Ottoman Turkish

Earlier on this blog, I wrote that “no one has started rendering Turkish in Arabic script, as a way of disavowing Kemalism.” But apparently I spoke too soon! From Hürriyet:

Ottoman Turkish should be taught in schools, Erdoğan says

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has once again said Ottoman Turkish should be taught in schools, accusing the early Republican period’s “language revolution” of “destroying” the Turkish language.

“It is one of the biggest problems in recent history that our language has become a subject of political discussions. In the name of ‘language revolution,’ our Turkish was attacked by unpleasant, dull and soulless words.

The bond between our nation and its old civilization was tried to be weakened,” Erdoğan said on March 15 at the award ceremony of a high school’s composition contest at the presidential complex in Ankara.

Ottoman Turkish is an old form of Turkish using Arabic script, with many words borrowed from Persian and Arabic. As part of cultural reforms to create a Western-style secular state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, replaced Ottoman Turkish with the Latin alphabet.

Paul Halsall comments:

I think Erdogan has a certain justification. As it stands now many modern Turks cannot understand anything written 80 years ago or earlier.

I seem to recall that the Chinese Communist Party considered a move to using only pinyin but did not precisely because it would create cultural barrier with the past that would be uncrossable for most future Chinese.

Lord Kinross (Patrick Balfour) in his travelogue Within the Taurus: A Journey in Asiatic Turkey (1954) p. 13, recounts how upset many Turks were on being forced to give up the fez, and the widespread approval of King Edward VIII in Turkey because on a visit to Istanbul in 1936 the then Prince of Wales had asked why no Turkish music was heard on the radio. It had been prohibited by Ataturk, but thanks to the Prince’s inquiry it was once again played on the radio for all.

Sun Language Theory

My friend Tom MacMaster recently told me about something I did not know: the Sun Language Theory, which “makes Nazi race theory look sane.” Wikipedia:

The Sun Language Theory (TurkishGüneş Dil Teorisi) was a Turkish nationalist pseudoscientific linguistic hypothesis developed in Turkey in the 1930s that proposed that all human languages are descendants of one proto-Turkic primal language. The theory proposed that because this primal language had close phonemic resemblances to Turkish, all other languages can essentially be traced back to Turkic roots. According to the theory, the Central Asian worshippers, who wanted to salute the omnipotence of the sun and its life-giving qualities, had done so by transforming their meaningless blabbering into a coherent set of ritual utterings, and language was born, hence the name.

The article further states that “the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, not only gave the theory official backing and material support, but also was himself a very important contributor to its development.” 

Part of me admires how the Turks take pride in themselves and their country. But I confess that I find this sort of thing (others: Erdogan’s theory that the Turks made it to the New World in 1178, or the denial of a certain genocide carried out under cover of World War I) utterly baffling.

Is it simply not possible to value your country, and the truth, simultaneously?

Naming Names

Watching the gold medal men’s ice hockey game of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, I was disappointed to see that the two teams, Germany and Olympic Athletes from Russia, wore sweaters that read “Germany” and “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Yes, I certainly appreciate that I can go just about anywhere and be able to speak English with someone. But if only for the sake of style points, why can’t the teams label themselves “Deutschland” and “олимпийские спортсмены из России”? And for the latter to render their names in Cyrillic on the backs of their sweaters? Have some self-respect!

Greek Letter Societies

It is a quaint American custom that university societies are often known by a combination of two or three Greek letters. Reinhardt has announced that “Greek Life” is coming to campus: the fraternity Kappa Sigma and the sorority Zeta Tau Alpha are now recruiting members. Of course, not only social societies take Greek letter names, but honor societies as well, and a number of these have existed at Reinhardt for some time. For no real reason, here is some commentary on the uses of Greek by these organizations:

If you must use Greek letters, then you should really follow the example of Beta Beta Beta, the biology honor society, or Pi Gamma Mu, the honor society for the social sciences. Their names stand for Greek mottos that describe what they do. “Blepein basion biou” means “to seek the basis of life,” as biologists do, and “Politikes gnoseos mathetai” indicates “the study of the social sciences,” something that political scientists do. This is how you’re supposed to do it! Phi Beta Kappa, the organization that inaugurated this silly custom (but of which no chapter could exist at Reinhardt right now), stands for “Philosophia biou kubernetes,” that is, “Philosophy, the helmsman of life.”

Slightly downmarket is a motto composed of three discrete words all in the nominative, as though it is difficult for people to compose a grammatical sentence. The history honor society Phi Alpha Theta stands for “Philia anthropos theos,” meaning “Love, humanity, God.” I suppose these are good words but they could apply to any society, not just one dedicated to history. Alpha Chi, our version of Phi Beta Kappa, stands for “aletheia character,” that is “truth, character.”

But that is better than the next category of name, which consists of the initials, in Greek, of a motto in English. Kappa Delta Pi is simply the first letters of “Knowledge, Duty, and Power,” suggesting that its founders knew no Greek beyond the Greek alphabet. In a similar vein, Phi Beta Lambda is simply the Greek equivalent of F.B.L., for “Future Business Leaders.”

The music fraternity Pi Kappa Lambda commemorates its first member, Peter Christian Lutkin, by rendering his initials in Greek (in which case they should have been Pi Chi Lambda, as “Christian” derives from “Christos”).

But worst of all was the Dartmouth custom of simply walking up to a slot machine, pulling the lever, and picking whatever comes up on the three reels.

Do “Zeta Tau Alpha” and “Kappa Sigma” mean anything? I assume they do – ZTA was founded in 1898, and ΚΣ in 1869, back when people knew Greek. The mottos of social societies (along with their grips, rituals, and the meaning of their insignia) are generally secret, and expulsion awaits any member who reveals them to outsiders, but a little googling reveals that the sorority’s motto is “seek the noblest,” which could mean that ZTA stands for “zeteite ta arista,” and that the fraternity:

evolved from an ancient order, known in some accounts as “Kirjath Sepher”, said to have been founded between 1395 and 1400 at the University of Bologna. The story says that the corrupt governor of the city, one-time pirate and later papal usurperBaldassare Cossa, took advantage of the students at Bologna, one of Europe’s preeminent universities which attracted students from all over the continent, by sending his men to assault and rob them; this motivated one of the university’s scholars Manuel Chrysoloras to found a secret society of students beginning with five of his most devoted disciples, for mutual protection against Baldassare Cossa. (Wikipedia)

I must say that I strongly approve of a fraternity’s theme being medieval (even if it’s highly doubtful that there’s any institutional continuity between a society founded in fourteenth century Bologna and one that became public in nineteenth century America – just as the Freemasons are not actually descended from the Knights Templar). But its name is not Greek – Kirjath Sepher was a settlement in Canaan allotted to the tribe of Judah, whose name might mean “City of the Book.” (And for extra style points, Kappa Sigma could become the first American social fraternity to be known by a pair of Hebrew letters, Qof Samekh, or קס.)


One of the delights of traveling is seeing what foreign countries put on their currency (it’s even better when the exchange rate works in your favor). For no real reason, here are some shots of the leftover bills in my possession.

• It goes without saying that Kemal Atatürk should appear on the obverse of all Turkish bills (he’s on all the coins too).

Other people only appear on the back, like Aydın Sayılı, historian of science.

It’s nice how they vary the portraits of Atatürk, and how many of them have him smiling (unlike, say, those of Mussolini or Lenin).

On the reverse of the twenty lira note, a portrait of Ahmet Kemalettin, designated Mimar Kemalettin (“Kemalettin the Architect”), who was active in the late Ottoman and early Republican periods.

• Egyptian bills have two sides, which I would designate “tourist” and “local.” The tourist side features motifs from ancient Egypt, English writing, and western numerals.

The local side features Arabic writing, real Arabic numerals, and Muslim architecture, in this case the Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo (which I saw; it is beautiful and actually houses the tomb of the last Shah of Iran).

The fifty pound note follows the same pattern: the tourist side has the Temple of Edfu…

…the local side has the Abu Huraiba Mosque (according to Wikipedia, anyway – I did not get to see it).

By the way, here is a clock face from the Cairo metro, showing the full range of Eastern Arabic numerals. Prior to this trip I had no idea there were such things, but they are widely used in Egypt, including on automobile license plates. Interestingly, you read them left to right, even though Arabic script itself goes right to left.

• I think Israel has the best designed bills. The most recent fifty New Shekel note features Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky.

It is nice of them to include Arabic and English on the reverse. (Actually, this trip revealed to me just how lucky we Anglophones are, that our language is the world’s lingua franca – perhaps I should say lingua anglica? An Egyptian man marries a Japanese woman, and they communicate in English. A Palestinian shopkeeper speaks to a Turkish customer – in English. An Egyptian tour guide leads a group including Chinese, Indonesians, Argentinians, and Brazilians – English is the language everyone knows. There was a time when French held this position, and indeed I got to speak some French with an Egyptian nun who had been educated in that language. On account of the American Empire, however, practically everyone is now obliged to learn this originally obscure German-French hybrid with three present tenses and a really bizarre spelling system. USA! USA! USA!)

• Finally, just for fun: I met a German couple in Istanbul who gave me this note. It is a real note, with a serial number and all the security features, it’s just worth zero Euros. Apparently the EU will allow the printing of them from time to time as souvenirs, to commemorate various things – in this case, the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The caption, “God’s mercy is free,” goes very well with the fact that the bill itself is “free.” Thank you, Bertold and Anne Stegemann!

The reverse includes the usual EU hodgepodge. I see Germany (Brandenburg Gate), Italy (the Coliseum), France (Eiffel Tower), Spain (Sagrada Família) and Belgium (Mannikin Pis) represented. I don’t know who belongs to the tower on the left.


post at a blog called A Fine Theorem contains an interesting nugget:

The Romans famously conquered Gaul – today’s France – under Caesar, and Britain in stages up through Hadrian. Roman cities popped up across these regions, until the 5th century invasions wiped out Roman control. In Britain, for all practical purposes the entire economic network faded away: cities hollowed out, trade came to a stop, and imports from outside Britain and Roman coin are near nonexistent in the archaeological record for the next century and a half. In France, the network was not so cleanly broken, with Christian bishoprics rising in many of the old Roman towns.

Here is the amazing fact: today, 16 of France’s 20 largest cities are located on or near a Roman town, while only 2 of Britain’s 20 largest are. This difference existed even back in the Middle Ages. So who cares? Well, Britain’s cities in the Middle Ages are two and a half times more likely to have coastal access than France’s cities, so that in 1700, when sea trade was hugely important, 56% of urban French lived in towns with sea access while 87% of urban Brits did. This is even though, in both countries, cities with sea access grew faster and huge sums of money were put into building artificial canals. Even at a very local level, the France/Britain distinction holds: when Roman cities were within 25km of the ocean or a navigable river, they tended not to move in France, while in Britain they tended to reappear nearer to the water. The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role.

This prompted an interesting comparison from Steve Sailer:

Maybe this is analogous to the recent shift from landline telephone networks to wireless telephone networks. Landline networks, like Roman roads, required a lot of social organizational capital to build and maintain, as Americans had in the AT&T era, but many other countries did not. Lots of cultures, such as the 20th Century Italians, had a hard time maintaining a landline system.

In contrast, cell phone networks don’t require a society to be good at cooperating, so even anarchic Somalia can have decent cell phone service. You just have to have a few people who knew what they are doing.

Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn’t require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired. The ocean repairs itself.

It is striking how land-oriented Roman culture was despite emerging on the Italian peninsula where no place is very far from the sea, the land is mountainous, and the sea is relatively calm and warm. In contrast, England has fairly mild terrain and the Atlantic ocean is more tumultuous than the Mediterranean sea.

Maybe the explanation is that British rivers were better for transport than Italian rivers south of the Po due to more rain and less severe slopes, so it was easier to get started with inland shipping and then continue out into the ocean as your technique improved. But Italian rivers tended to be short and steep and go dry now and then, so they weren’t as good launching pads for eventual saltwater navigation.

Maybe, but Venice and Genoa did dominate maritime trade on the Mediterranean in the high and late Middle Ages…

For my part I am interested in how little influence the Roman Empire ultimately had on Britannia, certainly when compared to Gaul. I assume this is one reason why French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic one.

Color in Homer

An interesting article in Aeon magazine:

The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneosmelas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.

Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.

The ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).”

How is this possible? Did the Greeks really see the colours of the world differently from the way we do?

Read more at the link. I was curious to discover that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the UK in the nineteenth century, also wrote a book entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), in which he advanced the novel theory that “the visual organ of the ancients was still in its infancy, hence their strong sensitivity to light rather than hue, and the related inability to clearly distinguish one hue from another.”

Speaking of “wine-like,” here is Ian Johnston’s commentary on that most Homeric of epithets:

All similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.”  At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension.

Hocus Pocus

I told my students the other day that they should not say “hocus-pocus,” because it’s anti-Catholic, a mockery of “hoc est corpus meum,” the words a Catholic priest uses to transubstantiate the bread into the actual flesh of Jesus. (Actually, I see now that this is only one of several possible explanations of this phrase.) They then asked what words were used to transubstantiate the wine. After explaining just why blood is optional when you’re consuming flesh, I said that it would be “hoc est sanguis…” and balked at the gender of the pronoun. I asked what the gender of “sangre” was, and a Hispanic student said that it was feminine, “la sangre.” But then an Ivorian student pointed out that it’s “le sang” in French, i.e. masculine – and of course she’s right, as the line from the “Marseillaise” is “qu’un sang impur,” not “qu’une sang impure.” This prompted me to look up “sanguis” online, and to discover that in Latin it’s indeed masculine. So the expression logically would be “hic est sanguis meus.” But I have never seen an example of genders shifting like this from Latin to one of its Romance descendants. I wonder what caused this, and how many other words have undergone such gender-bending.

(Of course, I have also discovered in the meantime that my Latin may be logical, but it’s not what was actually said. According to the Medieval Sourcebook, the two Latin rite sentences are:




that is, “for this is my body,” and “for this is the cup of my blood.”)

Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).


From the BBC, via Instapundit:

China’s Zhou Youguang, father of Pinyin writing system, dies aged 111

Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, who created the writing system that turns Chinese characters into words using letters from the Roman alphabet, has died aged 111.

Mr Zhou and a Communist party committee spent three years developing the Pinyin system in the 1950s.

It changed the way the language was taught and helped raise literacy rates.

Mr Zhou, who was born in 1906 during the Qing Dynasty, later became a fierce critic of China’s communist rulers.

He died in Beijing on Saturday a day after his birthday, Chinese media reported.

As a young man Mr Zhou spent time in the US and worked as a Wall Street banker.

He returned to China after the communist victory in 1949 and was put in charge of creating a new writing system using the Roman alphabet.

“We spent three years developing Pinyin. People made fun of us, joking that it had taken us a long time to deal with just 26 letters,” he told the BBC in 2012.

Before Pinyin was developed, 85% of Chinese people could not read, now almost all can.

Pinyin has since become the most commonly used system globally, although some Chinese communities – particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan – continue to use alternatives.

It is also widely used to type Chinese characters on computers and smartphones, leading some to fear it could end up replacing Chinese characters altogether.

The achievement protected Mr Zhou from some of the persecution that took place under former leader Mao Zedong.

However, he was later sent to the countryside for re-education during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In his later years he became strongly critical of the Chinese authorities and wrote a number of books, most of which were banned.

In a 2011 interview with NPR he said he hoped he would live long enough to see the Chinese authorities admit that the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been a mistake.

He said ordinary people no longer believed in the Communist Party, and that the vast majority of Chinese intellectuals were in favour of democracy.

Interesting. I’m surprised that a Wall Street banker would find employment with the Chinese Communist Party but stranger things have happened. But why did the CCP want to come up with a new system of Romanization? What was wrong with the earlier Wade-Giles system (apart from the fact that it was produced by westerners)? Pinyin isn’t entirely accurate itself – but nothing can be, given that certain sounds in Mandarin simply don’t exist in English or other European languages.