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OpenEdition Books

Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

Turkish lexicon

Şemseddin Sami
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Kamus-ı Türki (Turkish lexicon)

2Originally Published: Istanbul, İkdam Press, 1900

3Language: Ottoman Turkish

4The excerpts used are from the seventh edition of the reprint (Istanbul: Çağrı Yayınları, 1999), pp i–vii.

About the author

5Şemseddin Sami (Sami Frashëri) [1850, Frashër (present-day southeast Albania) – 1904, Istanbul]: linguist, lexicographer, novelist, and playwright. The multifarous Ottoman intellectual was born in the village of Frashër, then in the province of Yanya (Gr. Ioannina, Alb. Janina). He is the brother of Abdül (Abdyl) Bey (politician) and Naim Bey (poet), two important names in the formation of the Albanian nationalist movement. In 1868, Sami was sent to Zossimea, a Greek gymnasium in Jannina, where he learned ancient and modern Greek, French and Italian. He also acquired fluency in Arabic and Persian by taking private lessons. In 1871 he moved to Istanbul and started working in the Government Press Office as a translator. In 1876, he started publishing the Sabah (Morning), one of the most prominent newspapers of the period. In 1872, he authored one of the earliest novels in the Ottoman Turkish language, Ta‛aşşuk-ı Tal‛at ve Fıtnat (The love affair of Tal‛at and Fıtnat), where traditional male–female relationships in Ottoman Muslim society are addressed critically. At the same time, Sami deserves to be called the most important ideologue of the Albanian nationalist movement. Between 1877 and 1881, along with his brother Abdül and other Albanian-born members of the Ottoman elite, he actively participated in the founding of various Albanian cultural clubs and organizations that promoted the rise of national consciousness among Albanians. He was among the founders and an active member of the Komiteti Shqiptar i Stambollit (The Albanian committee of Istanbul) and also the founder in chief of Shoqëria e të Shtypurit Shkronja Shqip (The Albanian printing association). It was through his inspiration that a new Albanian alphabet was prepared on the basis of the Latin and Greek scripts. Also significant for the Albanian national movement is the political manifesto that he wrote (under a pseudonym) in 1899, Shqipëria, where he promoted the idea of full autonomy for Albania within the Ottoman Empire. Sami was indisputably the most competent Ottoman scholar using the Turkish language. His ‘Turkish lexicon’ (Kamus-ı Türki), still a standard reference for studies involving Ottoman Turkish, was a monumental achievement for its time with its technical rigor and its careful deployment of modern linguistic protocols. A vocal advocate of simplification in language, Sami Bey contributed tremendously to the development of a modern, more vernacular form of academic and literary expression in Turkish. Interestingly, due to his diverse intellectual output and multiple cultural and political allegiances as an “Ottoman Albanian,” Şemseddin Sami is venerated as a significant national figure both in Albania and in Republican Turkey. Sami Bey’s multiple ‘national’ persona is sufficient proof to the complex realities of a multicultural empire imperiled by the ordeals of mounting nationalism.

6Main works: Ta‛aşşuk-ı Tal‛at ve Fıtnat [The love affair of Tal‛at and Fıtnat] (1872); Besa yahud ahde vefa [Pledge of honor or loyalty to an oath] (1874); in Albanian: Besa ose mbajtja e fjalës së dhënë (1875); Kamus-ı Fransevi / Dictionnaire Français-Turc (1882); Kamus-ı Fransevi / Dictionnaire Turc-Français (1885); Abetare e gjuhës shqipe [Elementary Albanian] (1886); Shkronjëtore e gjuhës shqipe [A grammar of the Albanian language] (1886); Kamus-ı Türki [Turkish lexicon] (1900); Kamusü’l-a‛lam / Dictionnaire universel d’histoire et de geographie (1889–1896); Shqipëria ç’ka qënë, ç’është e ç’do të bëhët [Albania—what it was, what it is and what it will be?] (1899).


7Şemseddin Sami’s introduction to his ‘Turkish lexicon’ is by far the most elaborate commentary written on the state of the Turkish language at the end of the nineteenth century. In a matter of few pages, Sami Bey highlights the essential problematics and dilemmas of formulating Turkish as a modern national language. At the outset, he tackles the problem of corroborating the linguistic identity of Ottoman Turkish, which he classifies as a branch of what he calls the larger “Turanian” family. Awareness about the organic links between western Turkish and other languages of the Altaic group was by no means new (not to mention the theories developed by European linguists, predominantly Hungarians, about the relationship between Turkic languages and those of the Finno-Ugric group). Possibly informed by A. L. David’s pioneering work, Grammar of the Turkish language (London, 1832), the Ottoman bureaucrat and intellectual Ahmed Vefik Paşa acknowledged in his Ottoman dictionary, the Lehçe-i Osmani (The Ottoman dialect) (Istanbul, 1876), the identity of the Ottoman language as a distinct “dialect” of the larger Turkish group. Şemseddin Sami is unique and original though in undertaking an incisive scholarly discussion as to the specific relation of the eastern and western branches of Turkish, their separate paths of development and their dynamics of divergence. His answer to whether these two alienated branches constitute separate languages is firmly negative (although, one should note here that for the sake of this argument Sami Bey generalizes the myriad Turkic languages of Asia under a single ‘eastern’ category). For Şemseddin Sami, all variants of the Turkic family, no matter how far they stand in terms of grammatical structure and vocabulary, comprise a single language. Foreshadowing the pan-Turkist agenda of linguistic unity, Sami Bey calls for a new rapprochement between the two literary realms and expresses his regrets for years of negligence on the part of Ottoman intellectuals who severed their ties with the east.

8Moving beyond the designation “Ottoman language” employed in previous dictionaries and grammars written by Ottoman authors, Sami Bey identifies his work as a lexicon of the “Turkish language.” His broad and more homogenized definition of Turkish language extends not only over geographical and political barriers but temporal ones as well. Using the first person plural “we,” he talks about the establishment of Turkish as a written literary language centuries before the advent of the Ottomans. The nationalist implications of Şemseddin Sami’s views on the relationship between language and cultural identity, no doubt, carry the insights gained by years of study and propagandizing on the Albanian language and national identity. Still, it is important to note that his discussions were also conducted within a heated and ongoing debate on the history and future of the Turkish language that occupied many Ottoman intellectuals throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the last decades of the century, works of certain European Turcologists, such as Leon Cahun and Ármin (Arminius) Vámbéry, stimulated a new awareness among inquisitive Ottoman minds about the historical existence of a broader Turkic civilization. A nascent debate about the linguistic and literary implications of envisioning Turkish civilization on a global scale was galvanized further by the writings of a number of Turkic intellectuals from the Russian Empire who were active within the literary and scientific circles of the Ottoman capital (the most prominent of these being İsmail Bey Gasprinski from the Crimea and Mirza Fath Ali Ahundov from Azerbaijan). Nevertheless, what may be called the cultural phase of an incipient Turkish nationalism, to which Sami Bey greatly contributed, was still largely curtailed by the predominance of the official Ottomanist line mandated by the pre-modern realities of a polyglot, multi-ethnic empire. The ambivalence created by these conflicting and coexisting forms of dynastic and nationalist allegiance in the late Ottoman domain can be witnessed clearly in the complex political standpoint of Sami Bey. Like many other members of the vast Ottoman conglomerate, Sami Bey had to contend with multiple layers of genuine loyalty when it came to matters of national self-identification. An avid defender of cultural distinctiveness and an active promoter of national consciousness (both Albanian and Turkish), the Ottoman-Albanian intellectual still saw no reason to forgo his loyal and resolute advocacy of the Islamic and Ottoman basis of the Empire. His complex sense of national loyalty is best expressed in a newspaper article where he contended that his “public homeland” (vatan-ı ‛umumi) was the Ottoman Empire, while Albania was his “private homeland” (vatan-ı hususi).

9The Kamus-ı Türki represents the epitome of the late Ottoman effort towards clarifying orthography, systematizing spelling and increasing the popular intelligibility of written Turkish. A slow but consistent process of linguistic reform was among the consequences of the Tanzimat’s broad administrative, social and cultural transformation. The centralizing state, with its novel agendas on public education and administrative efficiency, sought ways to simplify the usually over-embellished official style (the publication of a modern Ottoman grammar in 1851 was a distinct outcome of the new policy on language). In the meantime, enhanced means of public communication, the rise of an Ottoman intelligentsia and the development of new and Europeanized literary forms ushered in a new journalistic and literary style that eliminated, in varying doses, the Arabic and Persian elements embedded in literary tradition, favoring, in turn, forms and expressions derived from spoken Turkish. Within the radical reformist faction of the Ottoman intelligentsia, the language debate spawned an outright attack on the entire literary tradition and even occasioned proposals to abandon the Arabic-based Ottoman script.

10Following the labyrinthine post-Tanzimat search to delineate the boundaries of Ottoman Turkish as a modern language, Şemseddin Sami’s introduction to the ‘Turkish lexicon’ stands as a crowning achievement of scholarly rigor. The author’s call for restoring the ‘authenticity’ of the western Turkish idiom represents a vital step forward in terms of the process of nationalizing language. Sami Bey argues that the ‘purity’ of Turkish can only be regained by eliminating the foreign elements encumbering the literary style, and reintegrating ‘genuine’ Turkish words derived from the ‘less corrupted’ eastern dialects. In other words, foreshadowing the severe transformative agenda launched by the Republican language reformers, Sami Bey envisions a national linguistic renaissance constructed upon the ‘unsullied’ Altaic roots of western Turkish. Yet, steering clear of the rigid and militant type of purism that was to be practiced by his Republican successors, Şemseddin Sami makes a tactful case of welcoming and protecting the eclectic richness of Turkish as a living language. Very perceptively, he acknowledges the organic capacity of any language to appropriate foreign words and make them its own. The prudence that Şemseddin Sami displays in defining the larger prospects for Turkish linguistic regeneration is indubitably a sign of his superior intellectual acumen and erudition. But it could also be argued that, at the same time, it was the ambivalent and multi-layered political identity of the author that nourished his non-militant wisdom and provided room for cultural lenience.


Turkish lexicon


12A nation that seeks to elevate its tongue to the level of a literary language, or to preserve its literary character, should endeavor to obtain a complete lexicon and a methodical study on grammar. While this is a generally acknowledged fact, and a confirmed starting point for all civilized nations, we, having possessed a written and literary language for a thousand years, failed to produce a comprehensive lexicon and a proper grammar book that gathers and establishes the rules of our language. Due to our own fault and neglect, our Turkish language, which in itself is quite rich and extensive, lost a considerable portion of its vocabulary and turned into a language so narrow as to lack any means of articulation without resorting to Arabic and Persian, and subsisting with a vocabulary so corrupt and colloquial as to have the roots and etymology of its words left in complete obscurity.

13It is common knowledge that Turkish belongs to the Turanian family of languages spoken in the entire northern part of Asia. At present, while Turkish is used extensively throughout these regions, one branch of the language that extended westward is spoken in the two large and beautiful subcontinents joining Europe and Asia, namely Anatolia and Rumelia.

14Therefore, Western, or Ottoman, Turkish should be distinguished from its eastern counterpart, incorrectly known as Chaghatay Turkish. In terms of its expressive capacity and mode of pronunciation, Western Turkish has acquired a particular charm and elegance lacking in its eastern counterpart, which must be attributed to the innate and local propensity of our region for progress and civilization. However, in borrowing and appropriating many words and expressions from Arabic, Persian, and foreign languages such as Greek and Italian, Western Turkish lost and abandoned a large proportion of its vocabulary. Being exposed to the influences of these languages, our language departed somewhat from its original Turkish idiom.

15Still, contrary to the general assumption, the difference between Eastern and Western Turkish is not such that the two can be considered entirely separate languages, as in the case of Italian and Latin, or Spanish and French. The difference is comparable to that between northern and southern German, or Tuscany Italian and Neapolitan, or Egyptian and Maghrebi Arabic. Eastern and Western Turkish constitute one language, they are both Turkish.

16While this is the case, for seven or eight centuries, from the initial stages of the separation, all contact and intercourse between the speakers of the two branches of Turkish have been severed. Instead of attempting to get closer and unite, the literati of the two sides chose to diverge and clash. Moreover, the two sides have been completely estranged from each other through the adoption of entirely different methods of orthography, styles of writing and expression. Thus, with eight hundred years of oblivion, ignorance and neglect, the two branches of Turkish appear today as if they were two separate languages.

17The question is, which one of these two branches transformed and deviated more and which one remained in its original form since the initial separation? Investigation would clearly reveal that Eastern Turkish remained and continued more or less in its original form, while our Western branch underwent profound transformations through the ages, consequently acquiring its present form. Now, are we to call this particular sort of transformation progress or corruption? I believe there is neither a fully positive nor a fully negative answer to this question. With this transformation, our language improved in certain respects and degenerated in others. The elegance it gained in its pronunciation and style of expression, and the breadth it acquired through the adoption of Arabic, Persian and other foreign words, must certainly be considered aspects of progress. Yet, western Turkish departed to a certain extent from the harmony that constitutes the fundamental canon of the Turanian languages, and spawned words and idioms that blatantly defy this canon. While leaving thousands of genuine Turkish words in the depths of oblivion, our language resorted to other languages and turned into a melange of tongues. These, without question, spell corruption.

18In sum, it seems that eastern Turkish is relatively coarse in terms of its pronunciation and style of expression, while our western branch is much more refined. Yet, as regards rules and fundamentals, eastern Turkish is correct, and ours corrupt. Although western Turkish is far richer due to the words and terminology it borrowed from other languages, Chaghatay Turkish gains the upper hand when we only consider the pure Turkish words and expressions employed in both sides. […]

19It is my humble opinion that a perfect lexicon of Turkish should include all words that are genuinely Turkish. Nevertheless, very little effort has been displayed so far with regard to the recording and compilation of the vocabulary of our language. While the names and biographies of lexicographers from other nations and communities fill volumes, no one in these lands considered to engage in a scientific career of this kind. To this day, the vocabulary of our language remains almost unrecorded. Thus, in order to create a perfect and comprehensive Turkish lexicon, one not only needs to study the entire written output of this language, but also needs to take long trips to all the lands where Turkish is spoken, converse with all classes of people having a good hold of their language, and hence, produce an all-inclusive documentation of Turkish vocabulary. […]

20One of my most heartfelt desires was to compile pure Turkish words, especially the more valuable and useful ones that are neglected and forgotten in our case but still employed in eastern Turkish, and reintegrate them into western Turkish by facilitating their revival and dissemination. Yet, there exist very few individuals, driven by their feelings of national and racial affection, who would prefer these pure terms to their more ostentatious Arabic and Persian equivalents. Hence, widespread opposition to the idea forced me to abandon this significant project. […]

21[Still,] it is impossible to conceive a dictionary that merely contains genuine Turkish words and leaves out Arabic and Persian words and terminology that are appropriated and commonly used by Turkish speakers. This would compare to the ridiculous task of preparing an English dictionary and leaving out half of its vocabulary deriving from French. The ‘Turkish lexicon’ should include all the words and terminology that complement and enhance Turkish, while avoiding the obscure Arabic and Persian words, commonly favored by the authors of oversized “Ottoman” dictionaries, which are barely used even in these languages, let alone Turkish.

22Perhaps some would object to the designation of a work that contains commonly used words of Arabic and Persian origin as the ‘Turkish lexicon.’ Yet, our language is Turkish, and it would be absurd to call a dictionary of this language otherwise. Each and every word used in our language, regardless of its original source, must be considered a part of Turkish, provided that it is truly common and habitual for its users.


Ahmet Ersoy (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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