Ottoman Turkish | Submitted Beyza Lorenz and Selim Kuru

The phrase Ottoman Turkish language, signifies the official and literary language employed by the governing and learned elite in the Ottoman Empire, which is evaluated as the written historical form of Western Turkic. Earlier phase of Turkish written in Anatolia and the Balkans is generally referred to as the Anatolian Turkish language that came into being under the Seljuks of Rum in the 13th century and at the courts of the Turkic rulers of Anatolia in the 14th and 15th centuries. Anatolian Turkish  transformed into an imperial language through the pens of Ottoman bureaucrats, scholars and litterateurs by the end of the 15th century.

Earliest written records of Western Turkic were produced in the late 13th century and found in the works of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi and his son Sultan Veled. This period witnessed a proliferation of translations from Arabic and Persian and ‘oral texts’ that were meant to be read to audiences. The former includes contemporary verse narrative translation and adaptations of major Persian classics, interlinear Quran translations, and the latter, informative texts on religious and moral conduct.  By the early 15th century Ottoman sultans emerged as major patrons of literature and religious learning as well as of mystical orders. After the centralization of an intricate theological education system (medrese) and government offices after the mid-15th century, Ottoman Turkish texts established a bifurcated archive. On the one hand there was the production of documents that trace and preserve the Ottoman state and legal operations, on the other hand scientific, religious and literary writing that flourished in medreses, dervish lodges and in the Palace.

In the late 16th century one of the most prolific Ottoman intellectuals, Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali (1541-1600) described Ottoman Turkish as an astonishing language in the state of Rum (i.e. Western Anatolia and Balkans) that was composed of four languages, Arabic, Persian, Eastern Turkish and Anatolian Turkish, and presented it as better than those for its ability to incorporate the three tongues through loan words and loan morphological forms, such as Persian and Arabic constructs. Ottoman Turkish also borrowed from local languages such as Greek and Armenian and diverse linguistic communities, such as Italian and Spanish. It’s becoming an imperial language employed across the vast territories of Ottoman Empire as a centralized premodern written language makes it an object of historical linguistic study. Also, Ottoman Empire’s rule over, Slavic, Semitic, Persian and Turkic speaking communities and its relations with Eurasian states makes the study of Ottoman Turkish a necessity for world history between the 15th to the 20th centuries.

Even though it was not a spoken language, and Arabic based Ottoman Turkish alphabet was replaced by a Latin-based Turkish alphabet in 1928, Ottoman Turkish had a tremendous impact on spoken registers of Turkish, and well until 1970s vocabulary, phrases and terminology from Ottoman Turkish survived in the modern Turkish alphabet. While the use of that vocabulary was mostly reserved for academic and legal writing, modern Turkish novelists and poets draw on Ottoman Turkish language and literature, for example Ihsan Oktay Anar creatively reconstructs an Ottoman Turkish sounding language in his novels. 

Ottoman Turkish is preserved in a vast archive of documentary and literary sources. Today in various libraries in Turkey more than 100.000 volumes of manuscripts are catalogued and preserved in 13 major libraries under the Türkiye Yazma Eserler Kurumu Başkanlığı (Directorship of Turkish Manuscripts). There are also many major collections of Ottoman Turkish manuscripts abroad in European, American and Asian libraries. As for the archival documents, only the T.C. Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (Turkish Republic Ottoman Archives) holds over 100.000 documents. Many countries, especially Eastern European, North African and Middle Eastern countries that were under the Ottoman rule until the end of World War I also have important Ottoman archival collections.

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Transliteration into Latin Alphabet

There are various systems of transliteration of Ottoman Turkish into the Latin alphabet in Turkey and abroad. Some widely recognized transliteration systems are those of the International Journal of Middle East Studies and the Library of Congress as well as the Isnad Citation Style, which adapts the transcription system employed in Turkish universities.

Digital Databases and Projects

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Ottoman Turkish Dictionaries, Grammars and Textbooks in English

  • Korkut Buğday, The Routledge Introduction to Literary Ottoman, translated by Jerold C. Frakes (New York 2009) [Translation from the original German book].

  • V. H. Hagopian, Ottoman-Turkish Conversation-grammar: A Practical Method of Learning the Ottoman-Turkish Language (London, 1907)

  • James W. Redhouse, A Turkish English Lexicon [various reprints available].

  • James W. Redhouse, A Lexicon in English and Turkish (1884) [Only English to Ottoman Turkish dictionary).

  • Jan Reychman and Ananiasz Zajaczkowski, Handbook of Ottoman Turkish Diplomatics, edited by Tibor Halasi-Kun (Berlin, 2014).

  • Şinasi Tekin, Ottoman Manual, 2 volumes (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

Online Dictionaries

Universities with Ottoman Turkish Course Offerings

  • Columbia University, Züleyha Çolak 

  • Indiana University, Kemal Sılay

  • Harvard University, Himmet Taşkömür

  • Princeton University, Nilüfer Hatemi 

  • University of California, Los Angeles, Beyza Lorenz

  • University of Chicago, Helga Anetshofer and Hakan Karateke

  • University of Pennsylvania, Feride Hatiboglu

  • University of Washington, Selim Kuru

  • Yale University, Özgen Felek

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Major Study Abroad Programs