Why the Letters Q, W, and X Were Once Illegal in Turkey

People wave flags as they celebrate the Persian festival of Newruz (also spelled Nowruz)
People wave flags as they celebrate the Persian festival of Newruz (also spelled Nowruz)
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey mailed cards wishing his citizens a Happy "Nowruz," the Persian New Year. Shortly after, charges were made against the mayor … for having used an illegal letter of the alphabet.

The mayor had broken what was colloquially called the "alphabet law." Back in 1928, Turkey changed its alphabet from an Arabic-based system to a Roman one—and while the change was considered a major step in modernizing the country, the law came packaged with an unusual caveat: The letters Q, W, and X were forbidden. (In the Turkish language, the legal spelling of the Persian festival was "Nevruz.")

The charges against the mayor were eventually dropped, but others haven't been so lucky. Two years earlier, 20 people were fined 100 lira for making the same mistake. In the London Review of Books, Yasmine Seale explains why the law was created in the first place:

"Romanisation, it was argued, would help standardise Turkish spelling, improve literacy, and allow for cheaper and more convenient printing (the Arabic script required more than 400 pieces of type). But the reform had other, political aims: imposing cultural homogeneity and assimilating Turkey's minorities. New characters were added to the alphabet to accommodate Turkish phonology—ğ, ı, ü, ş—while others were left out. By adhering so closely to the specifics of Turkish and outlawing all other Latin characters (and all other scripts), it effectively proscribed written expression in any language other than Turkish—not least Kurdish."

Kurdish people compose about 20 percent of Turkey's population, and letters such as Q, W, and X are commonly used in their own language. As Mark Liberman writes at Slate, "restricting a minority language … is one way to oppress a minority." (In fact, it was technically illegal to speak Kurdish in public until the 1990s.)

Kurds bore the brunt of the alphabet law: Any Kurdish person whose name contained a Q, W, or X, for example, could not have those letters included on his or her official ID card. For everybody else, the law was loosely enforced. Visitors to Istanbul surely noted giant billboards advertising Xerox copiers or bathroom doors in tourist areas stamped with the letters "W.C." "Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages," Dalia Mortada reported for P.R.I.

But finally, on September 30, 2013, the letters Q, W, and X were legalized, though they were not added to the Turkish alphabet. In the meantime, the Turkish government has found new excuses to litigate against its mayors: In 2015 the mayor of Ankara was sued after he used public funds to build a giant statue of a robot. (It was later replaced … with a dinosaur.)

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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