Post-1980 Debates on Language in Turkey



Post-1980 Debates on Language in Turkey


December 29, 2009
1:30 -3:00 pm

Davutpaşa Campus
Old Building A-2022


Post-1980 Debates on Language in Turkey

M. Berk Balçık

In the 1990’s Turkey experienced a widespread set of debates on language; they were mostly about “corruption” of Turkish, “invasion” of English and rights concerning minority languages. What was striking was that the main axes of the republican language debate tradition were being shifted. Parameters of older debates were no longer valid; there were apparently new dynamics of socialization and politicization. New debates were heated not only due to the public introduction of arguments on these new themes, but also for that various governmental and legal actions were taken. This talk aims to offer to discuss alternative readings of this relocation of conceptual frames of language politics.

Common periodization of dispute on language during the republican era involves some consequent steps.

The first phase was about the consolidation of a specific variety of Turkish as the official language of the state. Hand in hand with the framework of modernization project that involved secularization and nation-building, the official language was first stripped of its oriental flavor; of its Arabic script and then of some of its vocabulary that are originated from Arabic and Persian. The process was legitimized as the purification and the authentication of the national language. The urge for modernization was, it was alleged, about re-gaining the national consciousness and self-confidence. Although the period is laden with extremities and withdrawals, the general characteristics were the formation and the dissemination of the “new” language. And it hardly faced any serious challenge during the one-party period.

In 1950’s, with emerging multi-party political system, oppositional voices were heard against the republican attitude towards language. A conservative approach to language issues gained considerable support. This moderate circle contested against political interventions to language and was in favor of the “living Turkish” (yaşayan Türkçe) and inter-generational fluidity of language. Intrinsic to these language debates was a confrontation between the jacobenic modernizationist elites and the conservative elites that were skeptical about rapid social change.

Until the 1980’s, both parties accused each other with treason to the national cause. 1980 coup and afterwards brought about radical transformations; socially, culturally and economically. And these transformations inevitably affected the way in which language was conceived and perceived as a political battleground. Besides other things, the period was about the de-politicization of masses and in-parallel-expansion of the civil society, commercialization of cultural production and the emergence of political discontent that gave way to ethnic nationalism.

This seminar aims to analyze in-depth details of these transformations and their affects of the politics of language. There are some challenging questions with respect to this change: How can we explain the emergence of new claims of particular varieties of languages, such as “beautiful and correct Turkish” (güzel ve doğru Türkçe) or Kurmanji Kurdish? How do new enthusiasms for language in Turkey correspond to global linguistic problems? In what ways did the official position of the Turkish state with respect to language issues change? What can we anticipate about the future of language debates and political decisions on linguistic regulations? Is it possible to construct a multi-lingual political and social environment that both respects differences and also stimulated cultural interaction?