The Turks used to write their language using the Arabic alphabet. After WWI, when Mustafa Kemal revolutionized the country, he imposed the usage of Latin alphabet. Also the new writing system seems to have been particularly inspired from German, rather than any other language using the Latin alphabet.

Why is that? I understand Mustafa Kemal needed to revolutionize, westernize and modernize the country. However, nobody else in the region used the Latin alphabet, and I do not see how making 100% of the population suddenly illiterate, as well as making old books completely unreadable, was supposed to help modernize the country.

Also why inspire the writing from German specifically, right after the WWI alliance with Germany failed?

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    I don't think it has been particularly inspired by German - the phone[mt]ic values of "y" and "j" point more towards Francoenglish inspiration than German, and the vowels were perhaps perceived as more or less neutral "paneuropean". – Radovan Garabík Mar 28 '17 at 13:39
  • I don't think the Turks actually used the Latin alphabet: they created their own alphabet based on it, but with more letters, and with different pronunciation of some letters - e.g. Turkish 'c' is pronounced as 'j' (per Wikipedia). – jamesqf Mar 29 '17 at 3:48
up vote 30 down vote accepted

Two reasons: to increase literacy by simplifying the language, and to cut ties with the past (ie. the Ottomans) and forge a new secular Turkish identity.

The Ottoman Turkish alphabet, a variant of Arabic, was not well suited to Turkish words and phonemes making it very hard to learn and use. In particular, Turkish has eight vowels, but vowels in Arabic are complicated producing a poor sound-letter correspondence.

This was fine during the Ottoman Empire when literacy was considered something for the elite, not the common people. The new Turkish Republic wanted to improve the lives of the common person, and so literacy was very important.

In Arabic, vowels are often simply dropped from the written language, where as the Latin alphabet is a good match with Turkish vowels. For example <كورك> /kwrk/ has implied vowles. It can be read as /gevrek/ 'biscuit', /kyrk/ 'fur', /kyrek/ 'shovel', /kœryk/ 'bellows', /gœrek/ 'view', which in modern Turkish are written gevrek, kürk, kürek, körük, and görek.


The second, and primary, reason is politically motivated. The Turkish Republic wanted to cut ties with the Ottoman past and create a sense of Turkish nationalism. By replacing the old script with a new one did that handily. By choosing a Latin script the new Republic deliberately weakened its ties with the Arabic world and moved closer to the secular West.

"The alphabet reform cannot be attributed to ease of reading and writing. That was the motive of Enver Pasha. For us, the big impact and the benefit of alphabet reform was that it eased the way to cultural reform. We inevitably lost our connection with Arabic culture."

-- Mustafa İsmet İnönü, 2nd president of Turkey

"Atatürk imposed the mandatory Latin alphabet in order to promote the national awareness of the Turks against a wider Muslim identity. It is also imperative to add that he hoped to relate Turkish nationalism to the modern civilization of Western Europe, which embraced the Latin alphabet."

-- Şerif Mardin

This, combined with the effort to remove Arabic and Persian loan words from the language, "was slamming a door on the past as well as opening a door to the future". (Bernard Lewis).


Unfortunately instead of the five years recommended to make the change over, Atatürk ordered it done in three months which is barely time to make and distribute new materials let alone retrain a whole nation. To emphasize the point, "Law on the Adoption and Implementation of the Turkish Alphabet" (Türk Harflerİnİn Kabul Ve Tatbİkİ Hakkinda Kanun ) meant that all public communications would be done in the new language whether the public knew it or not.


As to why they picked Germany as a model, I can only speculate. Despite losing WWI, Turkey still had strong economic, political, and social ties with Germany and Austria. They shared advisers, teachers, commanders, arms, and equipment.

In contrast the victories Allies occupied Turkey and attempted to carve it up. Just six years before their language reform, the The Turkish Nationalist Movement fought a war of independence against the Sultan and the occupying Allies. They're not likely to be cooperating with them.

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    If the only thing that mattered was change as much things as possible, it's strange they didn't even change the flag, but go figure... – Bregalad Jan 28 '16 at 9:33
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    @Bregalad I'm going to speculate that they wanted to cut ties with the Ottomans internally, but externally needed to present to the world as the legitimate successor to the Ottoman Empire. Keeping the flag is a cheap way to do that. – Schwern Jan 28 '16 at 18:29
  • +1. Offtopic but Weird that Ataturk removed the Persian loanwords and yet I can still understand the law name (Turk is turk, Harf is letter, Kabul is acceptance, ve is and, tatbiki is teaching, kanun is law). But then again my language derives from both Persian and Chagatai Turkic so that might be the case. Guess I should look up etymology of these words. – NSNoob Jan 19 at 10:07

The people of the fallen Ottoman Empire and of Turkey up until then had used Arabic script, the same script in which the Islamic Quran is written in. One of the main reasons that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk transformed the script of the country of Turkey into Latin and in essence secularized the nation was to weaken the power of the Quran. Ataturk's policies almost seemed like borderline persecution against Muslims in a country dominated by this religion, as he abolishes garments sacred to the religion, such as the fez and the burqa, and allows clerical garb only in the mosque. He required the people of Turkey to wear Western clothing. Also, in 1925, the Turkish Historical Society rewrote the history of the country to downplay the Ottoman Empire and Islam, showing that Ataturk wanted to move as far away from the uber-religious state the country arose from. Of course, changing the script and language meant that more people would be illiterate, which is why Ataturk made elementary education free, universal, and obligatory.

To answer the question regarding certain parts of the new writing system being adopted from Germany, this may be because Turkey had the best relations with Germany at the time, so it would be easier to adopt their systems than those of a country they had considerably worse relations with, such as the UK or France. You may recall that Turkey also adopted secular law similar to that of the Swiss.

To summarize, Ataturk basically changed the script from Arabic to Latin to take away power from the Quran, and thus move towards being a secular state rather than one that is religiously driven.

Switching to Latin alphabet does not really mean making all nation suddenly illiterate as statistics show (see the reference in the end).

But of course this was a very radical measure, I agree, and a part of Westernization/modernization project. One of Kemal's goal was to decrease the role of religion and religious education; to separate literacy from religious education. I suppose this was a very effective measure from this point of view.

There were few similar cases in history.

When communists came to power in Russia at approximately the same time, they had similar projects of switching from Cyrillic to Latin. They did not implement it for various reasons, but later they forced other nations of Soviet Union to switch to Cyrillic alphabet. I mean the nations of Middle Asia, who used Arabic before, and Moldavia which used Latin. So this case is not unique in history. None of these switching led to widespread illiteracy. Probably the opposite is true. At least in the Middle Asia, the literacy rate sharply increased during the Soviet rule. It increased in Turkey as well.

Why did they use German assistance? Because of the close cultural and other connection with Germany which existed before the war. (This was actually one of the reasons why they entered the war on the German side). German defeat seems irrelevant for this particular project, and the project itself could be prepared before or during the war.

EDIT. As an evidence of what I wrote, here is the statistics of literacy rates in Turkey:

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0000/000028/002898EB.pdf

(For Soviet Middle Asia I did not find the data but the increase in literacy rates was dramatic). And to answer some comments: I never wrote that Latin alphabet is simpler than Cyrillic. My point was only that this kind of reform can be relatively painless in what concerns literacy rates.

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    For a person who is already literate, there is no much difficulty in switching to another alphabet. Citation needed, I'm afraid. Your example of Russia is biased because they already learned about latin alphabet in elementary scool, even if they don't use it daily. – Bregalad Jan 27 '16 at 15:15
  • "it takes just few days to learn Latin alphabet" This was a whole new language, and a whole new alphabet. Not only do you have to learn it, you need new materials to learn from and retrain teachers to teach it. And all that has to be distributed through the country in the 1920s (no Internet, no FedEx, barely any cars and trucks, probably no telephone or radio) along with a massive adult re-education program. – Schwern Jan 27 '16 at 17:59
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    @Alex> There is absolutely nothing that makes Latin scripts easier (or harder) to learn than Cyrillic. They use the same visual language, that is: same kind of shapes, same kind of calligraphy, and alphabets of about the same number of symbols, roughly from 20 to 30 depending on language. Arabic to/from Latin is a completely different story. You have to re-learn the very way your brain interprets glyph representations and how they relate to each other. For instance, despite the space, this is one word: برسيل – spectras Jan 27 '16 at 18:00
  • Alex, I upvoted your comment and I believe that the negative responses are inadequate. Atatürk primarily wanted to modernize the country and get rid of ineffective things, and whether some people want to deny it or not, the Arabic script is highly ineffective relatively to the Latin (or, to a lesser extent, Cyrillic or Greek) script. The density of information is poor, high accuracy in writing is often required, and today with computers and keyboards etc., it's even harder. One doesn't have to see dirty egotist political interests behind every decision. – Luboš Motl Jan 27 '16 at 18:17
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    @Bregard: I agree that the measure was very radical, and created a lot of inconvenience. Even the Bolsheviks did not dare to do this in Russia. But the source that I cited shows that very few people were literate in 1927 (with ANY alphabet) and more were literate in 1935 (with LATIN alphabet). – Alex Jan 28 '16 at 13:04

While there seems now to be a reaction, for decades following Ataturk it was part of the national identity to which the Turkish elite aspired to insist that Turkey was 'part of Europe' (which on usual geographical definitions only a small part of it, around Istanbul, really is). Likewise that it was a 'secular' state even if most Turks were Muslim.

This is probably part of the same tendency found to varying extents in many Asian countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Europe seemed so much more powerful, successful and more advanced that they wanted to copy it, in the hope they could become powerful, successful and advanced too.

This was partly a 'love-hate' relationship as one of the motivations was to beat the West at its own game. As in the late nineteenth & early twentieth century Japanese learned European methods to build up their armed forces and industry, and then used them to defeat a partly European power Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5, and as Ataturk had done to fight off the Greeks, British and French to preserve Turkey as a new state.

The Turkish alphabet is based on Latin but with several changes to fit their language e.g. no letter 'w', an extra letter like an 'i' without a dot to make the sound 'uh', various vowels with umlauts over them which at least look Germanic.

Another part of Ataturk's modernisation & westernisation programme was to adopt German Criminal Law and Swiss Civil Law as the laws of Turkey.

Could part of what is happening in Turkey now be explicable by the fact that the relative economic, industrial and military decline of Europe and the West in recent decades, and gradual rise to power of other parts of the world, mean that it no longer seems self-evident that copying Europe and the West is the road to success?

protected by Community May 20 '17 at 14:47

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