"No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk as Erdogan"

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Ishaan Tharoor, "Why Turkey’s president wants to revive the language of the Ottoman Empire", WaPo 12/12/2014:

In 1928, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish republic, enacted one of the more dramatic and radical reforms of the 20th century. Ataturk ordered the wholesale transformation of the Turkish language: He instituted a Latin alphabet, abandoning more than a millennium of writing in Arabic script, and had the language stripped of centuries of accumulated Persian and Arabic words. Instruction of "Ottoman" Turkish was banned. […]

Fast forward almost a century. No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk as the country's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Erdogan, it seems, is keen on turning back Ataturk's legacy.

The decision to institute compulsory education in the Ottoman writing system  is worthy of discussion. But first, can anyone construe the sentence that I've put in bold? Is it an editing error, or is it a construction that for some reason is escaping me?

Update — From the comments, it's clear that some people are fine with phrases of the form "No one is as X as Y", where X is recursively expanded to "as P as Q", yielding "No one is as [as P as Q] as Y" (with some sort of sketchy morphological haplology simplifying "as as" to "as", as noted in the comments). I can calculate something that this might mean, I think. Thus in the current case, we can ask how close someone is to being "as influential as Ataturk". In general the answer is "not at all", but for Erdogan, the answer is "more than the others". Therefore "No one is (as) as influential as Ataturk as Erdogan". But I'm not reaching this construal by the natural processes of English sentence comprehension. (Or at least not by MY natural processes of English sentence comprehension — it seems that I am not as better at as-phrase recursion than I am as some others are).



  1. Daniel said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    As far as I can tell, it means that the Turkish leader who has come closest to having as much influence as Ataturk is Erdogan.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:14 am

    If it's escaping you, it's escaping me too. But I think "as Ataturk" should be "since Ataturk", or the sentence should read "No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk till Erdogan", or some combination.

  3. Mike Sullivan said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:20 am

    Either that, or "close to" or "nearly" should have been inserted before the first "as much."

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    Other than the "since Ataturk" interpretation, the only construal I can come up with is a nested comparison: No Turkish leader has been as [influential as Ataturk] as Erdogan.

    No brick is as red as a fire engine as this one! No city is bigger than Tokyo than Mexico City! Bizarre semantically, but not so badly broken that I can't imagine someone thinking it. The logical structure is strangely appealing.

  5. Anton Sherwood said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    It probably means "Someone was dissatisfied with a previous version of this sentence and rewrote it incompletely."

  6. Anton Sherwood said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    By the way, aren't we all sophistimacated enough around here to spell Atatürk properly?

  7. Yuval said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 2:30 am

    I read it immediately as Aaron suggests, and I'm pretty much fine with it.

  8. David Morris said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 3:58 am

    Would changing the third 'as' to 'than' help?

  9. Michael Cargal said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    Nothing is as red as a real Flanders poppy as a paper poppy (is red). I see no problem.

  10. Stevens said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 4:16 am

    my reading is "no Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk (had on the country's development) as the country's current president…

  11. Jeroen Mostert said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 5:06 am

    It's structurally OK, just clumsy. I'd like to say no sentence has been as clumsy as the one you posted as this one, but I'm sure more contrived ones are just around the corner.

  12. RP said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 5:18 am

    Jerry Friedman's first solution (substituting "since" for the second "as") is the only one that occurred to me and still seems to me to be the best way of fixing the sentence.

    The nested comparison doesn't really work for me.

  13. Vanya said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 5:32 am

    It means "The only Turkish leader who has had as much influence as Ataturk is the country's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. " It is a clumsy construction but not incomprehensible.

    [(myl) The intended meaning is clear. The question is whether the sentence can mean that, according to the usual norms of the English language.]

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 6:06 am

    I spotted this same sentence in the Guardian yesterday and sent a screen shot to various syntactician colleagues for comment, with the subject line "spectacular syntactic train wreck". While I found it perfectly comprehensible ((I got the same meaning as various commenters above in this thread), I had the same reaction as Mark that it's just completely weird syntactically. But as Mark says in his update, it seems that not everyone thinks so.

  15. Lazar said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    @Michael: The problem for me is that "as X as Y" is already a comparison, so I don't understand how it can made into a quality by which two other things are compared. Something is either as red as a real Flanders poppy or it isn't, so I just can't wrap my brain around the meaning of "Nothing is as red as a real Flanders poppy as a paper poppy", if it means something distinct from "Nothing is as red as a real Flanders poppy except a paper poppy".

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 7:59 am

    When I read the headline I did a nanosecond double take, but immediately parsed it as "No Turkish leader | has had as much influence as Ataturk || as Erdogan" and then mentally rephrased it stylistically for clarity as "No Turkish leader since Ataturk has had as much influence as Erdogan". The latter operation took about two or three nanoseconds.

    I think that the headline writer was

    a. testing our syntactic attentiveness

    b. playing games with us

    [(myl) The sentence is not from a headline — it's the eighth sentence in the article, from the middle of the third paragraph.

    Sometimes we quickly see the intended meaning of a syntactically or semantically incoherent phrase, perhaps without even seeing the incoherence — "No head injury is too trivial to be ignored"; "More people have written about this than I have". The interesting thing about this case is that for some people, the sentence is not even incoherent as literally construed, while for others, it's hard even to jump past the incoherence to a plausible intended meaning.]

  17. January First-of-May said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 8:22 am

    Well, first of all, I have to note that I am not a native English speaker. With that in mind…

    The pattern listed in the post does kind of work, but IMHO it needs another "as" – "as X as Y" would normally become "as [as P as Q] as Y".
    This is probably still unworkable by itself, but could work if the first "as" is expanded: something like "No one is as much [as P as Q] as Y" (to paraphrase Aaron Toivo's example, "No brick is as much as red as a fire truck as this one").
    It could be that the long-winded "has had" clause is substituting for the missing "as" enough to make the sentence palatable in the particular quote, actually (this scheme won't work here directly in any case, because of the "much" in "as much influence").

    @David Morris: IMHO, no, but changing it to "like" would, surprisingly.

    @Jerry Friedman:
    Unlike, apparently, most of the readers, I didn't think of your first solution until reading it – but did see the second one pretty much immediately.
    That said, the first solution would mean something like "out of the bunch that came after Ataturk, Erdogan is the best", and the second one would have them claming Erdogan already got as high as Ataturk. Given the first part of the article, I'd expect something intermediate; and Aaron Toivo's idea fits that gap perfectly (as does my change to "like").

  18. RP said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    I have a slightly different interpretation of the "since" version of the sentence. I think it leaves open the question of whether Erdogan is as great as Atatürk – it doesn't mean that he isn't. If anything, it suggests to me that he is.

    @Anton Sherwood,
    I should think that people used "Ataturk" because this was the version used by the Washington Post.

    Perhaps the Post's style guide is anti-accent. The Guardian's style is fairly anti-accent (although it has made an exception for people's names): "Use on French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Irish Gaelic words (but not anglicised French words such as cafe, apart from exposé, lamé, résumé, roué). People's names, in whatever language, should also be given appropriate accents where known." ( http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a )

    This annoys me because it is ludicrous to use accents on Irish words but not Scots Gaelic or Welsh ones, on Spanish but not Catalan or Italian, and so on. On the other hand, it's been put to me that the Guardian doesn't manage even to use as many accents as its style huide requires, so adding more would probably be too much for them to cope with. Is the Washington Post's style guide online? Not as far as I can tell.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 9:11 am

    Regarding Mark Liberman's red letter sub-comment on my comment, I meant the title of the post, not the headline of the article.

  20. Mr Punch said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 10:28 am

    This is at best clumsy – maybe not incorrect but certainly bad (that's a judgment not a prescription). The meaning is (fairly) clear in part because the next sentence begins "And" ("But would have been even clearer).

  21. chh said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    The relevant question is whether "as X as Y" is gradable, right? I wouldn't be surprised if the answer was "no" cross-linguistically.

    If "be as influential as Ataturk" was a scalar predicate, the sentence would work out fine, but it isn't.

    [(myl) There's also the problem of the missing "as".]

  22. Tim said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 11:50 am


    "No city is bigger than Tokyo than Mexico City!"

    I strangely think I find this pretty manageable. Something like "For all cities that are bigger than Tokyo, the city that is bigger than Tokyo to the largest degree is Mexico City". I can deal with that.

    I still have no idea how to parse the titular sentence of this thread, though, and I don't know why.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    From Peter B. Golden:

    Properly: “since Atatürk.” The two are not even remotely in the same league. Atatürk was a visionary who tried to bring an often reluctant land (especially the non-urban regions) into the 20th century. His charisma as the savior of what became the Turkish Republic, fighting off foreign invaders and preventing the complete carving up of Turkey by the Britain, France and others, allowed him to carry out a series of truly transformative reforms. He was one of the most important political figures of the 20th century (yet often overlooked in the West). Yes, he was a dictator (with an appropriate cult of personality etc.), but it was an “enlightened” rule that laid the foundation of a modern state, including a healthy and lively press and a rich literary culture.

    Erdoğan is a narrow-minded, religiously conservative and quite corrupt politician who is systematically trying to undo what Atatürk accomplished. His growing authoritarianism has resulted in the corruption of the judicial system, one of the highest rates of incarceration of newspaper reporters globally and the suppression of dissent. He is the equivalent of the Tea Party and other far-right movements we have in the US (with a pseudo-populism) and the far-right movements that have revived in Europe. The assessment of him as a “moderate” by the Bush and Obama administrations betrays the widespread ignorance of Turkish history, culture and society that is typical of the US foreign policy establishment.

    I have no problem with the teaching of Ottoman (in the upper grades) if the purpose is to reacquaint Turks with that part of their culture in its original script. But, the real purpose is not that (substantial elements of the older culture are already available in transcribed form or in Modernized Turkish), rather it is a Neo-Ottomanism and a religious program that seeks to end or sharply limit secular Turkish culture. It is perhaps the first step in reversing one of Atatürk’s major cultural achievements: the creation of a Latin alphabet for Turkish (a very good alphabet, by the way, unlike Ottoman which did not render Turkish well – in fairness one should add that present day English orthography worked well for the 14th century, but has long since lost contact with the actual spoken language) and a signal of a program of reversing Atatürk’s secularization of Turkey. This is what I hear from numerous Turkish friends (some of whom are looking to leave the country). On a personal level, as someone who still remembers the older Atatürk culture (as an advanced graduate student I studied for a year at the Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi in Ankara in 1967, at a time when the then party in opposition to Atatürk’s CHP/Republican People’s Party was in power – quite mild in comparison to today’s AKP), recent trips to Turkey have come as something of a shock. I have friends who participated in the Gezi Park demonstrations and other manifestations of opposition to Erdoğan’s Neo-Ottomanism (which also makes lots of money for his backers). It is not a pretty picture.

    I didn’t intend to wander off into the thickets of politics, but in this instance linguistic policy is very much a tool of politics.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    @Peter B. Golden

    I have to say that I am in complete agreement with what you have written, and Atatürk has always been one of my greatest heroes, especially for his language reforms. Right up there with that other Macedonian, Alexander the Great.

  25. JW Mason said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    As is often the case, the unclear writing here is probably due to unclear thinking.

    What seems to have happened is that the writer is undecided between two possible claims. There is the strong but hard to defend claim: that Erdogan has been fully as influential as Ataturk. And there is the more defensible but weaker claim: That Erdogan has been more influential than any post-Ataturk leader, but not as influential as Ataturk himself. The writer wants the drama of the first claim but is only prepared to support the second one. The problem could be resolved by seriously thinking about the question: Has Erdogan really brought about transformations comparable to the transition from Ottoman to modern Turkey? But instead, the question is papered over, and we get this ambiguous sentence that can be read either way.

  26. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

    I'd buy this without blinking if the nested "P as Q" component is an established idiom, e.g. "No recipe is as easy-as-pie as this one."

    I think Aaron Toivo's Tokyo example needs a more: "No city is more X than Mexico City," where X = "bigger than Tokyo".

  27. wally said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

    It occurs to me that "No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk" is kind of a standard thought, or cliche, or meme, or atomic thought for people familiar with 20th century Turkish history. So the highlighted sentence reduces to "No 'that-meme' as the country's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan." which is not bad at all.

    I don't know if that type of analysis or my ad hoc terminology flies in linguistic thought.

  28. Levantine said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    While I do not support Erdoğan at all, it is important to note that, in the context of the Republic of Turkey, his brand of authoritarianism differs in kind rather than degree. His Kemalist predecessors (and I would include Atatürk himself among them) were no less corrupt, narrow-minded, or oppressive than he is; they just happened to subscribe to a different ideology. It used to be the religiously minded whose voices were ignored and actions policed, as witness the headscarf ban in universities and public buildings, and the (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to scrap Arabic as the language of liturgy. Now the tables have turned, and the former Kemalist elite (who are just as dogmatic as their Islamist counterparts) find themselves deprived of their power. Stuck in the middle — and suffering as they always have done — are those Turks who want to live and think freely, without either side imposing its doctrine on them. This excellent piece from the NYT, written by the distinguished historian Edhem Eldem during the Gezi Park protests, sums things up very well indeed: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/17/opinion/turkeys-false-nostalgia.html?_r=0

  29. Anton Sherwood said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

    I hope this thread does not become about Erdoğan's policies.

  30. the other Mark P said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

    There could be a simple missing word that makes is grammatical:

    No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk as has … Erdogan

    I know that when I type phrases such as "as has" that I tend to think I've finished the "has" when I'm still on the "as".

    [(myl) Undoing the subject-aux inversion and filling in the implicit verb, this gives us:

    No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk has as Erdogan has.

    This is grammatical?]

  31. Anton Sherwood said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 12:21 am

    Or perhaps No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Atatürk had, as Erdoğan has.

    With the comma it starts to make sense: =“No Turkish leader other than Erdoğan has had as much influence as Atatürk had.”

  32. Susana S. P. said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    I can parse it, but that doesn't make it *good*. For one thing, it's clumsy, and trips the reader up in repetition. For another, more important, it's ambiguous; either of the following two variations can be read into it, with no way of knowing which is meant:

    No Turkish leader has had as much influence as Ataturk EXCEPT the country's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


    No Turkish leader has COME CLOSE TO having as much influence as Ataturk BUT the country's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

    Small distinction, but still.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    The syntax was so weird that my brain automatically "fixed" it by changing the crucial bit to "as much influence as Ataturk on" Erdogan. Which seemed a bit weird given the attitudes ascribed to Erdogan in the very next sentence (although if your agenda is to undo the legacy of Kemalism it's not crazy to say Ataturk is the biggest influence in that regard, if only because prior figures attempting to undo that legacy haven't had enough success to be inspirational role models), but still the least-weird reading available in context.

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 11:10 am

    There was a recent thread I can't immediately find (not sure if it was here or another linguistics blog) on the substantive "Ottoman-revival" proposal, to which Levantine made some interesting contributions. Perhaps one could say that even assuming the authoritarian switchover to writing Turkish in the Latin alphabet was on balance a good thing with good long-term consequences, it was and remains unfortunate that it was accompanied (as I understand it) not merely by neglect of but active discouragement of Turkish students acquiring competence in the old script so that they could fluently read older texts that had not been republished in new, transliterated editions. Given the authoritarian nature of the regime (whether or not one agrees that its illiberalism was deployed in pursuit of mostly benign or admirable ends) it is difficult to believe that cutting off citizens from ready access to older and non-regime-approved texts was an unintended side effect of the reform. Rather it seems more likely to have been viewed as a feature than a bug.

  35. Levantine said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    J. W. Brewer, I fully agree with your assessment. The thread you're referring to is the one entitled "Kazakh" here on LL.

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