Power to Unite, Power to Alienate: Language Reforms in Iran and Turkey, and their Legacy


“Language is history and the strength of each nation and people depends on the strength of their language”. So said Kermani, an early Iranian nationalist. Language purity became a vital part of nationalist policy in Iran and Turkey in the 1920s and ‘30s. For both, language was symbolic of national unity and strength.

Both newly formed countries, rising out of the remnants of broken empires, instituted vast language reforms to rid their respective dominant languages of loanwords. Although this was the culmination of nearly a century of intellectual efforts, the enforcement of broad reform was instigated by two military leaders who have often been compared to one another: Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Khan, who became Reza Shah, in Iran.

Both wanted to bring their dominant languages back to an idealised “pure” version of itself. In Turkey this took the form of Öz Türkçe: words of Turkish origin were deemed preferable to those of Arabic, Persian, or European origin, and where possible, alternatives to these loanwords were created. The Türk Dil Kurumu, or Turkish Language Association, was established in 1932 for this intention, and was soon publishing dictionaries of Öz Türkçe alternatives for words of foreign origin. It continues to do so to this day. Meanwhile, in Iran the Farhangestān, established for the first time by Reza Shah and later re-established by his son, Mohammed Reza Shah, sought Persian alternatives for Arabic or European words.

However, while the Farhangestān’s reforms were largely ineffective and even ridiculed, reforms in Turkey were much more widespread and effective. For one, the Ottoman alphabet based on Arabic script was abandoned in favour of a Latin-based alphabet in 1928 – such action was never taken in Iran. For another, modern Turkish is so different from the Ottoman Turkish of the early 20th century that modern Turks can no longer understand it. Contrastingly, it is a famous property of Persian that modern speakers can understand poetry from a millennium ago with relatively little difficulty.

Implicit in the language reforms of the 1920s and ‘30s was a sense of anti-Semitism which accompanied the “dislocative nationalism” that allowed them. That is, nationalists in both countries saw their place in the Islamic world as special, superior, and separate to the countries surrounding them. Nationalists in Turkey, which is at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and was a major power of the Triple Alliance in World War One, considered Turkey to be European as much as Asian. The adoption of a Latin alphabet was indicative of this sentiment. Meanwhile Iranian nationalists, influenced by European ethno-linguistic theorists such as the Oxford-based Max Müller, believed that the Indo-European Persian language had been corrupted by the Arab invasion and the penetration of Semitic (Arab) influences. It was believed that in order for Iran to be a strong nation, its language must too be uncorrupted. In 1935, Reza Shah ordered that the country’s name should change from “Persia”, associated with the old empire and the region of Fars, to “Iran”, an ethnic term that is cognate with “Aryan”. Alongside this came renewed interest in and promotion of the country’s pre-Islamic past and religions, particularly in the legacy of Cyrus the Great, and in the Zoroastrian religion. This was a part of the Pahlavi (the dynasty of Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza Shah) state ideology and allowed Iranian rulers to consider Iran to be fundamentally different from, and even better than, other Islamic countries.

Alongside these changes came vast education reforms: a national curriculum was introduced and the children of nomads, such as Baluchis and Qashqais, were required to go to school and to learn, speak, and write only Persian there. Azeri Turkic culture and languages in the north-western provinces were less persecuted, although bilingualism was required. Meanwhile, education in Turkey was unified under a national system and the new alphabet was required to be taught in all schools. A national curriculum was introduced, including the history of the inkilap, “revolution”, or rather, the founding of the Republic of Turkey, and the routine veneration of Atatürk began.

Both reform movements have had huge consequences to this day. One of the remarkable features of Erdoğan’s presidency today is his extensive use of Arabic-origin words. This is indicative of the fundamental difference between his nationalism and Atatürk’s. Erdoğan’s brand of nationalism is populist and Islamic: he speaks the language of a populace prizing Islamic education, having himself been to an Imam Hatip (Islamic religious) secondary school, rather than a regular secular school. His use of Arabic words marks himself out as “un-literary”. In this he is a divisive figure. Politicians, usually educated, are known to use Turkish-origin words instead of Arabic- or Persian-origin words, aware of what it means for the national integrity of the country. This has often alienated the large proportion of people for whom religious identity may be more important than national identity. 

However Erdoğan is aware of the potential of using this alienation to his advantage. By reacting against the secularist and ethnic nationalism of the Turkish republic, as symbolised in his disregard for the use of Turkish-origin words, he sets his nationalist parameters in terms of religion, populism, and the power of a strong leader.

Meanwhile in Iran, the conscious use of Persian-origin words in the place of Arabic-origin words marks the user out as cultured and literary while the excessive use of Arabic-origin words by the ruling Mullahs is often ridiculed. Anti-Arab nationalism along Pahlavi lines was for many years the most mainstream way of indirectly expressing opposition to the Islamic republic. The Zoroastrian Faravahar, a winged figure that has become a secular national symbol, is one of the most common tattoos amongst Iranians. However, in recent years, even the politicians of the Islamic republic have embraced such symbolism, including Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, the populist hardliner who was president from 2005-2013.

The way that people speak marks them out socially and ideologically. Language has the power to unite and to alienate. Nowhere is this truer than in post-language reform Iran and Turkey, whose languages bear the evidence of the past, and are being readapted once more.