Topic: Western Asia

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Languages of the Ottoman Empire

Languages Ottoman Empire Western Asia

The language of the court and government of the Ottoman Empire was Ottoman Turkish, but many other languages were in contemporary use in parts of the empire. Although the minorities of the Ottoman Empire were free to use their language amongst themselves, if they needed to communicate with the government they had to use Ottoman Turkish.

The Ottomans had three influential languages: Turkish, spoken by the majority of the people in Anatolia and by the majority of Muslims of the Balkans except in Albania, Bosnia, and various Aegean Sea islands; Persian, initially used by the educated in northern portions of the Ottoman Empire before being displaced by Ottoman Turkish; and Arabic, used in southern portions of the Ottoman Empire; Arabic was spoken mainly in Arabia, North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant. Throughout the vast Ottoman bureaucracy Ottoman Turkish language was the official language, a version of Turkish, albeit with a vast mixture of both Arabic and Persian grammar and vocabulary.

Virtually all intellectual and literate pursuits were taken in Turkish language. Some ordinary people had to hire special "request-writers" (arzuhâlcis) to be able to communicate with the government. The ethnic groups continued to speak within their families and neighborhoods (mahalles) with their own languages (e.g., Jews, Greeks, Armenians, etc.) In villages where two or more populations lived together, the inhabitants would often speak each other's language. In cosmopolitan cities, people often spoke their family languages, many non-ethnic Turks spoke Turkish as a second language. Educated Ottoman Turks spoke Arabic and Persian, as these were the main foreign languages in the pre-Tanzimat era, with the former being used for science and the latter for literary affairs.

In the last two centuries, French and English emerged as popular languages, especially among the Christian Levantine communities. The elite learned French at school, and used European products as a fashion statement. The use of Ottoman Turkish for science and literature grew steadily under the Ottomans, while Persian declined in those functions. Ottoman Turkish, during the period, gained many loanwords from Arabic and Persian. Up to 88% of the vocabulary of a particular work would be borrowed from those two languages.

Linguistic groups were varied and overlapping. In the Balkan Peninsula, Slavic, Greek and Albanian speakers were the majority, but there were substantial minorities of Turks and Romance-speaking Vlachs. In most of Anatolia, Turkish was the majority language, but Greek, Armenian and, in the east and southeast, Kurdish were also spoken. In Syria, Iraq, Arabia, Egypt and north Africa, most of the population spoke varieties of Arabic with, above them, a Turkish-speaking elite. However, in no province of the Empire was there a unique language.

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