The scientific language of the Ottomans

Published 17.04.2019 00:09

The Ottomans used Ottoman Turkish as their official language, starting in the early years of the empire. The dominance of Arabic and Persian in literary and scientific works had gradually declined during the Ottoman period, with Ottoman Turkish becoming the new scientific language.

Some claim that the official language of the Ottoman state was Persian. However, if they read a bit and studied some documents at the Ottoman archive read by researchers, they would not have made the mistake.

Before the Ottomans, Persian was the official language of the Seljuks (or Anatolian Seljuks). The Anatolian beyliks (principalities) that followed them continued that practice as well for some time.

For example, a congratulatory letter by Hamidoğlu Hüseyin, which he sent to Ottoman Sultan Murad I in 1377 for the conquest of Nis, was written in Persian. Mehmet I of Karaman declared Ottoman Turkish the official language when he captured Konya, but his efforts bore no result.

The Ottomans used their version of Turkish as their official language from the early years of the empire in formal documents.

The dominance of Arabic and Persian in literary and scientific works gradually declined during the Ottoman era. An analysis of astronomical works written during the Ottoman era clearly shows that.

According to the "History of Ottoman Astronomical Literature," a book published by the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), of the 2,286 astronomical works written during the Ottoman era, 986, or 43 percent, were in Arabic, and 1,058 were in Ottoman Turkish. Around 46 percent of the books were written in Ottoman Turkish. The others were either in Persian or written jointly in two or three of these languages.

The rise of Ottoman Turkish in this field is better understood when we look at the change over the course of centuries: In the 15th century, 35 astronomical works were written in Arabic, 10 in Persian and 7 in Ottoman Turkish; in the 16th century, 172 works in Arabic, 59 in Ottoman Turkish and 42 in Persian; in the 17th century, 139 works in Arabic, 41 in Ottoman Turkish and 1 in Persian; in the 18th century, 221 works in Arabic, 101 in Ottoman Turkish and 2 in Persian; in the 19th century, 137 works in Arabic and 123 in Ottoman Turkish; at the beginning of the 20th century, 41 works in Arabic and 173 in Ottoman Turkish. This classification includes works whose authors and dates were ascertained. Of the 854 works whose author and date are not identified, 554 are in Ottoman Turkish, 241 in Arabic and 59 in Persian.

Though only 13 percent of the astronomical works were written in Ottoman Turkish during the 15th century, the rate increased with every century and by the 16th century, Ottoman Turkish surpassed Persian first and then Arabic by the late Ottoman era to become the dominant language in this field.

We see the same process in mathematical works, too. Of the 1,114 mathematical works written during the entire Ottoman era, 48 percent were in Arabic and 50 percent were in Ottoman Turkish. While the percentage of mathematical works written in Ottoman Turkish during the 15th century was around 18, it kept increasing with every century to surpass that of Persian first in the 16th century and later on Arabic by the late Ottoman era, becoming the dominant language in that field.

As for geographical works, Ottoman Turkish had been the dominant language from the beginning to the end of the empire. Of the 1,628 geographical works written during the Ottoman period, 1,542, or 95 percent, were in Ottoman Turkish. It's the same in historiography, as well.

The rates in astronomical and mathematical works should not be underestimated. Arabs had left their mark on the history of science with the works they conducted in these fields and established a strong tradition. The same tradition continued during the Ottoman era, and Ottoman Turkish maintained its progress in these branches of science for centuries.

There was hardly any scientific works written in Ottoman Turkish during the reign of pre-Ottoman Turkish states. Indeed, it must be kept in mind that Ibn Sina and Farabi, two great Turkish scholars, wrote their works in Arabic.

Ottoman Turkish was simply Turkish written in the Arabic alphabet during the Ottoman period. It's not a separate language. The greatest mistake in this regard is to call our language by a different name. The language used in Ottoman times was not Ottoman Turkish but old Turkish.

Various authors who extensively borrowed from Arabic and Persian and thus made their works unintelligible at times tended to portray Ottoman Turkish as a different language.

When we examine the official documents of the state, we see that – excluding honorable titles – it's not hard to understand the language. But a recent problem has made it more difficult to understand Ottoman Turkish: The decline in the number of words used in everyday life due to simplification of the language over the last 30 years. Comparing the Turkish used in the early 1960s with that in Ottoman times shows that there is not much difference between them. In my opinion, it's better to call the Turkish in the Ottoman period as just Turkish, not Ottoman Turkish.

* Rector of the National Defense University, writes monthly articles in Turkish Sabah newspaper

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