Putting the kibosh on bosh

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In the "Cultural disappropriation" section of the current The Economist, there's an entertaining and informative article on the latest attempt to purify Turkish:

"Turkey’s president wants to purge Western words from its language:  A new step in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against foreign influences"

The whole business is both humorous and hopeless:

Mr Erdogan started by ordering the word “arena”, which reminded him of ancient Roman depravity, removed from sports venues across the country. Turkey’s biggest teams complied overnight. Vodafone Arena, home of the Besiktas football club, woke up as “Vodafone Stadyumu”. Critics wondered what the Turkish language had gained by replacing one foreign-derived word with another.

This is not the first time in modern Turkish history that a strong leader has set out to purify the Turkish language of alien elements.  The founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, did it in the thirties, when he attempted to rid the mother tongue not only of words having Arabic or Persian roots, but discarding the Perso-Arabic alphabet in which they were written as well.  For details see Geoffrey Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (Oxford Linguistics) (1999; new ed., 2002).

Here are the last two paragraphs of The Economist article:

Because so much abstract vocabulary had come from Arabic and Persian, this in effect created a new language. From one generation to the next, the country’s cultural history was cut off. Mr Erdogan seems to want to turn the clock back, complete with imperial nostalgia and resentment towards the West. In 2014 he proposed introducing mandatory high-school classes in Ottoman Turkish, which survives today only among linguists, historians and clerics. The plan was shelved after a popular backlash.

The offensive against Western loanwords will probably meet a similar fate. In an interview, the TDK’s* head, Mustafa Kacalin, clarified that it would apply only to “bizarre” foreign words incomprehensible to most Turks. The limits became clear in Mr Erdogan’s own speech on May 23rd, in which he denounced loanwords by using a loanword. They were not, he said, “sik” (“chic”). Many Turks no doubt consider the whole thing a load of bosh—from the Turkish bos, “nonsense”.

*TDK = Turkish Language Institute

I'm afraid that, no matter how hard Erdogan or any other purist huffs and puffs, they will not be able to blow away the foreign building blocks which have been used in the construction of the house that is Turkish.  I am the proud owner of the big Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary (I also have on the shelves of my library the Redhouse English-Turkish dictionary which is nearly as large — both of them are around twelve hundred pages in length).  Looking through the pages of Redhouse, I see an enormous number of words from Persian, Arabic, Greek, French, Spanish, English, German, Albanian, Armenian, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Romany, Chinese, Japanese, and Malay (sorry if I missed something).

The same is true of other modern Turkic languages besides Anatolian Turkish.  Henry G. Schwarz's An Uyghur-English Dictionary, about a thousand pages long, is full of words borrowed from Arabic and Persian.  As much as 75% of the vocabulary of Uyghur is Perso-Arabic.  During the 20th century Russian words came flooding in, and now Chinese is having a heavy impact.

If we go back to the earliest traceable stage of the Turkic lexicon, as collected in Gerard Clauson's An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-thirteenth-century Turkish (Clarendon, 1972) and other works of scholarship on early Turkic,  we find words derived from many languages, including Indic (Sanskrit), Iranic (Sogdian, Khotanese), Mongolic / Khitan, Samoyedic, and Sinitic (here again I may have missed some).  The language that served as the source of a number of Old Turkic words that intrigued me the most when I was perusing Clauson was Tocharian, since it may have been derived from the speech of the Bronze Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia and plays such an important role in discussions of the early development of Indo-European ("Early Indo-Europeans in Xinjiang" [11/19/08]).

Is there any language on earth today that is "pure" in the sense of having no lexical borrowings or other types of influences of any sort from other languages?

[Thanks to Juha Janhunen and Marcel Erdal]


  1. Au Zéta Zuni said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 10:09 pm


  2. Thomas Shaw said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

    The quotation from *The Economist* misspells the Turkish: it should be şık and boş. Also Erdoğan, of course, as discussed here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=27213 .

  3. Y said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

    Sentinelese: they probably had some interactions with neighboring Andamanese languages before they isolated themselves.

    Does the move to linguistic purity apply also to Arabic loanwords, however obscure, or only to ones coming from the West?

    Hat, what Albanian and Armenian loans do you see in your Turkish dictionary? Anything striking (other than regional foods etc.)?

    The "speech of the bronze age mummies"—I know what you mean, but it's still funny.

  4. Y said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    (Oops! I thought I was posting a comment on Language Hat…)

  5. Arthur Baker said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 1:37 am

    Also highlights the pointlessness of the Académie Française. No matter how hard they try, they just can't seem to persuade the French to say "bon fin de semaine" and not "bon weekend".

  6. Keith said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 3:00 am

    @Thomas Shaw
    You'll just have to get used to the fact that Turkish, and many other languages, are unlikely to be correctly written any time soon.

    But if you're a subscriber to The Economist, you can download the audio version and listen to this particular article. I don't speak Turkish, but the pronunciation of Erdoğan, şık, şezlong and boş sound good to me.

  7. Mike Casey said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 4:07 am

    Send back "kebab".

  8. Vicki said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    Are any of the world's sign languages that shape of "pure"? It seems more likely with something relatively new, like Nicaraguan Sign Language than with one like American Sign Language, with a larger community of native speakers, some of whom are likely to be interacting with people who use other sign languages.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 8:46 am

    I would think that any sign language in a literate society is likely to have some integration of the local written (and spoken) language via finger spelling. Isolation from other sign languages would not necessarily keep a sign language pure.

  10. Jeff P said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 9:19 am


    The highly common words örnek (example) and pezevenk (pimp) are both Armenian, at least going by nisanyansozluk.com.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 9:47 am

    One thing that's not clear to me from this post and comments is how successful Atatürk's attempt to "purge" the language was. Assuming Victor's Redhouse Dictionaries to be less than 90ish years old, it would appear that it was not, and many of the comments suggest reasons why it would not be; but the title of Geoffrey Lewis's article and the quoted paragraphs from the Economist suggest that it succeeded rather more than one might expect.

  12. Martin Ball said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 10:18 am

    Scary: "the speech of the Bronze Age mummies".

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    Y already commented on that, and called it "funny".

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    Almost all of the titles used by the Türks are of foreign origin (Chinese, Iranian, Tocharian [often a vehicle for Sanskrit, e.g. the Old Türk title ïšbara < īśvara, transcribed in Chinese sources usually as 沙鉢略 Shabolüe and sometimes as 始波羅 Shiboluo). Many of these titles may have been “inherited” from the Rouran, who may have been speakers of some early Mongolic/Para-Mongolic language, but this long-held notion, has been questioned by Sasha Vovin in several articles (which I recommend). The recent book of Andrew Shimunek, Languages of Ancient Southern Mongolia and North China. A Historical-Comparative Study of the Serbi or Xianbei Branch of the Serbi-Mongolic Language Family with an Analysis of Northeastern Frontier Chinese and Old Tibetan Phonology (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017): 68, sidesteps the question, noting only that Serbi/Xianbei continued to be spoken “throughout the Jou-jan Empire…the two Turk empires, the Uyghur Empire…" up through the period of the period of the Qïrğïz conquest (840). Shimunek’s book will be of great interest to those on this list.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

    The subtitle of the late Prof. Lewis' books is one of my all-time-favorite subtitles in the history of scholarly publishing. You can, I think, view these things in a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of way. Natural language is ultimately too messy, and its human speakers too resourceful, to be completely subjugated to someone's externally imposed political will, but a sufficiently authoritarian/brutal regime in pursuit of sufficiently silly linguistic goals (and in sufficient control of e.g. the education system and similar institutions that its agenda won't be undermined by wholesale non-compliance there) can still do quite a lot of damage. And if you can carry through a change of script successfully, you can ensure that the new generation will generally be unable to read books printed before your regime came to power, and thus have difficulty in accessing substantive written content not approved by your regime's censors.

  16. Christopher Henrich said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

    'Is there any language on earth today that is “pure” in the sense of having no lexical borrowings or other types of influences of any sort from other languages?'

    Surely not, because no language existing today is primordial. English is full of "borrowings" from Anglo-Saxon (pace Winston Churchill and others who prefer words of Anglo-Saxon origin to Latinate vocabulary).

  17. PB said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 5:42 pm

    Icelandic is famously puristic, e.g. using old words such as sími (thread, for telephone) or compound words such as veðurfræði (literally, "weather science") for meteorology, see "Linguistic purism in Icelandic" in Wikipedia. But they have their loanwords, too, such as "jeppi" (from "Jeep") for an off-road vehicle.

  18. stephen said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

    Where does the name Erdogan come from?

    And is "Turk" a Turkish word? I shouldn't assume.

  19. Terry Hunt said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 8:12 pm

    Going to try sticking in a to see if it stops the rot!

  20. Terry Hunt said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 8:13 pm

    It didn't.

  21. william holmes said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 8:25 pm

    In his "Genes, People and Languages", Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza offers — as examples of "linguistic inertia" — Iceland and Sardinia (its mountainous inland for Sardinia, and presumably only in premodern times for both). And, as observed above by C. Heinrich, linguistic inertia is not the same as "purity" in the sense of "virgin".
    Cavalli-Sforza posits that island populations exhibit linguistic inertia, but offers only two European examples. Mustn't there be other examples elsewhere?

  22. Levantine said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 5:45 am

    In Turkish, "boş" means empty rather than nonsense.

    stephen, Erdoğan is a compound of two Turkish words, "er" (man, hero) and "doğan" (active participle of "doğmak", to be born), and means "born a man/hero". Both Recep and Tayyip, however, are pure Arabic (Rajab, the name of a month in the Islamic calendar; "tayyib", good).

    Robert Coren, the language reforms of the twentieth century did a great deal to change Turkish, particularly in its higher and more erudite registers. Lewis's account of this process is both vivid and accessible to non-specialists. That modern editions of the Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary contain so much foreign matter is somewhat misleading, as many of the listed words are obscure archaisms that have simply dropped from use. The dictionary is derived from Redhouse's excellent nineteenth-century Lexicon, which is why it is so full of Ottomanisms. Of course, modern Turkish is still rich with loanwords (there's no native word for "hello"), but a vast number of literary/technical Arabic and Persian borrowings were lost as a result of the reforms, in many cases replaced by (ungainly) neologisms or borrowings from Western languages.

  23. Levantine said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 6:01 am

    Oh, and regarding the etymology of "Turk", the picture is a little muddled, though Bozkurt's explanation is as good as any: https://www.researchgate.net/post/Can_somebody_tell_me_the_etymology_of_the_word_tuerk_turk

  24. Lane said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 5:40 am

    @Thomas Shaw, those are not misspellings per se; I'm at The Economist, and our house style, which is fairly arbitrary, as we all acknowledge, is to put diacritics on a small subset of European languages (French, German, Spanish and Portuguese) and not others. This is just a concession to reality, so that we don't spend endless amounts of time chasing the correct characters, often in languages with vastly many diacritics (like Vietnamese) where we don't have the resources to be sure we're right. As a speaker of Danish I find it weird to see æ, ø and å rendered as ae, o and a, but we do just have to draw the line somewhere.

  25. Bob Edgar said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 6:18 am

    @Lane re @homas Shaw, those are not misspellings per se;
    I read at this Language Log post http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=27213 in a comment by "Alex" :

    I asked the editor of the Economist about this exact question a couple of years ago. The answer I received is that it is basically a matter of cost. The Economist uses a proprietary font for its print edition and so would have to commission many new glyphs (for all the various weights and styles) for each extra character but it was decided that this was not a justifiable expense for languages other than French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese. In addition it would add editorial costs to make sure no errors are made.

    I have noticed that the correct diacritics for Central European and Turkish names are increasing being used on The Economist website in content which is online only and which I imagine is uploaded into the CMS directly by the journalists themselves.

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