Freedom for Q

« previous post | next post »

Yasmine Seale discusses the (legendary and real) history of the Turkish alphabet: "Q v. K", LRB Blog, 10/16/2013. I was interested to learn that this version of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's signature, actually designed by the Armenian calligrapher Hagop Çerçiyan, is "one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey":

There are some famous American signatures, but I've never seen any of them used as a tattoo.

The Turkish alphabet is in the news because after 85 years, the letters Q, W, and X have been legalized, as part of Tayyip Erdoğan's "Democratization Package" of 9/30/2013.

The Turkish Alphabet Law of 11/1/1928 was aimed at shifting Turkish from Arabic-based to Latin-based orthography, and it was quite effective in suppressing the use of the Ottoman script. But it has also been used to suppress Kurdish, historically spoken by 10-25% of the country's population.

For some additional background, see  "Better not use Q and W", 10/25/2005; "Newroz Píroz Be", 11/5/2006;  "Giving thanks", 11/26/2009.

Update — The Wikipedia entry for the Azerbaijani Alphabet (used for a language variety that's extremely close to Turkish, but is spoken in a different political entity) shows an interesting historical switch back and forth between Q and K:

Azerbaijani Alphabet Transliteration Table
Perso-Arabic Cyrillic Latin IPA
–1922 1939–1958 1958–1991 1922–1933 1933-1939 1991–1992 1992–
ک К к Q q K k [c], [ç], [k]
Г г K k Q q [ɡ]

A similar sort of to-and-fro involved Ƣ and G:

Azerbaijani Alphabet Transliteration Table
Perso-Arabic Cyrillic Latin IPA
–1922 1939–1958 1958–1991 1922–1933 1933-1939 1991–1992 1992–
گ Ҝ ҝ Ƣ ƣ G g [ɡʲ]
Ғ ғ G g Ƣ ƣ Ğ ğ [ɣ]

This reminds me of the passage from Gravity's Rainbow discussed in "How alphabetic is the nature of molecules", 9/27/2004:

And so it transpired, no more than a month or two later, that somebody equally anonymous had cut Tchitcherine's orders for Baku, and he was grimly off to attend the first plenary session of the VTsK NTA (Vsesoynznyy Tsentral'nyy Komitet Novogo Tyurkskogo Alfavita), where he was promptly assigned to the ƣ Committee.

ƣ seems to be a kind of G, a voiced uvular plosive. The distinction between it and your ordinary G is one Tchitcherine will never learn to appreciate. Come to find out, all the Weird Letter Assignments have been reserved for ne'er-do-wells like himself. Shatsk, the notorious Leningrad nose-fetishist, who carries a black satin handkerchief to Party congresses and yes, more than once has been unable to refrain from reaching out and actually stroking the noses of powerful officials, is here — banished to the Θ Committee,where he keeps forgetting that Θ, in the NTA, is œ, not Russian F, thus retarding progress and sowing confusion at every working session. Most of his time is taken up with trying to hustle himself a transfer to the Ņ Committee, "Or actually," sidling closer, breathing heavily, "just a plain, N, or even an M, will, do. . . ." The impetuous and unstable practical joker Radnichny has pulled the ə Committee, ə being a schwa or neutral uh, where he has set out on a megalomaniac project to replace every spoken vowel in Central Asia — and why stop there, why not even a consonant or two? with these schwas here . . . not unusual considering his record of impersonations and dummy resolutions, and a brilliant but doomed conspiracy to hit Stalin in the face with a grape chiffon pie, in which he was implicated only enough to get him Baku instead of worse.

Naturally Tchitcherine gravitates into this crew of irredeemables. Before long, if it isn't some scheme of Radnichny's to infiltrate an oil-field and disguise a derrick as a giant penis, it's lurking down in Arab quarters of the city, waiting with the infamous Ukrainian doper Bugnogorkov of the glottal K Committee (ordinary K being represented by Q, whereas C is pronounced with a sort of tch sound) for a hashish connection, or fending off the nasal advances of Shatsk. …

Most distressing of all is the power struggle he has somehow been suckered into with one Igor Blobadjian, a party representative on the prestigious G Committee. Blobadjian is fanatically attempting to steal ƣs from Tchitcherine's Committee, and change them to Gs, using loan-words as an entering wedge. In the sunlit, sweltering commissary the two men sneer at each other across trays of zapekanka and Georgian fruit soup.

There is a crisis over which kind of g to use in the word "stenography." There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Blobadjian's conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit. Tchitcherine's in conference, meeting's called to order, CRASH! two dozen linguists and bureaucrats go toppling over on their ass. … Could Radnichny be a double agent?


  1. Levantine said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    It was a huge mistake on the part of the Turkish language reformers not to employ Q to stand for one of the Ottoman letters they were abolishing. They instead got K to do double duty, which led to such identically written, though differently pronounced, pairs as kar, 'snow', and kar, 'profit'. The latter used to be differentiated by the spelling kâr, but the circumflex has largely fallen from use. Those who later designed the Azeri Latin script very sensibly retained the distinction between the two sounds, so that their word for snow is spelt qar.

  2. D. Fear said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    Interesting, too, to note the Albanian influence here (Congress of Manastir 1908, so rather before the Turkish reforms).

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    D. Fear: can you explain the Albanian influence? Modern Albanian certainly uses both Q and X and wikipedia at least seems to attribute that to the Congress of Manastir (with those two letters being among the modifications eventually accepted to the previously-proposed "Bashkimi" alphabet, which had omitted them).

  4. michael farris said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    I think the main Albanian influence of Albanian may have been c-cedilla for [tS] while Albanian uses q and x their Albanian values (roughly [tj] and [dz] respectively) don't represent anything especially needed for Turkish.

  5. Ben said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    The Albanian influence is more the influence of *an* Albanian: Şemsettin Sami Fraşeri, author of what is still the best Turkish dictionary, the Kamûs-ı Türkî, and an early language reformer.

  6. Levantine said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

    The irony is that Şemsettin Sami's writings, though barely a century old, are very difficult to understand for most Turks today. Unlike later reformers, he had no problem with Arabic and Persian words (so long as they weren't too obscure), and while avoiding the florid style of some of his contemporaries, he happily used the kinds of Persianate grammatical constructions that would disappear under Atatürk's rule. I would say that Redhouse's Lexicon is a better dictionary than Sami's Kamûs-ı Türkî, and it's certainly by far the more comprehensive.

  7. Ben said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

    The original plans for a Latin alphabet in Turkey also had the letter 'Q' for ک, like the early Azeri one.

  8. Levantine said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    Ben, that would have resulted in the opposite of what we find in Azeri, where Q stands for ق (as it does in the English words 'Iraq' and 'Qur'an').

    Geoffrey Lewis, in his Excellent _The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success_, says the following with regard to the proposed use of Q for ک: 'This may surprise Western orientalists, who regard q as the natural transliteration not of the Arabic letter kaf, pronounced like our k, but of qaf [. . .], pronounced much like our c in cough. The explanation is to be sought in the name of the letter q, which Turks follow the French in calling kü, pronounced /kʸü/. This letter, whose name has the requisite palatalized initial sound, seemed the ideal device for indicating /kʸ/.'

  9. Levantine said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

    My apologies to Ben, who was referring to the first Latin Azeri alphabet, which did indeed use Q to represent ک (and K for ق). The modern Azeri alphabet switches the function of the two Latin letters.

  10. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    I never get tired of that bit from Gravity's Rainbow.

  11. tuncay said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 11:17 am

    I am not a big fan of the implementation of the reforms during Ataturk's time, however, saying that the law in 1928 was passed to suppress Kurdish is absurd at best.

    The law intended to (and did) suppress the use of (the Persian variant of) Arabic script to write the Turkish language, not anything else. At the time, there was no standard script (no academie française equivalent) or spelling standard (in whichever script that may be) in Turkey, and there are lots of texts from that period written in, e.g., Greek alphabet.

    Anyway, the Latin variant for Kurdish was invented years later, so the reformers could not have imagined to suppress letters in a script they didn't even know about!

    Many analyses about the reform are politically motivated – including Lewis' article. In any case, Turks and their government have been stupid enough to try and suppress the language of a people (namely, Kurds) and this law has been utilized to suppress q, w, x when used for Kurdish activism despite the original intent having nothing to do with this. I hope those days are gone with the new political climate in Turkey.

    Alas, I don't know what the result of the intended change in the law package is other than "no prosecution of banners". Turkish, just like all other languages using a variant of the Latin alphabet, has a fixed character set that people know how to utilize and are valid in official entries. Suppose I got a green card, I don't expect my name that contains dotless-i to be spelled correctly in my name for the US govt purposes – will Turkish official entries now contain Q, W and X? How will people pronounce them? X despite what many people think is the -ch in loch in Kurdish. The youngsters or the foreign language speaking people automatically will assume the x in taxi pronunciation.

    Anyway, enough ranting but I seriously don't know what this change is supposed to bring to the practical lives of Turkish citizens.

  12. Levantine said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    tuncay, it is incorrect to say that 'there was no standard script . . . or spelling standard . . . in Turkey' before the language reforms. The standard script was the adapted Perso-Arabic script that was used to write Ottoman Turkish for centuries. Yes, non-Muslim Turkish-speaking communities did use their own alphabets (as we find also, for example, with Judeo-Spanish), but the vast majority of Turkish texts — including all official documents — were written in the Ottoman script. As for orthography, almost all Arabic and Persian loanwords retained their original (and consistent) spellings, and it was only native Turkish words that were subject to any real variation. This variation, which was not much different from what we see in the case of English for most of its history, decreased throughout the nineteenth century, when a more standard orthography came to prevail. And so while I believe the Latin alphabet to be better suited to the needs of Turkish, the Ottoman script is far from the unwieldy and opaque thing it's often made out to be.

    I don't really understand why you call Geoffrey Lewis's book (not article) politically motivated; it is an excellent study written by a true expert, and it is far more even-handed than its title might suggest. Now, had the author been *Bernard* Lewis, you would have had a point.

    Regarding Turkish letters that cannot be written in English documents, when my grandmother immigrated to the UK many years ago and filled in the necessary forms, the ç she used to spell her surname was mistaken for a g, and her name has been officially misspelt ever since.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    I love that book by Lewis (not least for its awesome subtitle), although I love the Pynchon more. The problem of course is knowing which subset of Pynchon's excursus into alphabetic matters is historically unreliable . . .

    Has anyone seen any recent update on the Lithuanians-v.-Poles conflict over the letter W?

  14. Lazar said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    And also, does anybody know why Polish uses W instead of V? It's caused so much English mispronunciation of all those names that end in "-owski".

  15. Xwedêda said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    I don't know what the result of the intended change in the law package is other than 'no prosecution of banners'. […] Anyway, enough ranting but I seriously don't know what this change is supposed to bring to the practical lives of Turkish citizens.

    My very uneducated guess: Personal and company names including these letters can soon be officially registered.
    Reports of authorities fining people for including certain letters in their banners rather than for the banners' message, or even for failing to provide a translation in the national language, strike me as odd and sound like somebody twisted the facts to sell "wacky news". Does anybody know if Kurdish, Armenian or Greek media suffered from similar problems? I doubt publishing newspapers and books in those languages (or foreign languages) was only allowed (from 2003?) if they were written using the republic's national letters.

  16. Xwedêda said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

    Lazar: I think Polish and Czech used to be written with w, but then Czechs and Slovaks switched to v. Looks less German that way.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    From Erika H. Gilson:

    The need for Q to represent the velar /k/ is really not there as there are few instances such as kar and kâr, and context always makes it very clear. If only everyone would stick to inserting the circumflex – there would be no trouble at all.

  18. Levantine said,

    October 25, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

    Regarding velar /k/, the issue isn't meaning, but pronunciation. Words like ikametgah (place of residence) are being hypercorrected by those who think they should palatalise the K; spelling the word iqametgah would make the pronunciation clearer. In a language like English that has very irregular orthography anyway, such distinctions would hardly matter, but one of the supposed virtues of the modern Turkish alphabet is that each letter has one pronunciation. This is, of course, a fiction, but the reformers could have come one step closer to this notion if they'd maintained the useful distinction between the two K sounds. The circumflex doesn't really help, because it is sometimes used to indicate a long vowel, sometimes used to indicate a palatalised consonant preceding the vowel, and sometimes used to indicate both.

  19. tuncay said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    @Levantine, I agree that the majority of texts were in the Perso-Arabic script and the script is not unwieldy and opaque as commonly thought (as someone who can read the texts with a little help), however, a very small percentage of the population was literate at the time and it is certainly open to debate what spelling would look like once Turkey started florishing and the playing field (of the pen, as it were) was wide open to the masses.

    Again, I agree that Bernard Lewis is far more politically motivated but Geoffrey Lewis was not innocent in this regard (sorry for citing the book as an article btw, a slip of the fingers). I don't have time to get precise quotes now but I will try to do in the next few days if I have the time.

    Same thing happened with a Turkish football player Mevlüt Erdinç (born and raised in France), here is him posing with his jersey:

    What's funny is that French has the ç (pronounced completely differently of course).

  20. Levantine said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    tuncay, you're right that the literacy rate in Turkey was low before the language reform, but I think that's more to do with education standards than the use of the Ottoman script, which, though certainly more difficult than the modern Turkish alphabet, can be learnt without too much trouble. And again, I think you exaggerate the issue of spelling. Orthographic standardisation was already well underway in Ottoman by the time the script was abandoned, and most words in any case had stable spellings.

    If you mean that Lewis's book is subjective, that's certainly true (as it would be of any academic work), but I still think it's a stretch to call it 'politically motivated'. If it really was so, to what end?

    Thanks for sharing the Erdinç/Erding example. I don't follow football, so it was new to me. Uncannily close to what happened to my gran's name!

  21. Jonathan Wright said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

    The number of minimal pairs contrasting velar and palatal k seems to be very, very small. Everyone mentions kar. But otherwise the choice seems to be dictated solely by the quality of the following vowel. So there would seem to be little need to distinguish the sounds orthographically. Many writing systems economize in this way. If there are many more minimal pairs I would be interested to hear of them.

  22. Levantine said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

    Jonathan Wright, you're right that the number of minimal pairs involving the two K sounds is, well, minimal, and obviously Turkish has done well enough without distinguishing orthographically between them (my opening assertion that the lack of such a distinction was a 'huge mistake' was admittedly hyperbolic). That said, the old-fashioned use of the circumflex even in very common words like kağıt (paper) show that many in the early republican period felt the urge to distinguish one K from the other, and using the Q for this purpose would have been an easy, logical, and elegant solution. As things stand, one has no reason to know that the name Kazim is correctly pronounced with a yod, or that a word like ikametgah is correctly pronounced without.

  23. Osman said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

    Informative post and great discussions under the post. I am very happy that this "problem" is solved after all those years but Turkish still remains having problems with unrepresented sounds despite of having 29 letters. One of those sounds is "w" and "v". For example, the pronunciation of the letter "v" in the word "duvar" (wall) is like English w in "wall" and some people continue to pronounce is it like "v" in the word "ve" (and). These seem to create more confusions and teachers of Turkish as a foreign language would know this best! Teachers of English from Turkey are also aware of some of these, but this doesn't help. I am not sure what steps could be taken next but maybe leaving the language to its natural way of change would be good.

    In terms of the use of those letters, one should question why many people are fine with those letters when they are part of English words used in a shopping center or a barber shop but same people may not be ok with them if they are used in "Newroz" or a local shop name in Eastern Turkey. I think a good number of people in Turkey are not monolingual but I sometimes surprise how "monolinguistic" people sometimes can be and trying to understand the reasons for that seems more interesting to me.

RSS feed for comments on this post