There we sat, the proverbial Turk and Armenian, at neighboring tables in a university student center in New Jersey. My back to his, I drew my eyes out of the book I was reading to concentrate on the voice behind me. The gliding vowels of Turkish always sound familiar in the split second it takes for my brain to mark the language as unknown. As the man shouted into his cellphone, unaware of the aspiring eavesdropper nearby, a surge of recognition startled me each time I managed to catch a hiç or a hemen. These words were, after all, part of my language too.
That was the microcosmic encounter between two nations notoriously divided: a non-conversation through a handful of words that belong to us both. It was an encounter rooted in another time, another world away—a time before ethno-linguistic nationalism led Armenians and Turks to retreat into their languages and fortify them against each other, a time before the Turkish people held exclusive rights to the Turkish language, and a time before the Armenian people felt a visceral unease towards most things Turkish.
This scene recalls the intimate relationship that Ottoman Armenians once had with the Turkish language. Although this relationship grew strained nearly a century ago when most of the community was pushed into the diaspora, among many of the descendants of this community there remains a quiet, reticent affection for the language that still echoes today in far-flung corners of the Armenian diaspora.
Turkish: A Language of the Ottoman Armenians
How can the relationship between a people and their imperial language be framed as a transnational, multigenerational love affair in good faith? Other imperial contexts point to the striking implausibility of this scenario. The tendency of imperial powers to use language to sink their claws deeper into the minds of the colonized, strip them of their cultural identities, and tighten their grip on the territory they aim to pillage might prompt a raised eyebrow at the metaphor. But there is a distinction to be made between an Algerian’s relationship to French, an Indian’s relationship to English, and an Ottoman Armenian’s relationship to Turkish.
The first distinction concerns the widespread exposure of the Armenian community to Turkish during the Ottoman period. Ottoman Armenians—urban and rural, elite and non-elite—existed in a society where Turkish was the lingua franca in their cities and towns. The language was not, as was the case in other imperial contexts, spoken solely by the ruling minority and their collaborators; on the contrary, Turkish was the dominant language, from the palace to the marketplace, and permeated all aspects of public life. The Armenian community was, therefore, compelled, to varying degrees, to assimilate Turkish in order to function in the society around them.
The Ottoman Armenian relationship to Turkish was also deepened by the length of time it had to develop. The presence of the imperial language was not a blip on the timeline of a nation, nor did it permeate just an elite tier of society. Turkish was pervasive for four centuries, not only formally in the bureaucracy, but also informally in cross-confessional interactions in the multilingual towns and villages of Anatolia.
But it is one distinct outcome of the centuries-long predominance of Turkish that sets the Ottoman Armenian relationship with the Turkish language apart from cases of other colonized peoples. Naturally, the enduring presence of Turkish and its centrality in public life led many Ottoman Armenians to slip Turkish words into their Armenian conversations, but by the nineteenth century, there were large communities of Armenians across Anatolia with little knowledge of the Armenian language. Centered largely in Cilicia, Yozgat, and Ankara, these Ottoman Armenians spoke Turkish exclusively and had learned it as their mother tongue.
The Turkish language might have initially been perceived as the language of imperial domination, but over the course of generations, it became the only one many Ottoman Armenians knew. It was the language they loved in, grieved in, joked in, fought in. In other words, Turkish became a language that belonged as much to the Armenians as it did to anyone else.
Turkish in Other Alphabets
In the late Ottoman period, religion was the supreme determinant of national belonging. If religion took precedence over language, it meant that, as long as Turkish-speaking Armenians identified as Christian, they were still considered part of the Armenian community.
This phenomenon was certainly not unique to Ottoman Armenians. Until the triumphant rise of ethno-linguistic nationalism in the first decades of the twentieth century, Turkish was a language largely unburdened by the constraints of religion and ethnicity. Turkish as an Ottoman language can be seen most vividly in the print cultures of non-Muslim communities in the Empire.
These were groups who knew the letters, but not the language, of their liturgies. For the Greek Orthodox Karamanli community, there are examples of Turkish written in the Greek alphabet. For a certain subset of the Jewish community, there are texts in Turkish written in the Hebrew alphabet, as well as Turkish-language materials written in the Syriac alphabet for the Turkish-speaking Assyrian community.
But by far the most imposing is the corpus of Turkish-language novels, translations, newspapers, religious texts, dictionaries, and textbooks written in the Armenian alphabet for the Turkish-speaking Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire. In a span of two hundred years, over one hundred periodicals and two thousand books were published in what became known as Armeno-Turkish.
The bulk of these Armeno-Turkish materials were published in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, which suggests a particularly robust Turkish-speaking Armenian community on the eve of the Armenian genocide. Knowing that the vast majority of survivors from this period, regardless of the language they spoke, fled into exile, a thorny question emerges: What became of the Turkish language in the early years of the Armenian diaspora once the Turkish-speaking Armenian communities of Anatolia were expected to dissolve into the larger Armenian-speaking community? How was the use of Turkish by Armenians in the post-genocide diaspora understood once it took on a new dimension as the language of the perpetrator?
Attempts to achieve national cohesion in the aftermath of the genocide centered largely on language. In Armenian schools and orphanages in the Near East, there was a particular focus on shedding Turkish and mastering Armenian as a way to foster a national renaissance among the fraction of the Armenian community that survived. Whereas the language attitudes of the children could be cultivated in favor of Armenian, a lifetime of brushing up against Turkish was not so easily forgotten in their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. As language and ethnicity became more and more intimately intertwined in the Armenian diaspora, the children became part of a national system that had trouble making sense of their older Turkish-speaking relatives.
The exclusion of Turkish from the national system created two spheres governed by two languages; it is this public/private division that is at the heart of the Armenian diaspora’s relationship to Turkish today. In the early years of the diaspora in the Near East, Europe, and the Americas, three languages were in constant contact: the standard Armenian of school and community life; the Turkish or Armenian dialect of home life; and the language of the host country. Leaving this last complicating layer aside, Armenian was privileged as the language of the diaspora, while Turkish was pushed behind closed doors and maintained in private. The continuation of Armeno-Turkish publications in places like New York, Boston, and Buenos Aires well into the 1960s illustrates that, despite the push for linguistic homogeneity, there was an unwillingness to abandon Turkish in favor of Armenian among the last generation of Armenians born in the Ottoman Empire.
This continued use of Turkish in the early years of the diaspora helps explain the seemingly paradoxical way the Armenian diaspora relates to Turkish today. The transmission of Turkish from the survivor generation to the first generation born in the diaspora produced children who straddled the two languages. In this generation, there are Armenians who are hiding an excellent command of Turkish, thanks to the conversations they overheard between parents who would use Turkish to try to speak privately in front of their children, thanks to the Nasrettin Hoca stories they were told, and thanks to the practice they got transcribing Turkish messages into Armenian letters on behalf of Turkish-speaking relatives who never learned to write.
After nearly a century, the Armenian diaspora still lives with the linguistic fragments of its Ottoman past. Turkish was certainly at its strongest among Armenians in the early years of the diaspora, but by no means have the second, third, or fourth generations completely lost touch with the language. Turkish is firmly implanted in the colloquial Western Armenian spoken among descendants of Ottoman Armenians from both Turkish- and Armenian-speaking families. Mixing in Turkish is still so commonplace in conversation that it is a great compliment to be known to speak makour [clean] Armenian.
So deeply are Turkish words and expressions embedded in the daily language of family life that it often takes an Armenian language class to reveal the Turkish origins of some of the most frequently used words. In classrooms across the diaspora, students are learning that they are not the only ones who call their grandfathers dede, or say haydi to get their friends moving or sus to get them to be quiet. They are not the only ones calling eggplant patlıcan, pouring coffee into a fincan, or expressing their disbelief with a sighing babam. Certainly Armenian equivalents of these words exist, but for many, they feel stilted or artificially engineered when compared to the Turkish words associated with the warmth of childhood.
Feelings about Turkish in the Armenian diaspora do, however, vary greatly. Anger at the Turkish government’s continued denial of the Armenian genocide has led some to be wary of all things Turkish, including the language. This attitude, however, is a reaction to the injustice that the Turkish language has come to represent over the past century. The relationship between Turkish and Armenian people long predates the Armenian genocide. To see Turkish as a pollutant and to try to eliminate all traces of the language from colloquial Armenian is to ignore the historical lineage of the Armenian people.
Centuries of proximity to the Turkish language cannot be easily undone. Many Armenians in the diaspora bear these historical ties in their names, ranging from the practical (Boyaciyan [son of a painter], Terziyan [son of a tailor], Kuyumciyan [son of a jeweler]) to the perplexing (Altıparmakyan [son of someone with six fingers], Dilsizyan [son of someone without a tongue], and Deveciyan [son of a camel driver]).
Many Armenians also bear these ties in the pronunciation of the Turkish words they have retained. Having been estranged from the language during the linguistic reforms of the early Turkish Republic, there is a fossilized form of Ottoman-era Turkish that exists not in Turkey, but in homes throughout the Armenian diaspora. Since contact with Turkish broke after the genocide, the language was frozen in 1915 and has been transmitted in this outdated form to subsequent generations. As a result, Armenians across the diaspora, who have inherited Turkish rather than studied it, tend to pronounce words like lokhum or çocukh like Anatolian peasants from another age.
The ties can also be seen in the way Armenians in the diaspora have appropriated Turkish and created with it. For instance, in the case of the Turkish zevzek, the word is taken and subjected to the rules of Armenian noun formation to emerge in a hybrid form as zevzekutiun. This phenomenon can also be seen with the Armenian diminutive suffix –ig, creating words like canig from the word can. Conversely, Armenian words can also be subjected to the rules of Turkish grammar to invent hybrid expressions. For example, in the colloquial Armenian expression çe mı [isn’t it?], the Turkish interrogative participle mı is added to the Armenian word to create a question with a grammatical form that only exists in Turkish.
A Momentary Suspension of Politics
The Armenian genocide dispossessed Ottoman Armenians of nearly everything but their language. In the years immediately following the genocide, efforts to stomp out Turkish words and expressions from everyday language did not triumph over the domestic sphere where Turkish has endured in colloquial Western Armenian.
The politics that Turkish came to represent after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, however, have added a certain ambivalence to the use of the language since the early years of the Armenian diaspora. While certain Turkish words and expressions may awaken happy family memories, the towering position of Armenian genocide denial in diasporan Armenian culture affects the way the Turkish language is perceived in the Armenian diaspora. In other words, the association of the Turkish language with the Turkish state and its politics makes many wary of acknowledging the indelible place of Turkish in the lives of Ottoman Armenians and their diasporan descendants.
Amid the ambivalence that Turkish generates, there are flashes of a momentary disconnect between language and politics where pre-1915 Armenian attitudes towards Turkish—ones shaped more by ease of expression than by the pain that the language has grown to symbolize today—can be seen. These dueling attitudes can exist even within a single individual: within an Armenian-American who boycotts Turkish hazelnuts and soothes himself with Turkish proverbs his grandmother would recite to him as a child; within a French-Armenian who demonstrates against genocide denial every 24 April and coos yavrum (or yavrus, replacing the Turkish suffix with the Armenian one) to her children; within a Lebanese-Armenian who rails against the destruction of Ottoman Armenian cultural heritage sites in Anatolia with the colorful Turkish curses always on the tip of his tongue.
The private dimension of the legacy of Turkish in the Armenian diaspora makes it almost invisible to those outside the Armenian community, particularly to those in Turkey who may have little idea that the Ottoman past continues to breathe through the language of the Armenians.