The Perfect Skull for an Ö: Racial Types, Language and Identity in 1930s Turkey

Author: Michael Erdman (British Library, U.K.)
Speaker: Michael Erdman
Topic: Language Ideologies
COMELA 2021 General Session


After its establishment in 1923, the Turkish Republic sought a metanarrative regarding the history of the Turks, the core population of the new nation-state. Turkish intellectuals worked in earnest to establish the borders and shibboleths of Turkishness. This process gained momentum in the 1930s, just as European racial anthropology began to influence the way such scholars viewed themselves and their communities. By 1934, these dynamics congealed in the Turkish History Thesis (Türk Tarih Tezi) and the Sun-Language Theory (Güneş-Dil Teorisi). The former incorporated a grand narrative of Turkish origins in Central Asia, along with anthropological taxonomies and hierarchies. The latter applied similar hypotheses to the Turkish language. In this paper, I will make use of publications produced around the emergence of these two constructs in order to track how language was linked to descent, anatomy and social organization. I will argue that, through the binding of these various indicators, scholars succeeding in forging a new identity that blurred the lines between acquired and innate characteristics. In particular, language production was linked to physical characteristics, which were argued to be influenced by nationality, which was in turn determined partly by language. A closed circuit of identity was thus created: one looks Turkish because one has the physical capacity to speak proper Turkish, which is a dialect spoken by those who look Turkish. Over the course of the paper, I will pick apart this tautology, and explore how the authoritarian state utilized it in service of an essentialized and racialized Turkish identity.
Preliminary Bibliography:
Atsız, Hüseyin Nihal, Türk Tarihi Üzerinde Toplamalar: Birinci Bölüm (Istanbul: Arkadaş Basımevi, 1935).
Behar, Büşra Ersanlı, İktidar ve tarih: Türkiye’de “resmi tarih” tezinin oluşumu, 1929-1937 (Istanbul : AFA Yayıncılık, 1992).
Birinci Türk Tarihi Kongresi: Konferansları, Münakaşaları (Ankara: Türk Cumhuriyeti Maarif Vekâleti, 1932).
Çağaptay, Söner, “Race, Assimilation and Kemalism: Turkish Nationalism and the Minorities in the 1930s”, in Middle Eastern Studies, 40:3 (2004), 86-101.
İkinci Türk Tarih Kongresi İstanbul: 20-25 Eylül 1937: Kongreye sunulan tebliǧler (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1943).
Krawietz, Birgit, “Sport and Nationalism in the Republic of Turkey”, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 31:3 (2014), 336-346.
Lewis, Geoffrey, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Saffet, Reşit, Türklük ve Türkçülük izleri (Ankara: Türk Ocakları İlim ve San’at Heyeti Neşriyatı, 1930).

Keywords: linguism, Turkish nationalism, Turkish historiography