Texting and Turkish Language Reform

One of the disadvantages of moving is the disruption to snail-mail. I’m still not convinced that the USPS is forwarding any of our mail from our old address. Thus, I am now two issues behind in my Entertainment Weekly reading and not happy about it. In the dearth of EW, I’ve had to turn to the fare that usually sits on my shelf unread: academic journals. Ew. It’s even worse when something in one of those academic journals actually strikes me as interesting; I start to wonder if I’m losing my grip on reality.

So there’s this issue of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America) from January 2008 that deals in large part with Turkish language and literature, probably because of Orhan Pamuk’s relatively recent Nobel Prize (academics sometimes try to be relevant). When I visited Turkey two years ago, I had learned from my travel guidebook that Ataturk “invented” the Turkish alphabet, but I knew little about the sweeping language reforms under his regime. As with most of Ataturk’s policies, the goal was to secularize, modernize, and Westernize: he sought to purge Turkish of its Arabic and Persian influences, creating neologisms to substitute for these existing Turkish words.

Erich Auerbach, the German-Jewish literary critic living in exile in Istanbul, observed these “reforms” firsthand in the 1930s. He wrote of the results, “No one under 25 can any longer understand any sort of religious, literary, or philosophical text more than ten years old . . . and the specific properties of the language are rapidly decaying. . . . The result: Nationalism in the superlative with the simultaneous destruction of the historic national character.”

The first part of that quote sounds eerily similar to doom-and-gloom predictions about the effect of texting on the English language. (The second part of the quote doesn’t apply to texting–I just included it because it’s interesting.) In Turkey, modern writers struggled to create an idiom that might be comprehensible to younger generations but still “literary.” In situations where language is repressed by the government, it seems like there’s a later backlash (the resurgence of Welsh, for example) that at least attempts to bring back what was lost. But when the vehicle of language-change is voluntary, like texting, is there ever the same drive to lash back and recover? I don’t know.

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