Legalizing the Letter Q

And W and X, too.


Turkey's prime minister plans to end the country's prohibition of the letters Q, W, and X. Yasmine Seale explains how the ban came to be:


The Turkish Parliament unanimously voted in the Alphabet Law on 1 November 1928. [President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk] embarked on a tour of Anatolia to promote it, and staged massive, quasi-theatrical tutorials to demonstrate how easy the letters were to learn. Dolmabahçe Palace was turned into a primary school where servants, ministers of state and other high officials learned the new script with the president of the republic as their teacher. He even composed an Alphabet March to help his pupils along.


Banks, post offices and police stations were fitted with blackboards; on bridges and ferries, syllabaries sold fast; prisoners were photographed bent over their primers. 'Turkey is one vast schoolroom,' National Geographic reported. 'There is no "q", no "w", no "x" in the new alphabet…The left-hand edge of the typewriter is the hardest hit. One does not go to the "Maxim" Restaurant, but to the "Maksim".'

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—?, ?, ü, ?—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, which was spoken by around 20 per cent of the population.

And no, the law was not a dead letter (*): Kurds have gone to jail for using the verboten characters on signboards and in brochures. Seale notes that "Compared to more pressing issues—electoral reform, or the mass detention of Kurdish prisoners—the legalisation of Q, W and X may seem token or trivial. But forms of linguistic oppression are forms of oppression nonetheless."

(* Sorry.)