RETIRED Colonel Masud Akhtar Shaikh is chiefly known to us as a translator of Turkish literature into English, Urdu and Punjabi. Well-versed in Turkish, he had developed a deep interest in modern Turkish literature and has to his credit various books written in English and Urdu, a majority of which are translations. Though primarily engaged in the literary translations of Turkish works, he off and on also takes up other subjects. One of his translations is of the volume Universal Dimensions of Ataturk by Ismet Bozdag.
The book may be taken as a tribute to Mutafa Kamal as a revolutionary reformer who had aimed to transform Turkey into a modern secular state. His programme of reforms was a complete breakaway from what Turkey had been up to the time of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Bozdag has taken pains to justify each and every reform conceived by Kamal Ataturk in this respect.
Most of the reforms undoubtedly carry much weight and Bozdag, while explaining them, appears very convincing. But what in particular attracted my attention was the linguistic reform conceived by Ataturk.
As Bozdag explains to us, Mustafa Kamal was of the belief that thousands of words that had not found their way into literature and dictionaries still existed in the daily life of the people. If collected, these new words could take the place of words of Arabic and Persian origin that had entered Turkish. Bozdag added: “In fact, Ataturk believed that it was essential to wipe out the Ottoman language just as the Ottoman Empire had been wiped out because it was the language of the empire. He wanted words of Turkish origin to take the place of words of Arabic and Persian origin that had crept into the Ottoman language.”
I wondered if Ataturk really achieved success in this campaign. If so, it should be treated as a miracle. Languages have their own ways of accepting or rejecting words of foreign origin when they try to creep into the body of a language estranged from them. They hardly submit to the dictates of a foreign authority in this respect, be it a king or a dictator. Thus I very much wanted to know if Ataturk had succeeded in driving out words of Persian and Arabic origin, which had crept into the Turkish language under a gradual historical process of a cultural mix.
Bozdog says in this respect, “It cannot be said definitely whether the language society and the historical society established by Ataturk for working in his visualised direction did actually implement his ideas. Nonetheless, both societies have been playing the role of laboratories for scientific research in the respective subjects.”
If the society failed in implementing the idea, one may ask if the failure was on the part of society, or if the idea as conceived by the reformer was itself impracticable.
However, Ataturk had one more reform with respect to language under his sleeve, which he enforced successfully. This he called the reform of the alphabet, which he did by replacing the Arabic alphabet with the Latin alphabet.
In fact, after the Soviet Union accepted the Latin alphabet in 1926 to replace the Arabic alphabet that the Turkish societies had been using, Ataturk did the same in 1928. Thus, on one hand he got rid of the Arabic alphabet and on the other hand he established a bridge to develop a relationship with the “Turkish states spreading from the borders of China right up to the Anatolian subcontinent.”
But the Soviet Union soon reacted by adopting the Cyrillic alphabet in Turkistan and other Turkish and Muslim republics, thus demolishing the bridge Ataturk had tried to build. In fact, Ataturk believed very much in pure Turkish nationalism. But a race or a nation in its long history can hardly afford to be pure. A long historical process brings in its wake many foreign influences, which are unavoidable. Therein is the secret of its development. No culture, no language can flourish in isolation. Thus an insistence on purity so often turns into a stumbling block in the way of progress.
However, Mustafa Kamal insisted on the purity of Turkish nationalism. So the Arab-Iranian influences which came in the wake of Islam and added to the richness of Turkish life turned into a problem for him. How to get rid of these influences was perhaps his main worry.