Dissecting the Ottoman Empire Languages

Introduction of the Ottoman Empire

The origin of the Ottoman Empire dates back to Anatolia, present-day Turkey’s location. Originally from Söğüt near Bursa, Turkey, the Ottoman dynasty started to leave its mark by extensively defeating its opponents. The Empire was founded at the end of the 13th century as the result of an incursion from Turkish warriors who also used to be known as Ghazis led by Osman I, who was a prince and his father Ertugrul had already founded the power base in Söğüt. Osman and his companions used the fall of the Seljuq dynasty in their favor. Mongol invasions were the major reason for the decline of the Seljuq dynasty.

The Ottoman Empire’s conquests continued for years and centuries, and the reign expanded to many generations. They had southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa under their government for a long, during the peak times. Osman’s grandson Murad I was the founder of a well-structured Ottoman state which was further carried on by Murad’s son Bayezid I and the list goes on. The Ottomans served the empire for good 600 years until they were defeated in World War I eventually leading to their ultimate decline and replacing by the nationalists and movement activists in 1922. 

Languages of the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Turkish was the official language of the court and government-run by the Ottoman Empire. Albeit, several languages were in use in different parts of the empire. The minorities in the empire had the liberty of speaking their language with each other. However, in case of communication and interaction with the government, they had to use Ottoman Turkish. Ottoman empire was a cosmopolitan empire. It had people from different ethnicities. There used to be people who had to hire the ‘request writers’ to communicate for official work and tasks.

The ethnic groups were more comfortable with their language within families and neighborhoods. In the village areas where two or more populations used to live together, they preferred to communicate in their family languages. Besides, they were familiar with each other’s language if it was different from theirs. The non-ethnic Turks spoke Turkish but as their second language during pre Tanzimat era. Tanzimat refers to an era of reforms starting from 1839 till 1876.

Alsina-I Thalatha (The Three Languages)

Three main languages were spoken widely among Ottomans. These influential languages were also collectively called Alsina-I Thalatha (The Three Languages). These languages were quite common among Ottoman readers. These were Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi (Persian).

Ottoman Turkish             

All over the expanded and vast Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Turkish was used as the official language. It was a standardized version of the main Turkish language with a variety of other words from Arabic and Persian. Turkish was spoken mainly by Turks living in Anatolia and by other Muslims of the Balkans except for Albania, Bosnia, and various other Aegean Sea islands.

Modern-day Turkish is a refined version of Ottoman Turkish. The language had a heavy vocabulary of Persian and Arabic language in it. The speakers though used the Ottoman Turkish alphabet for the written communication. During the peak of the Ottoman Empire, foreign words in Turkish literature heavily outnumbered native Turkish vocabulary. Persian and Arabic get accredited for lending maximum words to Ottoman Turkish. 

Arabic

Arabic had the status of legal and religious language of the empire. It was also spoken regionally, mainly in North Africa, Arabia, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. Arabic was one of the two major languages of the empire. Arabic was considered a legal language along with Ottoman Turkish. It was also taken as a language of the religion and used to be taught at Islamic schools.

The legal documents and papers were in Arabic Hanafi legal texts. It kept on happening until many efforts remained untouched at the end of the empire and were not translated any further. Many Ottoman jurists started authoring new constitutional work in the Arabic language.

Arabic was the language of Hanafi school and its research and publications. Hanafi was the official religion of the empire. However, a lot of Arabic legal work was later translated into the Turkish language.

An Arabic newspaper Al-Jawa’ib was started in the Constantinople by famous Ahmed Faris Efendi after 1860. This paper published the Arabic version of the Ottoman laws which also had the Ottoman constitution of 1876. Many Arabic newspapers were published at the provincial level. The first-ever Arabic newspaper of the Arab region in the empire was the Hadiqat al-Akhbar, penned by Strauss as a semi-official paper.

This paper was published by Khalil ul Khuri, it started in 1858. This paper was further published in French with the title of Hadikat-el-Akhbar, Journal; de Syrie et Liban. Other newspapers published were Al Ra’id’ at-Tunisi and a bilingual paper which was published in Turkish and Arabic. It was published in 1860 in Iraq. This newspaper was considered prestigious for a while as per the popular historian, Strauss.

The Dustur which was the Ottoman code of laws was published in Arabic although it was mocked by many experts for the difficulty, the translators had to go through while translating in Arabic. In 1915, a university named Al Kuliyya al-Salahiyya was also started in Jerusalem.

Persian

Persian was the language of the literary people initially. This was also used as high court language and often used by the educated class of the Ottoman Empire. Persian enjoyed the status of court and literature from 16th to 19th century. A popular Persian language paper Akhtar which was also printed in 1876. It further published the official documents and government constitutions in the Persian language. Besides, it contained the famous 1876 constitution. Persian, became obsolete a little early in the Empire among other languages. Nonetheless, there was a huge word collection that was being used in Turkish along with Arabic. It was later replaced by the Ottoman Turkish.

Foreign Languages

During the last two centuries of the empire, English and French also came out as the popular languages among European and Christian communities. The upper strata used to learn French at school as an optional language subject and they also used European products to register their fashion statement. However, Ottoman Turkish was highly in demand for science and literature and its popularity kept on growing gradually. This is important to note that with the surge in popularity of English and French, Persian started seeing its fall in those subjects particularly. The Ottoman Turkish evolved as a stronger language with the vocabulary of Arabic and Persian languages which later went out of practice in the Empire. 

French

French was significantly prominent during and post Tanzimat times. The surge of Westernization made it possible that French was being used in philosophical and diplomatic fields with Sciences. It was only a language that was common among the people of European origin who were highly educated. None of the native people used French as their language, though.

According to renowned authors and historians, the men used to speak French in official circles. French was kind of a semi-official language that replaced Turkish for non-Muslims. It is so evident how the French emerged as a popular language of the modern sciences in the empire. 

English

Other than French, English was also spoken by the people who were of the European region. The native speakers of English who were not fluent enough in French and other official languages used English as their language. None of the Turkish native people showed any interest in English.

Final Thoughts

The write-up has covered the dissection of the languages of the Ottoman empire briefly. The precise details of a precise introduction of the Ottoman Empire, its history, and conquests have also been shared. Dissecting the languages of the empire, the light has been thrown on three main languages of the vast reign. This also includes a significant role of the foreign languages, which were French and English mainly. 

The linguistics groups were divided as per their languages. In the Balkan peninsula, Slavic and Greek speakers were more in number. Then, there were communities of Turkish speakers including Romanian, Aromanians, and Megleno Romanians. In Turkey and all-around Anatolia, Turkish was considered the language of the state.

With Turkish, there were a few other languages in use too which were Greek and Armenian in the east and southeast of the empire. Arabic was mainly spoken in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Arabia, and North Africa. Besides, it is imperative to note that there was no unique or rare language scanned throughout the empire.

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