Mîna Urgan on alphabets & Atatürk

mina-urgan-paragraf

In the news lately in Turkey is the vow or threat of the President to make lessons in Ottoman Turkish compulsory for Turkish schoolchildren. How realistic the threat is, I do not know. There is the Constitutional question of what the President’s powers actually are. There is also the practical question of whether it is even possible for most Turkish students to learn Ottoman. Foreign language education in Turkey is not generally very good; and as far as I can tell, Ottoman Turkish is practically a foreign language now. Two paragraphs from Geoffrey Lewis’s Turkish Grammar (Oxford, 1967, pages xx–xxi) are very interesting in this regard:

The Turks had begun to convert to Islam and to adopt the Arabo-Persian alphabet from the tenth century onward, in the course of their migration into western Asia. In the eleventh century, when under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty they overran Persia, Persian became the language of their administration and literary culture. Persian had by this time borrowed a great many words from Arabic. These, together with a host of Persian words, were now at the disposal of educated Turks, who felt free to use any they wished as part of their vocabulary. The bulk of these Arabic Persian borrowings were never assimilated to Turkish phonetic patterns. More, with the foreign words came foreign grammatical conventions. To offer an English analogy, it was as if we said not ‘for obvious reasons’ but ‘for rationes obviae’, or ‘what is the conditio of your progenitor reverendus?’ instead of ‘how’s your father.’

This hybrid language became the official language of the Ottoman dynasty, who at the end of the thirteenth century entered upon the inheritance of the Seljuks. It attained an extraordinary degree of flexibility, expressiveness, and grandeur, but it was caviar to the general; the speech of the majority of Turks was dismissed by the speakers of Ottoman as kaba Türkçe, ‘crude Turkish’.

Thus it is highly unlikely that the language described here by Lewis can ever be revived on a large scale. It was not spoken on a large scale to begin with. It would be great if most Turks could speak Persian and Arabic along with Turkish. It would also be great if more of them could speak English. As it is, many visitors to Turkey expect to use English as their medium of communication, but find local knowledge of that language to be low.

urgan-dinozorun-anilari

Probably schoolchildren can learn the Arabic alphabet and its use for writing Turkish words. Even this will be difficult though, for the reason given in the paragraph in the photograph. I encountered this photograph in a tweet this morning. The paragraph is from pages 158–9 of a book that we happen to have on our shelves at home in Istanbul: Mîna Urgan, Bir Dinozorun Anıları [Memories of a Dinosaur] (İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık, 1998). My translation is:

Because I was twelve at the time, I well remember the advent of the Latin alphabet. Though a child of normal intelligence who had learned two foreign languages, I could not read my own language properly. Arabic letters being completely inappropriate for the Turkish language, I became bewildered when faced with a text written with Arabic letters. For instance, the most common letters of Turkish, u, ö, and ü, were not found among the Arabic letters. In place of them, there was vav, and this vav could be pronounced in five different ways. Though I knew the word projektör, I read it as “perveşkütür,” which made my mother and stepfather laugh. It was not only I, who had not a primary-school diploma: persons older than I who had been reading for years could not write their own words without mistakes. The level of literacy was disgraceful.

I found it worthwhile to read two paragraphs on either side of this one, for context. Reading Ms Urgan’s whole book would surely be worthwhile too, if only I could do it more fluently than I can now. Meanwhile, here are five paragraphs; the Turkish is transcribed by an OCR program from the photograph below. Anybody who can propose corrections or improvements to the translation should please do so.

Şimdi sırası gelmişken, Kemalist, hem de sapına kadar Kemalist olduğumu açık seçik söylemek isterim. Mustafa Kemal benimle dans etti, on bir yaşında bir çocuğa insan muamelesi yaptığı için değil; eğer Mustafa Kemal olmasaydı, ben “beni” olamayacağım için Kemalistim. Eğitim görmüş, seksenini geçmiş bir kadının bu memlekette Kemalizme inanmaması tamamiyle anormal olurdu. O sırada küçüktüm ama, tramvaylarda erkeklerin oturdukları bölümü kadınların oturdukları bölümden ayıran perdeyi çok iyi anımsıyorum. Mustafa Kemal, o perdeyi de, kadınları toplum yaşamından dışlayan, karanlık köşelere kapatan bütün perdeleri de yırttı o güzel elleriyle. Kadınların her açıdan erkeklerle eşit olduklarını savundu. İşte bu yüzdendir ki, Cumhuriyet ilan edildiğinde yedi sekiz yaşında olan, onun yaptığı devrimleri kendi gözleriyle gören bir kadının Mustafa Kemal’den yana olmamasının yolu yoktur.

Now that the time has come, I want to say loud and clear that I am a Kemalist, a Kemalist down to the root. I am a Kemalist, not because Mustafa Kemal danced with me, treating an eleven-year-old child like a grown-up; but had there been no Mustafa Kemal, I could not be myself. For an educated woman in her eighties not to believe in Kemalism in this country would be completely abnormal. In those days I was little, but I well remember the curtain on the tram that separated the men’s section from the women’s section. That curtain, and all of the curtains that kept woman outside social life, shut away in a dark corner—Mustafa Kemal tore down those curtains with his beautiful hands. He insisted that women were equal to men in every way. This is why, for a woman who was seven or eight when the Republic was declared, who saw with her own eyes the revolutions that he made, there is no way she can not be on the side of Mustafa Kemal.

Dikkat edilirse, Atatürk değil, hep Mustafa Kemal diyorum. çünkü altmış yıldır Atatürk diye diye, bayağının bayağısı hamasî sözler söylendi, berbat bir edebiyat yapıldı. Atatürk adı bir yığın çıkarcı politikacının ağzında kirlendi, gerçek Mustafa Kemal ile uzaktan yakından ilgisi olmayan nerdeyse gerici bir kavrama dönüştü. Oysa gerçek Mustafa Kemal tam anlamıyla bir devrimciydi. 1789 Fransız İhtilâli kadar radikal bir değişim yaptı memlekette. Giydiğimiz kılıktan tutun da okuyup yazdığımız harflere kadar her şeyi kökten değiştirdi. İşte bu yüzdendir ki, onun devrimci kişiliğine inananların, kendilerine Atatürkçü değil de, Kemalist demelerini daha yerinde buluyorum.

Note well, I say not Atatürk, but Mustafa Kemal. For sixty years now, using the epithet “Atatürk,” the most vulgar epics have been sung, the most execrable literature written. The Atatürk name has been sullied by the mouths of a raft of self-serving politicians, and turned into an almost conservative concept having not the slightest connection with the real Mustafa Kemal. The real Mustafa Kemal was a revolutionary in the full sense of the word. The change he made in this country was as radical as the French Revolution of 1789. From the clothes we wore to the letters we read and wrote, he changed everything, root and branch. Thus I find it more appropriate that those who believe in his revolutionary identity should call themselves not Atatürkists, but Kemalists.

O sırada on iki yaşında olduğum için, Latince alfabesinin kabulünü çok iyi anımsıyorum. İki yabancı dil öğrenebilmiş, normal zekâda bir çocuk olduğum halde, kendi dilimi doğru dürüst okuyamıyordum. Arap harfleri Türk diline tamamiyle ters düştüğünden, şaşkına dönüyordum Arap harfleriyle yazılmış bir metin karşısında. örneğin, Türkçede en çok geçen u, ö ve ü harfleri yoktu Arap harfleri arasında. Onların yerine “vav” vardı ve bu “vav” beş ayrı biçimde okunabilirdi. “Projektör” sözcüğünü bildiğim halde, bunu “perveşkütür” okumama, annem ile üvey babam çok gülmüşlerdi. Yalnız ilkokul diploması olmayan ben değil, uzun yıllar okuyan benden yaşlı insanlar da kendi dillerini yanlışsız yazamıyorlardı. Okuma yazma oranı ise perişan bir durumdaydı.

Because I was twelve at the time, I well remember the advent of the Latin alphabet. Though a child of normal intelligence who had learned two foreign languages, I could not read my own language properly. Arabic letters being completely inappropriate for the Turkish language, I became bewildered when faced with a text written with Arabic letters. For instance, the most common letters of Turkish, u, ö, and ü, were not found among the Arabic letters. In place of them, there was vav, and this vav could be pronounced in five different ways. Though I knew the word projektör, I read it as “perveşkütür,” which made my mother and stepfather laugh. It was not only I, who had not a primary-school diploma: persons older than I who had been reading for years could not write their own words without mistakes. The level of literacy was disgraceful.

Mustafa Kemal, ülke çapına bir okuma yazma seferberliğine öncü oldu. Bir karatahtayla yollara düştüğü bu seferberlik sırasında, ömrünün en keyifli anlarını yaşadı herhalde. çünkü bir öğretmenlik tutkusu vardı onda. Asıl uğraşının öğretmenlik olması gerektiğini söyler, yakınlarına “ben raté bir öğretmenim” dermiş. Mustafa Kemal’in seferberliği başarılı da oldu. 1930’da, memlekette ilk ve ne yazık ki son kez, okuma yazma oranı yüzde doksan beşe kadar yükseldi.

Mustafa Kemal was in the vanguard of a nationwide literacy campaign. During this campaign, when he hit the road with a blackboard, he probably had the best time of his life. Teaching was his passion. He said his true calling was teaching; he told people, “I am a teacher dropout manqué.” And Mustafa Kemal’s campaign was successful. In 1930, for first and, alas, the last time in the country, the literacy level rose to ninety-five percent.

Mustafa Kemal’in öğretmenlik tutkusu ömrü boyunca sürdü. Fırsat buldukça, yaşları ne olursa olsun, karşısına çıkanları sınava çekerdi. Onun bu merakı yüzünden bizim okul az kalsın kapanacaktı: Biz son sınıftayken, bir baloda (Cumhuriyetin ilk yıllarında kadınlarla erkekleri bir arada eğlenmeye alıştırmak amacıyla boyuna balolar verilirdi) sınıf arkadaşlarımızdan birini sınava çekmiş. Ona “renk” sözcüğünün İngilizce nasıl yazıldığını sormuş. Kendisi İngilizce bilmiyordu ama, bu sözcüğü İngilizlerin “colour”, Amerikalıların ise “color” yazdığını biliyordu. Oysa biraz cahil olan sınıf arkadaşımız hiç kitap okumadığı için, bunun farkında değildi, eline kalem kağıt alıp “color” yazınca, Mustafa Kemal, “kızım, sana Amerikanca değil, İngilizce yaz demiştim” diyerek kızı uyarmış. Kafası büsbütün karışan sınıf arkadaşımız da “ingilizcede böyle yazılır” diye dire-nince, Mustafa Kemal, öğretmenlere özgü öfkelerden birine ka-pılmış, “anlaşılan sizlere iyi İngilizce öğretmiyorlar; o okul ka-panmalı” demiş. Diploma almamıza üç ay kala bunu duyunca bir hayli telaşlanmıştık. Hattâ sınava çekilmek üzere Ankara’ya beş kişilik bir heyet göndermeyi düşündük. İyi ki Mustafa Kemal’in bu öğretmenlik öfkesi gelip geçici oldu.

Mustafa Kemal’s passion for teaching lasted his whole life. At every opportunity, he examined whoever came to him, young or old. Because of his fastidiousness, our school was almost going to be closed: When we were in the last year, at a ball (in the first years of the Republic, balls were held continually, to get women and men used to having fun together), he examined one of my classmates. He asked her how to write renk in English. He didn’t know English himself, but he knew the British wrote it as “colour,” and the Americans, “color.” However, being ignorant, not having read a book, our classmate didn’t know this. When she took pen and paper and wrote “color,” Mustafa Kemal warned her, saying, “Girl, I told you to write English, not American!” Totally confused, our classmate objected, “It’s that way in English!” Seized with one of those rages that are peculiar to teachers, Mustafa Kemal said, “It is clear that they are not teaching you good English. Your school must be closed.” Hearing this with only three months left before we took our diplomas, we were quite worried. We even thought of sending a five-person delegation to Ankara to be examined. Fortunately Mustafa Kemal’s teaching rage came and went.

urgan-dinozor-158-9

I don’t know about this “teaching rage” or “teacher’s rage.” Ms Urgan, Dr Urgan, was a teacher herself, a professor of English literature. Did she rage at her students? Those of us given authority as teachers have the responsibility of not abusing this. It is at best ridiculous for a non-Anglophone to abuse a student for not knowing spelling differences between Britain and America. Urgan knows this, while not losing sight of the good that Mustafa Kemal accomplished.

Can we imagine lessons in Ottoman Turkish delivered by Recep Tayyip Ergoğan? Atatürk had fits of rage. With rare exceptions that must require careful contortion of the muscles, the public face of Erdoğan is always in a rage.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Interview with Mustafa Kemal « Polytropy on December 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    […] subhead “Woman as Bomber” was printed originally as a pull quote. As noted elsewhere in my blog, Mustafa Kemal did not know English. It is not clear what language the interview is, or who made […]

  2. By Nicole at the Golden Horn « Polytropy on October 7, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    […] opposite the compound of the Italian Consulate—the Italian Embassy, in Ottoman times, before Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish Republic and moved the capital to Ankara. We looked out over old trees. The […]

  3. By Edirne « Polytropy on May 6, 2017 at 6:39 am

    […] It was remarkable that we were near two different countries, which used alphabets that differed both from one another and from both the Latin alphabet that Turkey uses today and the Arabic alphabet that Turkey used formerly (in a way that discouraged literacy, as I reported in “Mîna Urgan on alphabets & Atatürk”). […]

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