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Languages Between State and Empire: Modernity, Monolingual Fantasies, and Linguistic Realities

11.28.2023 – 11.29.2023

Event Summary

Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet, September 20, 1928. Agefotostock/Alamy.

After the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, Middle Eastern national elites seemingly adopted monolingualism as a state policy. Language reform in the Turkish Republic, the emphasis on Pan-Arabism in various Arab nation-states, and the celebration of the Sassanian-Persian traditions of Iran all underscored the connections between one national language and its nation-state. In the interwar period, poets, novelists, journalists, linguists, historians, state bureaucrats, and educators all advanced the notion that national subjects used the national language to chronicle the nation’s past and compose works that constituted the national literature. The identification of the new nation-state with the new, modern national language and literature became accepted as a given. This conference, however, challenged some of these narratives. Different scholars examined multilingual literary and historical accounts and practices and the ways they challenged state policies. Additionally, they took note of language modernization efforts that predated the establishment of the nation-states and explored how people cultivated multiple and intimate relations to different languages, the nostalgia they expressed and fostered to their multilingual imperial pasts, and the civil rights battles for language justice they conducted, especially in ethno-nationalist and colonized states.

This conference was organized by the Quest for Modern Language Between the Mediterranean and Black Sea project at the Neubauer Collegium.