On a parapet in Hagia Sophia’s gallery there is an obscure little graffiti written in Viking runes and dating back to the 9th century. All that is legible today is ‘alftan,’ which refers to the Norse name ‘Halfdan’ and it is assumed that it was part of a formula such as ‘Halfdan carved these runes’ – the medieval equivalent of the modern graffiti formula ‘XY was here.’
How did a medieval Viking get all the way to what is today Istanbul and was back then Constantinople, the centre of the Byzantine Empire, the most powerful metropolis on earth? Maybe Halfdan was a mercenary in the Varangian Guard. Drawn from all over Northern Europe, the Varangian Guard were an elite army unit serving as personal body guards of the Byzantine Emperor. The Byzantine Emperors felt safer with foreigners as body guards who had no local loyalties. Little is known about the motivations of the young men who left Northern Europe to serve far from home in present-day Turkey but I imagine the usual mixture of lack of opportunities at home and the lure of the metropolis – a lure so powerful that medieval Constantinople drew migrants from all across the known world to this multilingual and multicultural city.
The Viking graffiti in Hagia Sophia reminded me of the Chinese flier in a contemporary Antwerp shop window that Jan Blommaert and Ben Rampton recently used as example to explain the scope of linguistic research under conditions of super-diversity. Arguing that the example – an ad for a room for rent – bears traces of worldwide migration flows which make language varieties and scripts globally mobile, they outline the theoretical and methodological implications of migration and globalization for contemporary sociolinguistic research. I largely agree with their conclusions but I cannot help but wonder that two qualitatively similar examples – Viking graffiti in 9th century Constantinople and a hand-written Chinese flier in 21st century Antwerp – have such different effects: why has sociolinguistics been oblivious to linguistic diversity through the ages and why is the recognition that linguistic diversity is fundamental to all research in language and communication relatively recent?
Why does evidence of contemporary linguistic diversity move us to re-think sociolinguistics in a way that evidence of linguistic diversity through the ages has not? I answered that question previously with reference to the position of key linguistic thinkers in monolingual environments. However, there is another answer, too, and – like the medieval Viking graffiti – it also stares you in the face here in Istanbul. That further explanation is that multilingualism has been actively expunged from the historical record.To begin with, the linguistic record, by its very nature, is fleeting: the spoken language disappears and even the written word is usually quick to disintegrate. Paper used to be valuable and only few people could read and write. So, historical equivalents of ‘room for rent’ notices by their very nature are unlikely to have survived. Even graffiti etched in stone are smoothed out quickly and no one pays attention to them anyways (the ‘Halfdan graffiti’ was only discovered in 1964 by Elisabeth Svärdström).
However, the transient nature of language is only part of the story why we fail to see linguistic diversity in the historical record. The other part of the story is that evidence of linguistic diversity has been systematically erased from the historical record.
When Halfdan wrote his Viking graffiti and, presumably, spoke some form of Old Norse with those of his fellow Varangians who shared his dialect, the main language of Constantinople – and the lingua franca of its diverse population – was (medieval) Greek. Latin was also widely used and then there were the languages of all the city’s migrants and visitors. Christian Constantinople was a hugely multilingual place.
The city’s linguistic make-up changed on May 29, 1453 when Mehmed II took the city: not only did the Christian city become a Muslim one – and the Hagia Sophia church a mosque – the city’s dominant languages also changed from Greek and Latin to Arabic, Persian and Turkish.
What did not change was the fact of the city’s multilingualism: Arabic was the language of prayer and religion, Persian was the language of the court and Turkish was the language of the troops. Greek found itself as the language of a now down-trodden and subjected population and, as before, there were many other languages spoken by the city’s diverse inhabitants: Armenian, Hungarian, Italian, Ladino, Russian and Serbian would have been particularly prominent.
The Turkish that came to predominate over the centuries as Istanbul’s lingua franca was itself a highly heteroglossic language. Ottoman Turkish was inflected particularly by Arabic and Persian but also by all the other languages of this great melting-pot city.
The city’s multilingualism and the multilingual character of Turkish officially came to an end with the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The new Turkey wanted to sever its links with its Ottoman and ‘Eastern’ past and wanted to become modern and European. The multilingual laissez-faire of the past was now seen as decidedly ‘backward’ and ‘Eastern.’ Languages other than Turkish started to be repressed, with Kurdish as the most well-known victim of the new repression of linguistic diversity by the state. Not only was Turkey going to have only one language – Turkish – but that language was going to be ‘modernized,’ i.e. rid of the traces of other languages, particularly linguistic traces associated with ‘the East,’ i.e. Arabic and Persian.
The most well-known aspect of the Turkish language reform is the abolition of the Arabic script and its replacement with the Latin script. In one fell sweep, modern Turks lost access to their written historical record. Another target of the language reformers was Arabic and Persian vocabulary. Such words were replaced with ‘Turkish’ ones or loans from ‘modern’ European languages.
The futility of this undertaking – even if lost on everyone but the philologist – is nicely encapsulated by the word for ‘city': Ottoman Turkish used ‘شهر şehir.’ Because of its obvious association with Persian ‘شهر šahr’ the language reformers saw no place for it in ‘Modern’ Turkish and cast around for a ‘pure’ Turkish word. They found it in the ancient ‘kent.’ The irony is that ‘kent’ is iself a much older loanword from Sogdian, the lingua franca of Central Asia before the Islamic Conquest.
The reform was “a catastrophic success,” as the Turkologist Geoffrey Lewis has called it. As a result, most contemporary Turkish speakers are cut off from their linguistic and cultural heritage predating the 1930s. A famous – and also ironic – example of the monolingualization of Turkish is the fact that a major 1927 speech by Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, has had to be ‘translated’ repeatedly into contemporary Turkish so as to remain comprehensible to contemporary Turks.
In Istanbul, as elsewhere, contemporary examples of ‘super-diversity’ – the Russian ‘Sale’ signs in the shop windows, the tourist communications in all the languages of countries with strong currencies, the handwritten Arabic ‘for rent’ signs, the Kurdish music stalls – are impossible to ignore. By contrast, the fact that super-diversity has been a characteristic of Istanbul-Constantinople-Byzantium since time immemorial is easy to overlook.
Monolingualism and the Turkish language – just as all other standardized languages – are invented traditions. Diversity is, in fact, the normal human experience, as the anthropologist Ward Goodenough, who passed away last weekend, pointed out back in 1976. A research agenda that takes linguistic diversity as the basis of sociolinguistic inquiry must also include the hidden histories of linguistic diversity and modernity’s attempts to erase diversity.
Jan Blommaert, & Ben Rampton (2011). Language and superdiversity Diversities, 13 (2)
Goodenough, W. (1976). MULTICULTURALISM AS THE NORMAL HUMAN EXPERIENCE Council on Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 7 (4), 4-7 DOI: 10.1525/aeq.1976.7.4.05x1652n