When one thinks about Turkey, the first things that come to mind are different colors, cultures, and exotic foods. Turkey and especially Istanbul are known for their rich cultural heritage and diversity. When it comes to languages, however, Turkey has only 1 official language, Turkish.
This was not always the case and if effective measures are put in place, perhaps Turkey might still be able to rescue some of its dying languages and restore its unique multilingual linguistic heritage.
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History of Languages in Turkey
The land we know as Turkey, today includes some of the oldest inhabited areas known to man. The history goes back thousands of years and includes 100s of civilizations and of course different languages.
The earliest known languages in Turkey are the Anatolian languages, notably Hittite, which are considered to be the earliest Indo-European languages found. They go back to around 1000 B.C. Unfortunately, all of these languages are extinct.
Due to the Hellenization of the region by the Greeks and subsequent rule by the Romans, Persians, and others, the original Anatolian languages have been completely erased from history.
The Rise of the Turks and Turkish in Anatolia
It is not known when the first Turkic people’s migrated to Anatolia from Central Asia. The first strong historical presence of the Turks is attributed to the Seljuk Empire in the 11th century C.E. The Seljuks were a huge and powerful state that embodied a strong Turko-Persian culture and tradition.
The Ottoman Empire
The Turkic influence and dominion of Anatolia subsequently transitioned from the Seljuk State to the newly formed Ottoman State. This was when the Turks started to dominate the entire region, from Anatolia to Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Arabian peninsula.
The Ottomans spread the Turkish language and culture throughout the region, to such a degree that many Turkish lexical borrowings still exist today in several Arabic varieties across the Middle-east.
The Republic of Turkey (1923-)
The beginning of the 20th century brought with it the death of some countries and the birth of many more new nations and countries. In fact, this period is when the idea of the county itself became clearly defined and understood, universally. The Republic of Turkey was no exception.
In the newly established nation of Turkey, like other new nations, the issue of language was hotly debated. However, it was clear from the outset that there was only one language that would keep the top spot in all aspects of Turkish life, Turkish. The only issues up for debate were to what extent the superiority and prestige of Turkish would extend.
Language Reform and Modern Turkish
Another issue that was agreed upon by the Turkish state was that the language of Turkish itself needed to be reformed in order to be an effective official language for the nation. This reformation involved purifying the Turkish language of its un-Turkish parts.
In 1932 The Turkish Language association or TDK was established for this purpose. Foremost was the abolishment of the Arabic alphabet in favor of the more Euro-centric Latin alphabet. In addition, there was a strong attempt to remove what was perceived as Arabic and Persian lexical items from the greater corpus of Turkish.
From then on, new lexical items would be derived from Turkish itself, or borrowings would come from the languages of the west, like French and English.
The Turkish Language Today
Turkish, which was the language of the majority in Turkey, was established early on as the sole official language for every domain in Turkey. Furthermore, speaking Turkish was considered an honor, duty and obligation for all Turkish citizens.
Turkish remains the only official language in Turkey. Turkish is still used almost exclusively in all domains in Turkey. Internationally, the Turkish language has become popular through Turkish language films and music that have become extremely popular all over the world. See How to learn Turkish yourself.
Minority Languages in Turkey?
During the Ottoman period, the state was characterized as a multi-ethnic, multinational kingdom. Therefore, The Ottoman state was home to people of different ethnic groups and languages. Some of the major Ethnic minorities included the Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and other smaller communities.
In the post-independence years, the promotion of the Turkish language for all citizens in Turkey was regarded as a fundamental pillar of nation building. Therefore, all citizens of Turkey were required to know and speak the official language of the republic, Turkish. This idea was pushed through laws passed, popular media and even campaigns organised by passionate youth and grassroots activist movements.
One such campaign was Vatandaş Türkçe konuş! (Citizen, Speak Turkish). This movement, beginning in 1928, was started by law students in Istanbul to pressurize Non-Native Turkish speakers to use only Turkish in all public domains. Posters were displayed around the city to remind people to speak Turkish.
This idea was supported by intellectuals and writers who argued that people who can not or who do not speak Turkish can’t be accepted as Turkish citizens.
In some municipal districts, the council issued fines to individuals who were caught speaking other languages. Some people even went so far as to promote a boycott of individuals and businesses that were not following the ‘speak Turkish only’ rule.
Endangered and Extinct Languages in Turkey
Currently there are 15 endangered languages listed on the UNESCO website and 3 languages that are classified as extinct, meaning that they no longer have any living native speakers.
The languages that are currently endangered are: Zazaki, Abkhaz, Adyge, Kabard-Cherkes, Abaza, Homshetsma, Laz, Pontus Greek, Romani, Suret, Western Armenian, Gagavuz, Assyrian, Ladino and Hértevin.
The idea of having a national language as part of a national identity is not new. However, this concept has led to the decline of 100s of languages, especially in the past 100 years. In Turkey, Turkish has emerged as the only official language of the Turkish people.
While Turkish remains ever so strong, there are 15 endangered languages that will certainly die out completely if they are not rescued immediately by clear and effective language policy and planning.
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