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Ottoman Anxieties

by Henry Atticus Clements, ANAMED PhD Fellow (2019–2020)

Ask anyone: reading Ottoman Turkish is hard. Really hard. Ask anyone. They’ll all tell you the same thing. It’s really hard. And the thing is that reading Ottoman Turkish is directly correlated to how good a historian you are. This is because it is so hard. If you can read Ottoman Turkish then it means that you are a good historian. The better you can read it, the better a historian you are. Ask anyone.

So it’s important that you demonstrate to people how good your Ottoman Turkish is. So that they know that you are a good historian. This is problematic because most of the time you read Ottoman Turkish in your head. If someone else is around, you can try mumbling it as you are reading your documents, but only if you read and mumble quickly. Because if you mumble slowly then they will know you are reading slowly, which probably means you are struggling and so you are not as good a historian as they thought you were. Sometimes people might think that reading slowly means that you are being thoughtful, but you don’t want to count on that.

Obviously, your Ottoman Turkish class is really important because you have to read documents aloud in front of other people. These people are your colleagues, so it is important to impress them. Sometimes there will be a precocious undergrad in the class as well. Clearly, undergrads don’t matter as much because they are undergrads, but if their Ottoman Turkish is better than yours, it is embarrassing, because they are undergrads, so they still do matter. So, you should prepare carefully for class.

There are some good tricks you can use in class to show how good your Ottoman Turkish is. For example, if you know Arabic and you come across an Arabic word, you can pronounce it the way you would in Arabic, like with a really throaty ḥḥḥa or a really qaf-y qqqaf. That way other people know that you know both Ottoman and Arabic. Sometimes the instructor will interject with a joke: “This isn’t Arabic class!” Then you can say something like, “Oh yeah, haha, sorry. I just came to Ottoman from Arabic, so.” If the instructor doesn’t say anything, you can still catch yourself: “Oops, sorry! I said that the way we do in Arabic” (don’t forget the “we”) and then pronounce the word in Turkish. Doing this has the same effect, plus you demonstrate that you can switch between the Turkish and Arabic pronunciations, which shows sophistication.

Another good trick for when other people are reading an archival document aloud is to pay attention to when they get stuck on a word so you can jump in and read it for them. Of course, this shows that your Ottoman Turkish is better than their Ottoman Turkish (and implies that you are the better historian). But the hazard is that the instructor might scold you for not letting them figure it out themselves. So what you can do instead is give a hint by beginning to say the word but only revealing the first letter or two: “deee…” This is a good strategy because you signal that you know the word but also that you want to help others learn. When they finally manage to read it—“devlet!”—you should shoot them an encouraging smile.

If you want to criticize someone else’s work, a good way to start is by questioning their Ottoman Turkish. Since everyone knows that reading Ottoman Turkish is correlated to how good a historian someone is, people immediately understand what you are trying to say. Your work can be criticized like this too, so it is really important to show how good your Ottoman Turkish is however you can. I’ve described just a few ways here, but tricks abound!