Giving thanks

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I'm thankful that I live in a country where not even Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck want to imprison people for using unsanctioned letters like ñ and í.  This occurred to me yesterday evening as I was making the cranberry sauce and listening on the radio to "Illegal letters in Turkey":

In Turkey, a law dating back to the 1920’s bans the use of the letters Q, W and X. The law was created for Turkey’s transition from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin one. But today, it’s used against Turkey’s ethnic Kurds.

This story seems to refer (at around 3:00) to a trial that Bill Poser discussed here on Language Log three years ago ("Newroz Píroz Be!", 10/5/2006):

Although Turkey has taken some steps toward reducing its oppression of the Kurds in hope of being admitted to the European Union, it keeps on backsliding. It is reported that Osman Baydemir, a prominent human rights activist now the mayor of Diyarbakır, is being prosecuted for sending out cards containing New Year's greetings in Turkish, Kurdish, and English. "Happy New Year" in Kurdish is Newroz Píroz be!, the publication of which violates Act 1353 of November 1, 1928 on Adoption and Application of Turkish Letters, which forbids the use of any letters not found in the Turkish alphabet. Turkish does not use the letters q, w, or x.

The PRI report says that "the case is still making its way through the courts", but Baydemir's Wikipedia entry says that

He was prosecuted for violating a Turkish law prohibiting the use of letters not in the Turkish alphabet when he sent out a New Year's greeting in Kurdish which included the letter "W". On April 19, 2007, Diyarbakır Peace Court No. 2 dropped the charges since the Ministry of Justice had not permitted that such a case be heard.

So either Wikipedia is wrong, or the PRI report is wrong (or at least misleading — maybe some non-orthographic charges lodged at the same time haven't been dropped?).  Anyhow, Act 1353 of November 1, 1928 on Adoption and Application of Turkish Letters really does exist, and it really was affirmed in the Turkish constitution of 1982 as one of "the Reform Laws indicated below, which aim to raise Turkish society above the level of contemporary civilisation and to safeguard the secular character of the Republic", and it really has sometimes been used to prosecute Kurds for orthographic offenses, as again in this LL post from October of 2005, "Better not use Q and W":

A Turkish court has fined 20 Kurds 100 lira (US$74) for holding up placards at a New Year's celebration containing the letters Q and W …

But it would be nice to trust a report from PRI about the state of affairs on such things in Turkey, without having to do one's own background research.

Having given thanks for our orthographic (and other) freedoms, it's time for me to get the turkey into the oven, and so I'll direct readers with time on their hands to some earlier Thanksgiving-related posts, including 2004's "Thanks giving", and a flurry of posts in 2007 about Thanksgiving stress (phonological, not psychological): "A Thanksgiving discussion"; "Thanksgiving variation"; "In the wake of Thanksgiving"; "Thanksgiving: the Greek influence".

[Update — the text of the 1928 Turkish law can be found here, in Turkish. I haven't found an English translation yet.  Nor, given the considerable politicization of the question, have I found a description of the current state of affairs that seems trustworthy.]

[Update #2 — the root vegetables and other side dishes are done, the turkey is coming along nicely, and I'll start making the salad in a few minutes. Meanwhile, I haven't been able to learn anything much more about the orthographic situation in Turkey, but on a related topic, I'll draw your attention to the adventures of the New Turkic Alphabet, discussed here and here.]


  1. NoDeli said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    From the audio news clip cited above:

    "…when Turkey switched its language from the Arabic alphabet, to the Latin one…"

    What? Is PRI staffed by psycholinguists? No one else could confuse the printed word with language so fluidly.

    [(myl) I'd call this a venial sin, at worst. They did switch from Arabic letters to Latin letters, and it was a matter of how to write their language. And some of my best friends are psycholinguists.]

  2. NoDeli said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    How odd! Some of my best friends are language orthography police!

  3. NoDeli said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    ^ Where the tags around "language" didn't carry through for some reason…


  4. Volkan said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    During the creation of the Republic of Turkey it was deemed appropriate to switch to the Latin alphabet. This idea wasn't new even at the time as in the 19th century people were thinking hard about how to resolve the Turkish language-Arabic alphabet mismatch. Today the issue is still a pretty hot topic of discussion and highly politicised. This is especially true when the law and its enforcement are considered alongside other similar draconian laws dating to the birth of the Republic. However, reforms of these laws have been coming into current government's focus lately and at an increasing rate. Only yesterday I read a report about a local government changing road signs to include villages' names in Kurdish (using letters that are not native to the Turkish alphabet). The situation is so dynamic at the moment it's difficult to keep up with the changes in laws and regulations. So hopefully very soon I'll no longer feel the shame that's causing you to notice what you can't take for granted.

  5. Zwicky Arnold said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    One more Thanksgiving posting: "A linguist's Thanksgiving" from 2006, here.

  6. Chris Straughn said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    While living in Turkey as an exchange student, there was a fellow student from Canada whose name began with a Q. She was quite a novelty and about half of the time found her name spelled with an O. As I recall, I was able to find things written in Kurdish using q, x, and w. I don't see anything in the law banning the use of non-Turkish letters, and if anything, a reasonable case could be made that all of these letters are 'Turkish' as these are all found in the Latin orthographies of other non-Turkey Turkish languages, which the Turkish government considers dialects of a greater Turkish language.

  7. Alan Jacobs said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    I have always enjoyed this story from David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb:

    [Dmitri] Likhachev [later a historian and activist] was arrested in 1928 for taking part in a students’ literary group called the Cosmic Academy of Sciences. . . . For election as an “academician,” Likhachev presented a humorous paper on the need to restore to the language the letter “yat.” The Bolsheviks banned the letter as part of a campaign to “modernize” Russian after the revolution. Later, one of Likhachev’s interrogators railed at him for daring to waste his time on such things.

    “What do you mean by language reform?” the interrogator shouted. “Perhaps we won’t even have any language at all under socialism!”

  8. John Walden said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    Well Google are going to be in trouble:

    there's a W right there in "Web".

  9. Thanksgiving link roundup « Glossographia said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    […] While Turkey officially switched from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s, at the same time it prohibited the use of letters not used to represent Turkish – which includes the 'ordinary' Roman letters Q, W, and X. While sometimes portrayed as a ban on those letters specifically, it is a more general ban on non-Turkish characters, as far as I can tell, which would seem to prohibit all sorts of texts. Ostensibly designed to promote national unity and secular rule, the law has only been applied to Turks of Kurdish descent. As someone who until last year was a resident of a region where texts written in my native language are under severe legal constraints, this has been a matter of some interest and concern to me for a few years now. Mark Liberman tells us more over at Language Log. […]

  10. mollymooly said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    I'll bet there are plenty of ASCII-only databases in the USA where letters like ñ and í cannot be input. What is the legal position? Is there an Americans with Diacritics Act?

    Here in Ireland, even though Irish is in theory the first national language, Seán Ó Néill will often receive post for Sean O Neill.

    Of course, it would require bloodymindedness ratgher than mere incompetence to create a computer system that specifically disallows q w x Q W and X.

  11. Sili said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Esperanto has an x-convention for people who can't type the hacecks (like me). It should be possible to come up with a similar non-qwx-convention for Kurdish.

    I realise it utterly ridiculous and illiberal to suggest the Kurds need to change their orthography, but if they're persecuted by the letter of the law, rather than its spirit (I hope), it'd only be fair to fight back by following the law to the letter, but still promoting Kurdish.

  12. Robert T McQuaid said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    This madness is not restricted to Turkey. I live in a country where, just across the river, police issue tickets for signage in English.

    Mattawa, Ontario

  13. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    They're not even hacek: they're good ol' circumflexes over letters nobody would have topped with such a diacritic.

  14. Q. Pheevr said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    This is why Turkey will never produce an international Scrabble champion.

  15. Myrosia said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    In 1933, USSR decided to create a new Ukrainian grammar – which included throwing out a letter and a sound which corresponded to it from the language, changing inflection rules for a number of word categories, and changing both spelling and pronunciation on a number of words borrowed from foreign languages. Since it was a totalitarian state, the tactics worked – the newspapers etc. switched promptly, and eventually people started using this grammar as well, so the language effectively changed.

    Now a significant portion of Ukraininan diaspora (those who left before the change), as well as certain Ukraininan philologists are trying to bring the change back, often using argumentation which scares me as a linguist – such as "people are speaking damaged language now, we should bring back the correct pure language". There is a governmental committee that published the new authoritative grammar, bringing back some of the old rules. In general, I would say that such efforts are futile – except there have been attempts to force this new grammar into schools (curriculum is centrally regulated), bringing grief to both parents and teachers who neither speak nor write the language they are expected to teach.

    It seems to have quieted down in the last few years – bigger political problems to deal with – so I am hoping this is well over and gone.

  16. Nanani said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    I have to ask…
    How does this law affect teaching of foreign language in Turkey? What about signage in areas where non-Turkic-understanding people gather, such as international airports?

    It's so absurd as to be amazing.

  17. Dan T. said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    I guess Wikipedia is illegal too, since it has a "W" in it.

  18. NoDeli said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

    Yes, and no:

    ^ "Vikipedi"

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 1:39 am

    It's not hard to find Ws in foreign words quoted in Turkish contexts, e.g.

    Yerleri Değiştirme (İngilizce: Changing Places), İngiliz roman yazarı David Lodge'ın 1975 yılında yazdığı kampüs romanları serisinin ilkidir. Eserin alt başlığı olan İki Kampüsün Öyküsü (A Tale of Two Cities), Charles Dickens'ın İki Şehrin Öyküsü'ne (A Tale of Two Cities) bir göndermedir. Serinin ikinci kitabı 1984 yılında yayınlanan Dünya Küçük'tür.
    Lodge, sonraki senelerde, romanın baş karakterlerinden Morris Zapp'i yaratırken edebiyat eleştirmeni Stanley Fish'ten esinlendiğini açıkladı.

    I can't read the Turkish, but can see that the character of Morris Zapp is said to be based on Stanley Fish. Wow, I didn't know that.

  20. slobone said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 3:27 am

    Nanani wondered, What about signage in areas where non-Turkic-understanding people gather, such as international airports?

    I guess there aren't any flights from Istanbul to Washington DC or Albuquerque New Mexico…

  21. John D said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    If I may gently rebut Sili, Esperanto has an H convention for people who can't type circumflex and breves. There are no hacheks in Esperanto, circumflexes point the other way and breves are rounded (ˇ is a hachek or caron, ^ is a circumflex, and ˘ is a breve. Some Esperantists have adopted an X convention.

    Zamenhof proposed spelling words like loĝas as loghas where people couldn't type a ĝ.

    In the computer era, people have proposed and used the X-system, and while they have some points, the X-system has been rejected by the Esperanto Language Academy. It also starts flame wars among Esperantists.

    Godwin's Law for Esperantists would be that in any Internet discussion sufficiently long, someone will eventually insist that the whole discussion would have been better written in the x-sistemo.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Am I the only one who found it odd that the PRI summary described the statute as being "used against Turkey's ethnic Kurds", as opposed to say "Kurdish-speakers" or even just "Kurds"? What does ethnicity, as such, have to do with it? Now, presumably the vast majority of those wishing to write in Kurdish are ethnic Kurds, but I take it that many of not most of those Kurds (if literate) are also literate in Turkish and don't suffer any disadvantage as a result of the law in that context. I wonder if this is an expression of an assumed minor premise that government discrimination on the basis of language use is objectionable if and only if it is a proxy or pretext for racial/ethnic discrimination.

    What would have happened if the various WW1-era statutes aimed at barring U.S. schoolchildren from being taught in German (held unconstitutional in Meyer v. Nebraska) had instead merely imposed the standard English alphabet on private schools and thus forbidden umlauts and the eszett?

  23. Dan T. said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Yes, Turkish Wikipedia uses a name for itself that has a "v" instead of a "w", but it's still in a subdomain of the domain that includes a "w", and the current Wikimedia Foundation donation ad at the top uses the "W" form of "Wikipedia", saying "İhtiyacınız olduğunda Wikipedia yanınızda — şimdi onun size ihtiyacı var."

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    In the context of the orthographic rules, it may be helpful to recall that the switch from Arabo-Persian script to a Latin-based alphabet was part and parcel of a much broader range of reforms, which, as with the broader Ataturkist project, sought to achieve modernization by coercive and illiberal means. The story is well told in the admirably-subtitled The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, by the late Geoffrey Lewis. The text of a lecture in which Prof. Lewis discussed some of the same themes can be found here:

  25. Lazar said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    Does this make it illegal to teach any language that contains a banned letter? That would cover English, French, Spanish, Italian and German.

  26. NoDeli said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 2:06 am

    What Mr. Brewer said ^above. As a part of the package of both 'positive' reforms and heinous crimes committed by the Kemalists (pre and post abolition of the Sultanate) a few squiggles more or less is a gruesomely trivial matter. Consider, for example, just how few Greeks, Armenians, and Circassians were left hanging around in Anatolia in 1923 to cope with this new trifle of orthographic reform.

    That said, I'm told by some natives that – for the relatively few non-Turkish speakers who remained – municipal signage was erected instructing Istanbulites to "PLEASE SPEAK TURKISH" in public. Photographic evidence pending.

  27. Sven Holmström said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    To give some more political context to the story: The anti-kurdish laws are still partly intact. They were even more so three years back. And they have strong support among the old leftist elite and the military. For many in that crowd an alleviation of the restrictions is akin to a splintering of the country. At the same time, the ruling (islamistic, in the eyes of man) AKP depends to some extent on Kurdish votes. Because of this they certainly do not favor the restrictions.

    As Volkan said above, as late this week the first bilingual road signs in Turkey were uncovered, if only in one village so far. And just a few weeks ago AKP officially released their plans to remove all remaining restrictions on Kurdish. (Including limitations on air time for TV and radio and much else.)

    Apart from all the politics, the Turkish language reform is a very interesting subject in itself. Truly a modernist project, if there ever was one.


    "Istanbulites to "PLEASE SPEAK TURKISH" in public. Photographic evidence pending."

    If my memory serves me right the exact phrasing would be: "Turk, Turkce konus" ("Turk, speak Turkish").

  28. Sven Holmström said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    "Does this make it illegal to teach any language that contains a banned letter? That would cover English, French, Spanish, Italian and German."

    Perhaps in theory, but I can assure you that this has never been taken to court except for Kurdish. It would be slightly difficult for us located in Turkey and working solely in English.

    [(myl) I haven't been able to find an English translation of the 1928 law, but to the extent that I can puzzle out the Google Translate results, it seems to focus on official documents and on the primary language of school instruction. Thus the mayor brought up on charges for his New Year's cards might be guilty of promulgating an official document using illegal letters, in a way that a private citizen wouldn't be. In any case, it seems clear that attitudes at various levels of the government and the judiciary are mixed, and generally improving (perhaps because of various kinds of international pressure).]

  29. Sili said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    Thank you for the corrections re Esperanto. It goes to reason that when I'm too lazy to check the facts I misremember the direction of the diacritic. It was either one of the other. I do have a nice ^ on my keaboard, but it doesn't combine with g.

    I knew about the h-convention – and thought of suggesting that, depending on the rôle of h in Kurdish – but I decided to go for the x-convention, since I believe that alphabetises correctly.

  30. Jesse Tseng said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 3:41 am

    Perhaps some LL readers and writers would like to contribute a photo of their tongue to the QWX project.

    It seems pretty clear that the 1928 text that Mark linked to is about replacing the Arabic script with the Latin script for writing Turkish. I would be surprised if the text could be reasonably re-interpreted as saying that from now on, only "Turkish letters" can be used for all writing in Turkey, but who knows. The main problem is, we also need to track down the "attached table" mentioned in Article 1, where the inventory of Turkish letters is presumably declared.

    Actually, there should be no shortage of documents from this period telling people what these letters are, and I would be interested to see if ⟨q⟩, ⟨w⟩, and ⟨x⟩ are really missing from the list. Because I took this photo in Istanbul, and it clearly shows Atatürk teaching a couple of schoolchildren the letter ⟨w⟩…

    I also found an EU-sponsored report from the Mercator group on Recent changes in Turkey's Language Legislation, which seems to provide a trustworthy, if not necessarily neutral, description of the situation. But it's from 2003, so it doesn't cover the more recent cases involving banned letters. After skimming this document and some of its references, my understanding is that the selectively-enforced ban on "un-Turkish" letters must be quite recent, because during the entire period from 1930 to 2002, there were other laws that explicitly restricted/prohibited the use of languages other than Turkish, in publishing, broadcasting, education, place-names, baby-names… After these laws were repealed, it was no longer possible to target whole languages, so I suppose someone came up with this clever idea of targeting individual letters. But it's unclear to me if the 1928 law is really the legal basis of these actions.

  31. Jesse Tseng said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    OK, I take it all back. Some of it, anyway. The sculpture I photographed is based on a photo where it looks like Atatürk was not introducing ⟨w⟩, but explaining how it was now possible and obligatory to indicate the ⟨u⟩-⟨ü⟩-⟨ı⟩-⟨i⟩ opposition in writing. (I imagine this took a quite a bit of explaining.)

    And I Googled up an English and French version of the 1928 law, on this page, along with the list of letters (which indeed does not include ⟨q⟩, ⟨w⟩, and ⟨x⟩). The translations are very poor, however. The law does not say, for example, "it is obliged to publish the books in Turkish letters", but "books printed in Turkish must be printed using Turkish letters", and instead of "Turkish letters shall be used in the education in all schools" it actually specifies "instruction done in Turkish", etc. But I suppose Article 2 is worded vaguely enough to serve the purposes of the anti-QWX crowd. (A better translation of some of the articles can be found on p. 11 of this paper on the history of Turkish accounting.)

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Thanks to Jesse Tseng for posting the link to the Mercator piece, which I found interesting — although I would agree that anything put out by a group which publishes its work only in English and Catalan is not necessarily to be presumed neutral when it comes to politicized issues of language. According to wikipedia (plus some inferences therefrom), Kurdish was not written in a non-Arabic script as of the time the Turkish alphabet statute was enacted in 1928 (except perhaps in the USSR where they were vacillating between cyrillic and latin options for the Muslim-minority languages). The romanization system that causes the QXW problem was apparently developed in Syria in the 1930's by a Kurdish emigre politician who hadn't gotten on well with the Kemalists. Note also that since Greek and Armenian are written in non-Latin alphabets (and I assume that developing non-Arabic-script literacy in Kurdish was not a major priority of the Turkish government as of 1928), the need to provide for different romanizations for languages with different phoneme inventories than Turkish was unlikely to have been on anyone's mind.

  33. Kate said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    I'm afraid I can't offer any detailed political commentary on the Kurdish situation and the way the language law has been applied, but I do have some personal observations from my [limited] experience teaching English in Turkey (southeastern Turkey, in particular, where the Kurdish population has traditionally been based):

    • This particular law certainly doesn't prohibit the teaching or use of other languages– at least a full year of English education, for example, used to be mandated at any Anadolu Lisesi, though this is no longer in effect. German is also a common second language here among older generations, and plenty of people study other languages.
    • However, it's certainly been applied against Kurdish speakers, along with restrictions meant for them specifically. With the new political "açılım" (opening) to Kurds supposedly underway (I'm optimistic, lots of people aren't), this is changing. My Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate this, but note the picture and the commentary on the alphabet law in this article from Radikal about the first new Turkish/Kurdish roadsigns.
    • My guess would be that the spelling of "Wikipedia" as "Vikipedia" is pronunciation-related (my Turkish friends tend to pronounce American v's as American w's, even though the consonant is not that simple in Turkish, either), but it could well be legal instead.
    • Re: NoDeli and Sven Holström: At the university where I work, the cafeteria trays were graced for a month by placemats from the campus "Türkçe Külübü," with the same slogan and a list of common English loan words (e.g. ekstra) and their "Turkish" equivalents. Ironically, külübü is itself (as far as I know) a loan word from "club." (I wish I'd grabbed one when I had the chance; I didn't realize they weren't permanent.)

    In general, for further information on the Kurdish situation (including attendant linguistic issues) in Turkey, Yigal Schleifer is an excellent place to go to for neutral, well-educated commentary and links-to-further-commentary. And I have to say, even as a non-Turk living in Turkey, I bristled a little at the tone of the opening paragraph here. The Kurdish people have absolutely been mistreated by various Turkish governments over the years– linguistically and in many other ways– but implicitly tarring the entire country ("I'm thankful that I live in a country where…", my emphasis) with that brush is troubling, particularly given the enormous religious and ethnic diversity of Turkey.

    On the other hand, that may just be the local tendency to bristle getting into my bones. On re-reading the post, I am not nearly so bothered as I was initially.

  34. Belial said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

    Thurber's The Wonderful O comes to mind.

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