Sunday, April 18, 2010

If I have any readers....apologies. This next one gets a little egg headie--it almost sounds like a term paper--but I couldn't help it.
Sezen Aksu


Rumor has it that Turkey's version of M.I.T, I.T.U (Istanbul Technological University--called E-2 for short, rather like one of R2D2s distant relatives) is going to be giving classes entirely in English--not just the graduate school, but the undergrad progam as well.

"Bullshit!" says my Turkish teacher, Sevim. "They won't rest until everyone is babbling in English and Turkish is dead."

Possibly. People will do anything to "practice their English". If I walked around with a kitten and asked people to strangle it for five minutes of English conversation, I'd probably have a line out the door. And yet the idea of me learning Turkish seems almost bizarre, like I was trying to dig a hole through the earth to get back to America instead of hopping on a plane. A lot of people here have absolutely no respect for their own language.

And it's not just the usual Turkish paranoia. ("Why is everyone out to get us?" is the title of a recent article in Hurriyet)

Recently, Sezen Aksu, the High Priestess of Turkish pop gave a concert in Washington D.C. Now Aksu is one of those rare birds who most Turks can agree on. From leftist freak to rightwing madman--everyone thinks she is a great singer. Other musicians, like everything else in Turkish life, are adored or despised based on their politics--Neset Ertas, the great folk singer, is a dangerous gay communist and a hopeless throwback to Turkey's primitive past. OR, he is a brilliant folk musician preserving and developing Anatolia's rich heritage of music in spite of the growing hegemony of Western pop. Duman is a hopeless copy of Western bands, demonstrating Turkey's lack of respect for its own culture or, a really cool modern pop group giving international street cred to Turkey's music scene.

Anyway, NPR wrote an article about Aksu which included an interview with Turkish pianist and composer, Fahir Atakoglu. "Turkish is not a good-sounding language," Atakogul says. "You know, it's not musical like French or English. But with singers like Sezen, for the first time, the Turkish words became much more musical. It started saying something really deep; it wasn't simple anymore."

When I read that, I punched the computer screen (which is why it rattles now). Moron. How could a musician, someone who supposedly possessed a sensitivity for sound and a leader of his culture look down on his own language? Not "good sounding"? Sezen made it deep, so that it's not "simple" anymore? I bet he was preening as he delivered these lines in his prissy English. Cocksucker. If anything, Turkish, with its vowel harmony--basically grammatically mandated poetic assonance--and its endless endings--which ensures tons of accidental rhymes--is inherently musical. And as for being "simple".... Well, maybe this is all just the resurrection of that old-school Ottoman envy of the West, which seemed to be bafflingly better able to seize the reigns of the future than the former world empire. Maybe its also partly the work of the Turkish Language Society--the organization that Ataturk established to transform Ottoman into modern Turkish back when the Turkish Republic first popped out of his open womb.

Ah, the great Language Reform. People will tell the visiting foreigner, "Before the War of Liberation we spoke Ottoman. After the war, Ataturk created Turkish." As if an entire language just materialized out of Mustafa Kemal's brain along with all the other miracles he performed. I've always been very curious about this. How can a guy just 'create' a language and then get a whole country to start speaking it?

The Language Society was more than just a committee to reform Turkish. Like everything else in that period, it was charged with creating a Turkish identity. In short, to give dignity to the idea of being a Turk. In 1910, the word "Turk" was an insult. It would have been akin to calling someone a "hick" or a "redneck". People were Ottomans, not Turks. The language they spoke (in the then capital Istanbul) was Ottoman, based on Turkish, but filled with Persian and Arabic vocabulary and Persian even grammatical structures to pretty it up. Some "Ottoman" poets wrote pages and pages entirely in Persian, and called it "Ottoman" because they might have a Turkish dir (is) scattered here and there. Turkish was considered too crude for anything with any kind of sophistication.

The guy I'm speaking of here was Narbi, an 18th century poet. A linguist whose name differs from mine only in that he forgot to tag an S at the end (his name was J.W. Gibb!) said that "Nabi wrote verses which by courtesy alone can be described as Turkish". In his faux-Persian, Nabi even had the cajones to write--"O, you who sell outlandish words wrapped in poetry! A book of odes is not a copy of the dictionary." He was ranting about all the people putting on airs by using big words from Persian and Arabic by using big words from Persian and Arabic. So the sense of inferiority mixed with nationalist outrage runs deep, historically speaking.

Apparently when the Turkic tribes first invaded Anatolia and established an empire back in the days of the Selchuks (whose empire kicks off in 1040) the former nomads needed words for their new sedentary lifestyle--for poetics, and government and for the new religion they had adopted. So they borrowed from the peoples they'd conquered, from the Persians and Arabs. (Rather like the intellectual vocabulary of English is almost entirely Greek and Latin). Of course, the mark of an educated person was their ability to use these borrowings. If you didn't want to be considered an ignorant hillbilly, you abandoned your village Turkish for one full of Persian borrowings. Eventually, while the common Joe in Anatolia still spoke the old Turkish, the elite in Istanbul were spouting sentences like, "I am enamored of your maternal parent's domicile; it is tres bien!" instead of "I like your mother's house. It's nice." In the end, the literary and official language became completely unintelligible to the average guy. And worse, it was written in Arabic, which didn't really fit the Turkish sounds and which most people found difficult to learn anyway, so when Ataturk established his secular republic, he decided things had to change (although people had been clamoring for--and even attempting--that change for some one hundred years).

Thus was born the Turkish Language Society. The first thing they did was create a new alphabet--based on our Latin one--in which each Turkish sound corresponded to one Turkish letter. (Imagine the long "a" sound in pay, sleigh, maid, made, and fey, all being combined into one new letter, Ã, borrowed from the language of an old military rival.) Then they began to purge the vocabulary. At first, they were sane. Every word in Persian or Arabic that had a perfectly usable Turkish equivalent was ditched--dil for "language" instead of the Arabic lisan. They also tried to bring in words from Anatolian dialects, Old Turkish, and other Turkic languages to replace the old foreign borrowings (ulus for "nation" comes from Mongolian). They also began to make up words. The word egitim for "education" was a created out of thin air to replace the Arabic maarif. They then enforced these changes by making them mandatory in all government documents and newspapers and by forcing schools to teach them as well.

Imagine, one day saying, "We are going to be required to take a foreign language next semester" and the next being taught by your teacher to say, "We are going to have to learn an outcountry tongue next halfyear." From now on, you must, by law use the native English "tongue" and "have to" for the Latiny "language" and "require", and the created words "out-country" and "halfyear" to replace the old outcountry words "semester" and "foreign".

Like everything else in Turkey, the nationalistic impulse went wild--perhaps understandable after centuries of being taught you were inferior to Persians and Arabs, and then finally to French and English. Every word with a foreign origin was purged even though there was no equivalent and words used by the average Turk for a millennia were suddenly replaced by silly sounding made-up Frankenstein words, unleashed upon the populace just because they were "Pure Turkish". Okul, the word for school, is completely made up. And of course, the people creating these words were not necessarily experts, but just some guys with a political ax to grind.

And thus, just like your favorite singers, which words you fancy can often reflect your politics. Are you a rabid Islamicist bent on introducing Iran style shariah law and obliterating everything Ataturk struggled for? Then you might say lugat for dictionary. (Since the Quran is written in Arabic, the outlawing of the Arabic alphabet and terms greatly reduced, overnight, the average person's ability to understand their holy book). If you are a modern, decent person who respects all that your ancestors fought and died for in the great War for Liberation, you'll honoe your race use the word devised by the patriotic society Ataturk founded to make the language pure Turkish, sözlük.

Of course, all this begs a few questions. One: when I'm learning Turkish, what the hell language am I learning? One with a history and natural development or a bunch of words made up by overzealous fascisty dudes in the 1930s and 40s? Does that even matter? In English, so much of my vocabulary is fairly recent--television, geek, chatrooms, internet, surf, cool, online, etc. etc. Maybe it's the same idea. Second, why did they get rid of all those Arabic and Persian words in the first place instead of just educating their people to learn them? It seems that by keeping Ottoman around you could have had a wealth of synonyms to choose from, each with different shades of meaning, just like you do in English. And yet, reading back through this thing that is starting to seem like a school essay, how many fancy-assed Latin words have I used and how much could my family understand. I can hear my niece now, saying "I didn't understand a word he wrote." Hell, maybe we should purge our language--make it pure American. President Palin? What do you think? Maybe make your babble law? "Ain't" will officially replace all forms of be and have. It's nonuse punishable by castration (deballing? Wait no, that would be a Latin prefix. Beballing? Like beheading?) or death. Finally, when I write down vocabulary from the books I'm reading, how the hell do I know if its real or just a fad word that the Language Society introduced one day and that lost popularity the next. The word denli for "as much as" appeared in an Aziz Nesin story recently. Most people just say "kadar", another Arabic borrowing, but I guess Nesin was feeling Turkic enough to use the newly minted denli though you never, ever hear it in conversation. And some people poo poo it in writing as just another Frankenstein bullshit term concocted by the Language Society.

The Language Society has been accused by a lot of people of butchering Turkish. At one point, as a joke, a newspaper published a fake mandate supposedly from the Society advocating the word "foot pusher carry thingy" for "bicycle". And people couldn't tell they were joking, being so used to the cockamamy neologisms that popped up from time to time. Supposedly, despite all the changes in the newspaper and political and artsy Turkish, the language spoken by the green grocer is mostly the same today as it was a hundred years ago. In any case, the society was be-balled sometime ago and now doesn't have the power to legally enforce a damn thing. They are more of a cultural society these days, of which I just became a member. They send me a mail every day, teaching me a fancy Turkish word, a useful foreign borrowing (I am, myself, a useful foreign borrowing so I know most of these already) and a folk idiom. It helps my language learning a lot, although I don't know if I am being taught by someone who wants to revive the classical Ottoman, who wants to purge Turkish, or who just likes different kinds of words. In other words, are they still propagandizing? In any case, here's an idiom for you, recently sent to me from the Society.

Düşük çeneli. "Drop-jawed" for someone who never shuts up.

I have become a little düşük çeneli at this point, so let me wind her up.

I started getting interested in this because I put so much effort into learning Turkish and then got so much resistance when I tried to speak it. And then, people's desire to learn English seemed, at times, to take on the passion of a good solid mental illness. And I couldn't figure out why. It seems to have a long historical precedent, doesn't? I wonder if your eleventh century Turk was desperately going to Persian language schools and chasing after Iranians saying "Hello! Hello! Can I practice my Persian with you?"

This attitude is ridiculous, of course, every language has an internal beauty--and yet politics dictates a different attitude. English, which I love, is the name of the game these days not because of any aesthetic qualities but because of money. Ataturk's language reform was a reaction to that centuries long inferiority complex, which is perhaps, sadly, not even remotely a thing of the past, if ITU's move to make all their classes in English and Atakoglu's comments are any indication. The secret to spreading respect for your tongue is not to have Sezen Aksu sing pretty songs, but to get rich and powerful.

By the way, much of my information on the history of the Language Reform is from Geoffrey Lewis's "The Turkish Language Reform."

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