Primary Sources
Başbakanlık Cumhuriyet Arşivi (BCA), Ankara
Türk Dil Kurumu (TDK) archives, Ankara
Private archives of Jean Deny, Géradmer
Photographs of Meurice found of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Dissertation Information
EHESS, 2013, 610 pp. Primary advisor: François Georgeon.

Image: School boys and girls encouraging adult’s enrollment in compulsory alphabetization courses. Taksim, Istanbul, January 1, 1929. Source: Fonds Meurisse, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

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