A brief history of Turkish

According to some historical sources, the beginning of the Turks and their language can be traced back to Ashina clan who might have had an Indo-European origin (Klyashtorny & Sinor, 1996, p. 329). The first state bearing the name Türk was established around 552 C.E. (Klyashtorny & Sinor, 1996, p. 327; Findley, 2004, p. 43). From the very beginning, Turks and their language have been a part of a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society. Some of the earliest honorary Turkic inscription were written in Sogdian and Sanskrit; even those inscriptions written in Orkhun (Old Eastern Turkic) had a number of Samoyed or Ugric loan words. Furthermore, even the personal names of some of the ruling class and dignitaries appear to be non-Turkic (Klyashtorny & Sinor, 1996, pp. 330, 342; Johanson, 2006, p. 2). It is perhaps then not surprising that there are Buddhist and Manichaean literature written both in Turkic and Iranian languages (Sogdian, Parthian and Middle Persian) (Perry, 2001).
This multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society was a common theme in the successive Turco-Persian states to follow. As these earlier nomadic federations shifted from steppes of Central Asia to the Caspian region around the 11th century (Perry, 2001), their language was already showing numerous features of Farsi. With the establishment of each subsequent Turco-Iranian state, the contact between the two intensified. Turks were introduced to Islam by the Persians and many of the Persians were subject to Turkification (Johanson, 2006, p. 2). Within these religiously homogeneous states, written Persian became the language of the bureaucracy and literature, but Turkish was maintained as the language of the court, military (Perry, 2001a) and the nomadic pastoralists (Perry, 2007). Turkish was the lingua franca and code switching was a common occurrence (Perry, 2001). However, presumably because of its association with bureaucracy and literature, Farsi became the language of the elite, so that Turkish was more likely to enter the lexicon of the lower socio-stylistic registers than Farsi (Perry, 2001b).

As Turks and their language spread from the Caspian region to Middle East and eventually to Asia Minor, Turks largely managed to maintain their language as they moved ever westwardly. Nevertheless, as they adapted to new lands, “their consequent intermingling with one another and peoples of non-Turkic speech, have created a linguistic situation of vast complexity” (Lewis, 2000, p. Intro.ix). Although there has always been a clear divide between the language of the court and their subjects in previous Turkish ruled states of Iran and the Middle East, the divide reached its climax in the Ottoman Empire (especially in the latter half of its history). The Ottoman Turks ruled over vast stretches of land spreading from Northwestern Africa and Slovenia in the west to Iran in the East, from Southern Nile valley and Arabian Peninsula in the south to Crimea and Moldova in the North. A 16th century Italian-Turkish dictionary noted that there were 33 nationalities and languages within the empire (Saydam, 2007). However, of all the languages spoken within the Ottoman Empire, the influence Farsi cannot be overstated.
The Ottomans continued the tradition of using Farsi as the language of the literature. So much so that Farsi was a “sine qua non of Ottoman education” (Tietze & Lazard, 1967). By the end of the Ottoman era Farsi was (and had been) an integral part of the language. By 19th century written language of the Ottomans had become a mixture of the three very different languages from three different families: Turkish from Altaic, Farsi from Indo-European and Arabic from Semitic. Although the syntax of the language was very much Turkish at its core, the lexicon of the educated Turk was made largely of Arabic and Farsi words (Lewis, 2002). So much so that Hagopian devoted nearly half of his Ottoman-Turkish Grammar book to “The Elements of Arabic and Persian” (Hagopian, 1907; Lewis, 2002). Lewis states that by the end of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was “the only language that ever came close to English in the vastness of its vocabulary” (Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, 2002). This hybrid of a language on the other hand was vastly unintelligible for the everyday subjects of the Empire, not only to Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and many others, but also to everyday Turks (Lewis, 2002; Saydam, 2007).

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and with the establishment of the new republic, a “reform” of the language was set in motion (Lewis, 2002). The aim was to reduce the number of borrowings from “foreign languages”. In the process, some of the Arabic and Persian borrowings were replaced by their Turkic equivalents, and in some cases where an equivalent couldn’t be found one was invented. In addition, a Latin based alphabet was adapted to replace the Ottoman version which was based on Arabic script. The result, as Lewis (2002) put it, was “A Catastrophic Success” in that the process they set in motion resulted in today’s modern Turkish which is quite disconnected, at least lexically from the Turkish of the Ottomans.

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