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Quick + Cool: Osmanlica

November 5, 2010

I mentioned a week ago the potential of Pat Yale and Saffet Emre Tonguc’s Istanbul: The Ultimate Guide. To convince you to get this book, and not a Lonely Planet or Rick Steves or whatever, I’m going to flip to a random page in the book and tell you a cool story about it. Let’s see how it goes.

The Ottoman Language is cool. Despite any airs I may put on, I am not a language person. I started learning Turkish because I was flailing about with Spanish as a kid, but needed to take something different. And Turkish ain’t that hard. No genders, 5 tenses…it’s a chill language. Osmanlica (Ottoman in, erm, Ottoman) on the other hand, is as weirdly beautiful as English.

The script itself is from the Arabic family, but no, that’d be too easy. Osmanlica is written in the Nasta’liq script that only survives in Urdu. And it is, in my humble opinion, beautiful even in its most basic forms:

I’ll let Geoffrey Lewis explain:

But they did not stop there; they did not just borrow words for new concepts. Even so basic a word as ôdfire, fell out of use; it survived in poetry until the early twentieth century but had hardly been used in prose for four hundred years, its place having been taken by the Persian ateş. The Turkish sin or sinle, meaning tomb, found in popular poetry from the thirteenth to the twentieth century and still widely used in Anatolia, was supplanted in prose long ago by the Arabic mezar. The Gami’ al-Faris, a seventeenth-century dictionary, says that some people applied sinle only to the grave of a kâfir, a non-Muslim; a Muslim would be buried in a mezar.

In classical Turkish poetry you find lines where the only indication that they were written by a Turk is the appearance of a -diris or an idiwas. The same is true of classical prose. This mixture of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian was not understood by the great majority of the subjects of the Ottoman dynasty, not only the Arabs and Greeks and many other peoples, but also the Turks.

You owe it to yourself, if you have time, to read this entire speech, as well as anything else by the big GL you can find.

Of course, the Ottoman script didn’t translate well to the printed word at all, what with its finials, mediates and all. There was a method to Ataturk’s language reform revolution. And especially now, finding printed Ottoman is incredibly difficult. But make sure you note the Ottoman on the buildings you pass. Ottoman inscriptions are the building’s wrinkles and crows’ feet. They show the building has aged and has seen more in its life than you have in yours. The inscriptions, even if you can’t read them, tell a story.

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