Language, Peace, Necmiye Alpay

Translated from Turkish by Translators for justice.


September 14, 2016

Tanıl Bora

Atatürk (or Ghazi Mustafa Kemal)[1] is said to reproach to his “old sports” around “the table”:[2] “Yet, no words of ours.” What he meant was pure Turkish ones – or, there … words …[3]

Lacivert Dergisi,[4] in almost its every issue, includes a questionnaire answered by conservative and/or Islamist authors. Among the questions is “the words that you are not fond of when writing.” Some do not take the bait, and some do not swallow it; and some others list “the other” words without hesitation: Kuram, sözcük, duyarlılık, yapıt[5]

In this country, a civil war over language is still continuing—though not as tough as the one between the 1960s and 1980s. Many can classify the ones they encounter according to their wor-l-dly preferences.

Hallelujah, there are still some who believe that new words—sözcükler—can live together in peace (and that they can even get along well with the old words—kelimeler!). Necmiye Alpay who always speaks out not only with commonsense but with knowledge built upon deep reflection and research on the matter has offered the greatest support to those people. In her essays, collected in Dilimiz, Dillerimiz (Our Language, Our Languages) (Metis, 2004) she complains about the blocking of even a shared spelling by the ‘divided cultural islands,’ and tries to construct some kind of a ‘language peace’. For Alpay, the problem of the Turkish language is that while in the days of the Ottoman language the integrity and productivity of language were not observed, the Republican revolution in language ignores the semantic requirements of the language user and the historical texture of the words-cum-sözcükler. On this last issue, Alpay contends that one should not consent to “giving up history, the material for the sake of pure language.” She argues for improving the viability of Turkish language today by protecting those three factors.

I should shift a bit and cite her essay, titled “İsmet Özel, the poet” in another collection of her “reading notes.” In that essay, Necmiye Alpay, warns the reader that they should “not burden the poetry with the problems of ordinary writing”; that they should not conflate the poet’s political-ideological attitude with the criteria for evaluating her/his poetry. (Brackets in shift: Here she proposes a concept, which she names as “fixing in the state of poem.”) The care for distinction is an inevitable outcome of the contentment in her approach to language. This attitude, which merges curiosity with subtlety is also defined in the title of her book that I noted above: Yaklaşma Çabası (Zeal for Imminence)  (Kanat, 2005).

In any case, Necmiye Alpay stands against oppressive policies on language. She does not tolerate “patronizing mentality.” She explains with full effort that the care for language and mother tongue is different from the guardianship of ‘pure clear’ (or ‘fluent’) Turkish. She warns us that approaching the issues related to language with resort to concepts, “purity, and cleanness/dirtiness,” and deformity tends toward chauvinistic or even fascistic views.

We shall take note of the title of her first book: Dilimiz, Dillerimiz (Our Language, Our Languages). It points out the diversity of the language and the possibilities of a multi-lingual life.  Well, you know, apart from everyone’s “our own words”, there are some words containing letters like “x, w”… In 2001 Necmiye Alpay had chosen a title for her column in Milliyet Sanat,[6] which resonates with a slogan for linguistic pluralism: “One, two, three more languages.” In 2003, in the lecture she presented in Eğitim-SEN’s (Education Workers Union) Symposium on Education in Mother Tongue she emphasized that language is both a right and richness; and pointed at the difference between “weakening bilingualism” and “strengthening bilingualism.” She noted that under those circumstances when it is certain that the new language that will be taught will not impair the mother tongue bilingualism would not be weakening; on the contrary it would be enriching. She put this as a problem encountered not only by those citizens for whom Turkish language is not the mother tongue, but also by those citizens who try to learn Western languages. Her solution to the problem is as follows: multilingualism vis-à-vis “weakening bilingualism, which accumulates ressentiment.

I will repeat Spinoza’s maxim, which I recalled elsewhere (link): “Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is a virtue; it is a tendency towards the good, trust and justice; it is an intellectual attitude.” An authentic pacifism reveals itself not only in a state of war, during a peace negotiation, in a statement, in a signature for a declaration, in an attitude taken on a case. It reveals itself in the way you do whatever you do in this life with a view to reinforcing the strength of the language of peace, of the peaceful relations.

Regardless of her participation in any peace meetings, in any peace declarations, we could talk about Necmiye Alpay as one among the peace-builders; as we can do so now. She had sown the seeds of peace just by her attitude towards language, just by the sound and content stance she brought into our approach to language.

In an essay that she wrote fifteen years ago, she complained about the withering away of the word “persona,” about its turning into some kind of a quantifiable factor; and while insinuating that in the police terminology the suspect is always referred as the “person, she noted “perhaps the police captured her/him as is the case with the ‘person’” …

Now, this land is where Necmiye Alpay is imprisoned on the accusation of being a “terrorist”.


[1] Translators’ Note: Atatürk or Ghazi Mustafa Kemal are politically loaded ways of talking about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Each represent variants of Turkish nationalism, and thus different ways of relating to Turkish language.

[2] Translators’ Note: “The table” refers to the almost traditionalized dinners that Atatürk/Mustafa Kemal held with the selected members from the ruling cadre of the early-Republican Turkey (1923-1938).

[3] Translators’ Note: Here the author first uses the term, “kelime,” for word, which is Arabic in origin, and thus is not considered pure Turkish; and then he shifts to “sözcük,” considered to be pure Turkish.

[4] Translators’ Note:

[5] Translators’ Note: All these words are the “pure Turkish” versions of the words, theory, word, sensitivity, work of art. The not-so-pure Turkish versions are as follows: teori, kelime, hassasiyet, eser.

[6] Translators’ Note: The weekly arts and culture supplement of Turkish daily Milliyet:

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