Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Matching language and writing systems

Writing reform in Turkey
from Arabic to the Roman alphabet

The Turkish reform came about as part of Kemal Ataturk's sweeping social and economic changes, and were imposed with dictatorial imperative. However, the ground had been prepared by 75 years of discussions of alphabetic reform.

Educated Turks had taken twelve years to become literate in their medieval Arabic orthography. They observed the prosperity and universal literacy of their Armenian minority with their Graeco-Roman alphabet. The literate 9% of Turks who were bilingual or even polyglot were also aware of other options. Finally a commission in the 1920s replaced the 612 Arabic symbols with 29 Roman-style letters plus diacritics, that gave almost complete one-letter-to-one-sound phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Dictator Kemal Ataturk was not bothered at all about questions of dialects, derivations or homophone distinctions. In 1928 he ordered all Arabic lettering to vanish overnight from public places. Public Blackboards set up in public demonstrated the roman script, theatres showed educational comedies about it, and school openings were postponed while teachers learnt the new system and acquired new books. Imported printing presses which were ready tooled for the new alphabet immediately produced 2-month-long adult courses for the literate and 4-month-long courses for the illiterate. Deadlines were set for changes, with the final transition set for January 1, 1931. Ataturk's slogan was that

'the Turkish language has been a prisoner for centuries and is now casting off its chains.'

The political motives of the spelling reform were to divorce Turkey from Moslem and conservative traditions, to facilitate communication and social programs, and to enter the modern Western world, - hence the international roman alphabet rather than nearer ones such as Greek, Russian or Armenian, or an Arabic reform.

The conservatives lamented that it was contrary to faith and morals to abandon the Qur'an script, and that easy learning was bad for discipline, but the new writing system was popular because it was easy .

Although only 40% of children attended school, literacy rose rapidly to 75% of men and 43% of women, partly through Ministry of Education-approved little picture-story books sold cheaply at local shops to 'teach yourself to read', which was made possible by the easy spelling. However, the graceful Arabic script is still used for the Arabic language Qur'an and for decorative inscriptions.

Research on Turkish reading achievements in schools disproves the rather strange Anglo-American special pleading that being able to decode a spelling easily causes 'barking at print'. For example, a comparative study by Oney and Goldman (1984) found that Turkish children in grades 1 and 3 were superior in comprehension of texts as well as in decoding words compared to American children.

The cause of continuing illiteracy among Turkish peasantry is not defects in the spelling system, but poverty, with lack of schooling and opportunity. However the Turkish situation today bears little resemblance to the degree of poverty and medieval conditions before the radical social modernisations of this century, in which spelling reform played a significant part.