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  • Hale Yılmaz

This article reconsiders Turkey's 1928 alphabet reform by shifting the focus from the state to the social experiences of alphabet change. Rather than assuming an obedient and indifferent public silently following the decrees of an authoritarian and repressive regime, it explores the actual processes, institutions, and lived experiences of the alphabet reform by drawing on a variety of sources, including unpublished archival evidence and personal narratives collected through oral interviews. It draws attention to the multiplicity of experiences of learning to read and write (the new letters) as well as to the persistence of the Ottoman script; it also examines the variety of ways that state authorities dealt with this persistence. The analysis of this particular reformist measure has implications for understanding social change and the emergence of a nationalist culture in the early republican period as well as state–society relations and the nature of the Kemalist state.

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Hale Yılmaz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Ill.; e-mail:
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Author's note: I am grateful to Byron Cannon, Peter Sluglett, and Roger Deal for their helpful comments and to my informants and their families for sharing their stories. I also thank Beth Baron, Sara Pursley, and the four anonymous reviewers of IJMES for their useful suggestions on an earlier draft. Tanner Humanities Center and the Graduate School at the University of Utah provided financial assistance at the initial stages of the research for this article.

1 Caymaz, Birol and Szurek, Emmanuel, “La révolution au pied de la lettre. L'invention de ‘l'alphabet turc,’European Journal of Turkish Studies 6 (2007), (accessed 25 March 2010).

2 Şimşir, Bilâl N., Türk Yazı Devrimi (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları, 1992).

3 See Lewis, Geoffrey, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Heyd, Uriel, Language Reform in Modern Turkey, Oriental Notes and Studies (Jerusalem: The Israel Oriental Society, 1954); Perry, John R., “Language Reform in Turkey and Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (1985): 295311; Brendemoen, Bernt, “The Turkish Language Reform and Language Policy in Turkey,” in Handbuch Der Türkischen Sprachwissenschaft, Part I, ed. Hazai, György (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1990), 454–93; and Karpat, Kemal H., “A Language in Search of a Nation: Turkish in the Nation-State,” in Studies on Turkish Politics and Society: Selected Articles and Essays (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004), 435–65.

4 The oral historical evidence presented here draws on a series of interviews I conducted with elderly Turkish citizens, mostly in 2002 and 2003, for a broader research project that explored the processes of social and cultural change in the early Turkish republic by examining the implementation and social experiences of several specific reforms. My informants were male and female, urban and rural, educated and illiterate, and of the upper and lower classes. All spoke Turkish, although some acknowledged a different ethnic background, and all were Muslims, of varying degrees of religiosity. For primarily logistical reasons, the majority of the interviews were conducted in Istanbul, Kastamonu, and Trabzon. The informants, however, reflect a broader regional representation than the locations of the interviews may suggest. I was interested less in their opinions on past or present politics of Turkey and more in their life and family stories, particularly their memories of childhood and youth. No doubt the passage of time, the informants’ ideological persuasions, the polarized political culture in Turkey during the 2000s, and my presence (the interview environment), among other factors, shaped what they remembered and how they remembered and narrated their stories. Nevertheless, these stories—especially the remembrances of particular events from childhood and youth, such as learning to read a new alphabet in a Millet Mektebi class—provide us with valuable evidence that is accurate in substance if not in details. My approach toward oral history resonates with those of Kamp, Marianne, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2006); Meltem Türköz, “The Social Life of the State's Fantasy: Memories and Documents on Turkey's 1934 Surname Law” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2004); and, to a degree, Özyürek, Esra, Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006).

5 For the alphabet debates from the Tanzimat era to the passing of the Alphabet Law, see Şimşir, Türk Yazı Devrimi; Levend, Agâh Sırrı, Türk Dilinde Gelişme ve Sadeleşme Evreleri, 3rd ed. (Ankara: Türk Dil Kurumu Yayınları, 1972); and Sadoğlu, Hüseyin, Türkiye'de Ulusçuluk ve Dil Politikaları (Istanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2003).

6 Abdülhamit II himself used this argument in suggesting that it might be best to switch to Latin characters. Abdülhamit, Sultan, Siyasî Hatıratım (Istanbul: Dergâh Yayınları, 1999), 143.

7 For further discussion of the connections between literacy, reading, and the alphabet see Fortna, Benjamin, “Learning to Read in the Late Ottoman Empire and Early Turkish Republic,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 21 (2001): 3341 (which inspired the title for this article); and Strauss, Johann, “Literacy and the Development of the Primary and Secondary Educational System: The Role of the Alphabet and Language Reforms,” in Turkey in the Twentieth Century, ed. Zürcher, Erik-Jan (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2008), 479516.

8 On the relationship between the Latin-based Albanian alphabet of Şemseddin Sami and the Turkish alphabet reform, see Trix, Frances, “The Stamboul Alphabet of Shemseddin Sami Bey: Precursor to Turkish Script Reform,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 31 (1999): 255–72.

9 Ülkütaşır, M. Şakir, Atatürk ve Harf Devrimi (Ankara: Türk Dil Kurumu Yayınları, 1981), 77. The word cehalet in the original text carries the meaning of both illiteracy and ignorance.

10 Law No. 1353, “Türk Harflerinin kabul ve tatbiki hakkında kanun,” published in Resmi Gazete (Official Gazette) on 3 November 1928. See the “İnkılâp Kanunları” folder in the Archive of the Grand National Assembly, Ankara, for the text in the original Ottoman and the Latin transcription.

11 Interview with Meliha Tanyeli, Istanbul, August 2003.

12 Çandar, Tûba, Hitit Güneşi. Mualla Eyuboğlu Anhegger (Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2003), 1520.

13 Ibid., 28.

14 Istatistik Yilligi: Annuaire Statistique 2 (1929): 33. The Turkish reformers indeed hoped to facilitate literacy through the adoption of Latin letters, but the prevailing rates of illiteracy had more to do with historical circumstances than with the difficulty of the Arabic alphabet per se. The literacy rate in Turkey in 1927 represents a significant decline from the estimated 34.3 percent literacy rate in the Ottoman Empire in 1894 and 1895 (for individuals over the age of ten). See Karpat, Kemal H., Ottoman Population 1830–1914: Demographic and Social Characteristics (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 221. François Georgeon's estimate of 10 to 15 percent Ottoman literacy on the eve of World War I also reveals a clear decline in literacy rates between 1914 and the foundation of the republic. François Georgeon, “Lire et écrire à la fin de l'Empire ottoman: Quelques remarques introductives,” in Oral et écrit dans le monde turc-ottoman, ed. Nicolas Vatin, Revue de monde musulman et de la Méditerranée 75–76 (1995): 171–73. The substantial decline in literacy in the final two decades of the Ottoman Empire was mainly due to social, economic, and demographic disruptions caused by the wars.

15 On Millet Mektepleri see Arar, İsmail, “Gazi Alfabesi,” in Harf Devriminin 50. Yılı Sempozyumu (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları, 1991), 147–68; and Rauf İnan, “Yazı Değişimi,” in Harf Devriminin 50. Yılı Sempozyumu, 169–86.

16 Istatistik Yilliği: Annuaire Statistique 19 (1951): 102.

17 “Millet Mektebi Teşkilâtı Talimatnamesi,” published in Resmi Gazete (Official Gazette) on 24 December 1928. Bilâl N. Şimşir gives a very detailed summary of the Talimatname in his Türk Yazı Devrimi, 237–41.

18 Although attendance was in principle mandatory, in practice enforcement efforts varied considerably and were overall quite limited.

19 Halk, 11 February 1929.

20 Interview with Mehmet Baltacı, Kastamonu, 4 March 2003.

22 Şimşir, Türk Yazı Devrimi, 242–44.

23 See Aslan, Senem, “Citizen Speak Turkish! A Nation in the Making,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 13 (2007): 245–72; Cagaptay, Soner, Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Turkey: Who is a Turk? (London: Routledge, 2006); and Bali, Rıfat, Cumhuriyet Yıllarında Türk Yahudileri: Bir Türkleştirme Serüveni [1923–1945] (Istanbul: İletişim, 1999).

24 Ülkütaşır, Atatürk ve Harf Devrimi, 70–71.

25 Acara or Acar (or Gurian) is a dialect of Georgian spoken by Acars, descendants of Georgians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule between the 16th and 17th centuries. Andrews, Peter Alford, Türkiye'de Etnik Gruplar, trans. Küpüşoğlu, Mustafa (Istanbul: Ant Yayınları Tümzamanlar Yayıncılık, 1992), 246–49.

26 Cagaptay, Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism, 157. In a recent work Senem Aslan argues that the state's ability to teach Turkish to its sizeable Kurdish population in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia was in fact rather limited. Aslan, Senem, “Everyday Forms of State Power and the Kurds in the Early Turkish Republic,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43 (2011): 7593.

27 See Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991).

28 Şimşir, Türk Yazı Devrimi, 180–83.

29 See, for example, “Yazı,” in “Benim Kıraatim” section, Cumhuriyet, 6 October 1928.

30 İnuğur, Nuri, Türk Basın Tarihi (Istanbul: Gazeteciler Cemiyeti, 1992), 63, 82, 86–87.

31 See Şimşir, Türk Yazı Devrimi, 226–28, for further discussion and statistics on the temporary decline of newspaper readership and the limited government subsidies to the press.

32 On the role of the military and of compulsory military service in Turkish nation- and state-building, see Altınay, Ayşe Gül, The Myth of the Military-Nation: Militarism, Gender, and Education in Turkey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

33 This poster can be found at Başbakanlık Cumhuriyet Arşivi (hereafter BCA) On the role of the army as a school, see Âfetinan, A., Medenî Bilgiler ve M. Kemal Atatürk'ün El Yazıları, Üçüncü Baskı (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1998), 122–23.

34 Sungu, İhsan, “Harf İnkılabı ve Millî Şef İsmet İnönü,” Tarih Vesikaları 1 (June 1941): 1019.

35 Ülkütaşır, Atatürk ve Harf Devrimi, 92.

36 According to Necdet Sakaoğlu, the literacy rate among conscripts at the end of their military service rose from 17 percent in 1926 to 25 percent in 1931 and to 75 percent in 1936. Sakaoğlu, Necdet, Osmanlı’dan Günümüze Eğitim Tarihi (Istanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2003), 192. On the function of the military in teaching Turkish language and literacy to common soldiers, see Altınay, The Myth of the Military-Nation, 71–72.

37 “Tartışmalar ve Açıklamalar,” Harf Devrimi'nin 50. Yılı Sempozyumu (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları, 1991), 132.

38 The eğitmen (educator) campaign would be followed by a more comprehensive education project in the form of Village Institutes (Köy Enstitüleri). See Kirby's, Fay classic work Türkiye'de Köy Enstitüleri (Ankara: İmece Yayınları, 1962); and Karaömerlioğlu, M. Asım, “The Village Institutes Experience in Turkey,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 25 (1998): 4773.

39 Georgeon, “Lire et écrire à la fin de l'Empire ottoman.”

40 Elias, Nobert, The Civilizing Process, rev. ed., trans. Jephcott, Edmund (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000 [1939]).

41 Bengül Bolat, “Atatürk İlkelerinin Topluma Yansıması –Kırşehir Örneği-” (master's thesis, Hacettepe Üniversitesi, 2001), 41.

42 As Benjamin Fortna has argued, reading is an activity with enormous economic and political consequences. Fortna, Benjamin C., “Reading, Hegemony and Counterhegemony in the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic,” in Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony, ed. Chalcraft, John and Noorani, Yaseen (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 141–54.

43 Telegram from Şükrü Kaya to İsmet Paşa (İnönü), 21 June 1929, BCA

44 My use of the term “everyday forms of resistance” is informed by Scott, James C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1985).

45 I use the terms “functional illiteracy” and “partial literacy” in the absence of a better term to describe the situation these people found themselves in after 1928. Obviously, they did not become illiterate in a general sense, but the practical use of their literacy was significantly confined.

46 Interview with Meliha Tanyeli, Istanbul, August 2003.

47 Interview with Avni Yurdabayrak, Istanbul, 25 April 2003.

48 See, for example, letter from Eyüboğlu to his son Sabahattin in April 1929 (transliterated by Vedat Günyol) in Çandar, Hitit Güneşi, 23–25.

49 On Cemal Rıza Osmanpaşaoğlu, see Hüseyin Albayrak, “Trabzon Kültüründe İz Bırakanlar,” Kuzey Haber, Trabzon, 19–28 May 1984.

50 Interview with Hayrünnisa Osmanpaşaoğlu, Trabzon, 22 September 2002.

51 Correspondence from the Minister of Interior Şükrü Kaya to the Prime Ministry, 25 April 1931, BCA; 147/10.

52 Letter from “Esbak meb'usan reisi Halil” to “Reisi Cumhur Gazi Mustafa Kemal Hazretleri,” 17 April 1931, BCA 1/45.

53 İsmet İnönü made that point explicitly: “The letters that we have adopted are not the French letters. They are Turkish letters, it's a Turkish alphabet.” The quote is as translated in Strauss, “Literacy,” 491.

54 Circular from the Prime Minister to ministries and government offices, 9 July 1934, BCA

55 Text of telegram from the Prime Minister's Office to the Anatolian News Agency, 9 July 1934. Another announcement along the same lines was sent to the Anatolian Agency on 28 November 1934. BCA

56 Vedat Ürfi Bengü, “Halkevleri . . . Kültür Evleri . . . ‘Notlar,’” 1943, BCA 490.01.875.440.1. Bengü (1900–53) was a writer of plays, romances, and detective novels and the translator of a number of novels from the French.

57 Although he does not offer any specific examples or explanations of this practice, Strauss mentions that “many authors continued to submit their manuscripts to the editor in Arabic script. They were subsequently transcribed by those proficient in the new script. This practice continued for a long time.” Strauss, “Literacy,” 513.

58 On the Menemen incident see Azak, Umut, “A Reaction to Authoritarian Modernization in Turkey: The Menemen Incident and the Creation and Contestation of a Myth, 1930–31,” in The State and the Subaltern: Modernization, Society and the State in Turkey and Iran, ed. Atabaki, Touraj (London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 143–58; Mazıcı, Nurşen, “Menemen Olayı’nın sosyo-kültürel ve sosyo-ekonomik analizi,” Toplum ve Bilim 90 (2001): 131–46; and Brockett, Gavin, “Collective Action and the Turkish Revolution: Towards a Framework for the Social History of the Ataturk Era, 1923–38,” in Turkey Before and After Atatürk, ed. Kedourie, Sylvia (London: Frank Cass, 1999), 4466.

59 Circular from Minister of Interior Şükrü Kaya, 12 January 1930, BCA

60 Circular from Minister of Interior Şükrü Kaya, 28 November 1932, BCA

61 Copy of telegram from Elaziz Vakıflar Memurluğu to Vakıflar Umum Müdürlüğü, 12 December 1935, BCA

62 Correspondence from Vakıflar Umum Müdürü to Başvekalet, 13 December 1935, BCA

63 Correspondence from the Prime Minister to the Governor of Elaziz, 17 December 1935, BCA

64 See BCA

65 “Osmanlıca başladılar, Türkçe bitirdiler. ‘Tedrisat'tan ‘Öğretim'e,” NTV Tarih, no. 21 (October 2010): 33.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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