From Multilingualism to Monolingualism: Turkish Language Reform and non-Turks

By Ali Bolcakan
Submitted to Session P5007 (Genocide and the Unmixing of Peoples: the Ottoman Empire and Its Aftermath, 2017 Annual Meeting
Armenian Studies; Comparative; Minorities; Nationalism; Turkish Studies;
As outlined in the official propaganda of the Turkish state, one of the major goals of the Turkish language reforms of 1920s and 1930s was to facilitate the integration of Turkey’s minorities to the new Republican polity by providing a standardized, calculated and self-contained language that was cleansed from unwanted foreign elements. Yet the fact that these reforms coincided with semi-official repressive campaigns that targeted the minorities, such as “Citizen Speak Turkish!,” and how they effectively barred and criminalized the use of minority languages in public spaces show that the language reforms were essentially a shift from the de facto multilingualism of the Ottoman Empire towards the exclusionary monolingualism of the new Turkish state. In this sense, the language reforms were a key aspect of the assimilationist projects of the early Republican period.

To illustrate the contentious dynamic between language and citizenship, this presentation focuses on the notion of monolingualism (by looking at the script and language reforms and tracking the rise of fervor surrounding Modern Turkish) and how these changes affected one of these marginalized, “other” communities, and as an complex example focuses on the life and works of the Armenian linguist Agop Dilâçar, who was instrumental in implementing the language reforms.

The existing scholarship on language reforms predominantly focuses on the linguistic differences between Ottoman-Turkish and Modern Turkish and the erasure of Ottoman-Turkish literary output. In this presentation, I will be utilizing literary texts, newspaper articles, op-eds and political discussions from the journals of the time and will place them within the broader debates concerning minorities of Turkey. In this respect, my goal is twofold, first, to shed light on the overlooked aspects and consequences of these reforms and argue for the transcommunal and transnational essence of the linguistic changes and, second, to read the creation of the new Turkish vernacular and its effects on minorities against the contemporary discussions of cosmopolitanism, specifically Homi Bhabha’s notion of "vernacular cosmopolitanism" (1996).