The Emergence of Modern Turkey / Bernard Lewis

(Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1968)

Lewis notes the difference between the old written Turkish language, used in literature and in the chancery, which was elaborate, long-winded, and full of borrowings from Arabic and Persian, and the modern Turkish language, in part the product of conscious reform. He says that the average Turkish youth, learning the language at home and in school at the time of the book’s publication, would be helpless with the archaic written language of the late Ottoman period. As an illustration he cites the first Turkish constitution, which despite its revolutionary content and context is still in the old language. Modern students need footnotes and glosses to understand the foundational document of modern Turkey!

This trend for written language to be closer to the spoken language is also evident in Chinese, where it was also the product of change championed by reform-minded writers and scholars. Chao Yuen-Ren (YR Chao), a linguist who participated in China’s fermentive period of change after the collapse of the imperial system and who eventually taught at Harvard and Berkeley, repeatedly expressed his amusement at the fact that Hu Shih’s 1917 essay calling for writers to write in the colloquial rather than classical language was in fact written in the classical language, because “he wasn’t used to writing in the colloquial”! (in an interview from 1974, now available online).

Some degree of disjunction is always evident between written and spoken language, even for fairly egalitarian languages like modern English. But since spoken language came first, whence this divergence? I can toss out a few hypotheses, though I’m sure that a serious study of this subject must have been done somewhere:

  • For most of human history, writing was a comparatively rare skill. Those who possessed the craft and privilege of writing would prefer that it remain opaque to the unenlightened, so that their skill would be more special and mysterious.
  • Most writing was (or is!) for bureaucratic purposes,
    record-keeping, or for ritual purposes. Bureaucracy naturally breeds opacity, and ritual or court language is usually more elaborate than common language, even in speech, because deference and politeness are often signaled through circumlocution.
  • The manner in which a language adopted writing could also play a role. If a language is first written down in a foreign script, foreign vocabulary and idiom could be incorporated into the written language but not the spoken one. Perhaps that was the case with Akkadian, which borrowed Sumerian cuneiform signs, and certainly with Turkish, which used the Arabic script. All the more if the borrowed script belonged to a prestige language.
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