28 February 2007

The sublimely bad Abdülhamid

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Since last October, a new abnormal interest of mine has been the Arabic script that had been used to write Turkish for several centuries until 1928 when it was replaced by the present alphabet of Latin characters.

The Arabic script was never quite suited for Turkish. For one thing, Turkish had 8 vowel sounds (now represented by a, e, u, ü, o, ö, i and ı—the undotted i), whereas Arabic had only 3. To make up for this deficiency, the Arabic letter waw1 (و) had been inconveniently adopted to represent either one of the vowels u, ü, o, ö, in addition to the consonant v. Which sound waw actually represented in a particular word was usually left to the reader to figure out from the context. Besides, many words had standard spellings that one had to learn to recognize by sight. As one can imagine, it was difficult to learn to read and write Turkish written in the Arabic script.

The January 2007 issue of the Turkish history magazine Toplumsal Tarih mentions one incident2 from the reign (1876-1909) of the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II that arose directly from the unsuitability of the Arabic script to write Turkish. Abdülhamid was arguably the most despotic, oppressive and paranoid Ottoman sultan. Under his policies, newspapers and magazines were heavily censored, many were closed down; writers and publishers were often jailed or exiled.

According to Toplumsal Tarih, during that period the newspaper Sabah once printed an article that intended to refer to the sultan, using his customary title, as şevketlü Abdülhamid3 (sublime Abdülhamid). Şevketlü would have been written as sevketlü2 with the Arabic letters representing (from right to left) ş, v, k, t, l, ü, while the missing vowels, e, e, were added by the reader. That was the standard spelling of şevketlü. Note that the first waw (from the right) stands for v, while the last one for ü. The letter marked with an arrow is lam that represented the sound of l.

During the printing of the Sabah, however, the lam was, presumably inadvertently, dropped. Unfortunately for the publishers, the remaining letters, ş, v, k, t, ü, did not represent the standard spelling of any word and so, what word(s) they may have meant was open to interpretation. One possible reading Abdülhamid's men came up with was obtained when the first waw represented not the v sound, but the vowel u, while an ö was added between k and t. These substitutions produced the phrase şu kötü Abdülhamid, meaning "that bad Abdülhamid".

Sure enough, the Sabah was ordered to cease publication.

The despotic Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II (1842-1918). His big nose was a source of humor (behind his back, of course).

1In Turkish vav, because there is no w sound.
2The original source of the story is somewhat anectodal as it was taken from a contemporary writer's memoirs.
3The Turkish letter ş has the sound of sh, while ü is pronounced as in German.


Duane said...

Abnormally interesting!

Henry Walloon said...

Fascinating blog, Aydin.

I've been blogging Trichia striolata and given you a link.

Pleased to make your acquaintance!