There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet. The story is apocryphal; Kemal’s signature (now one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey) was designed by Hagop Çerçiyan, an Armenian calligrapher. And while it’s true that the letter Q was outlawed for 85 years, from 1928 until last month, the reason for the ban had little to do with aesthetic bias or onomastic whim.
The Turkish Parliament unanimously voted in the Alphabet Law on 1 November 1928. Kemal embarked on a tour of Anatolia to promote it, and staged massive, quasi-theatrical tutorials to demonstrate how easy the letters were to learn. Dolmabahçe Palace was turned into a primary school where servants, ministers of state and other high officials learned the new script with the president of the republic as their teacher. He even composed an Alphabet March to help his pupils along.
Banks, post offices and police stations were fitted with blackboards; on bridges and ferries, syllabaries sold fast; prisoners were photographed bent over their primers. ‘Turkey is one vast schoolroom,’ National Geographic reported. ‘There is no “q”, no “w”, no “x” in the new alphabet… The left-hand edge of the typewriter is the hardest hit. One does not go to the “Maxim” Restaurant, but to the “Maksim”.’
Romanisation, it was argued, would help standardise Turkish spelling, improve literacy, and allow for cheaper and more convenient printing (the Arabic script required more than 400 pieces of type). But the reform had other, political aims: imposing cultural homogeneity and assimilating Turkey’s minorities. New characters were added to the alphabet to accommodate Turkish phonology – ğ, ı, ü, ş – while others were left out. By adhering so closely to the specifics of Turkish and outlawing all other Latin characters (and all other scripts), it effectively proscribed written expression in any language other than Turkish – not least Kurdish, which was spoken by around 20 per cent of the population.
Kurds see linguistic restrictions as one of the key tools of cultural repression in Turkey. When, on 30 September, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan revealed the contents of his long-awaited ‘democratisation package’, a handful of conciliatory reforms extending the rights of some of the country’s minorities, the olive branch was widely seen as a flimsy one: most of the proposals fell short of Kurdish expectations (the ban on mother tongue instruction was lifted, for instance, but only in fee-paying private schools) or failed to meet their demands at all. Compared to more pressing issues – electoral reform, or the mass detention of Kurdish prisoners – the legalisation of Q, W and X may seem token or trivial. But forms of linguistic oppression are forms of oppression nonetheless.