Atatürk’s sun language theory, or how all languages derive from Turkish

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the hero of the Turkish War of Independence and founder of the modern Turkish Republic, was more than just a military man. He was also considered a linguist of some importance in his own times, at least within the boundaries of the Republic he personally established. An enthusiast amateur linguist, his most important contribution was the sun language theory.

Developed in the 1930s, the sun language theory (or Güneş Dil Teorisi in Turkish) held that all languages were descendants of a proto-Turkic language, spoken by what was once the greatest Turkic civilization on earth. According to this sun language theory these Turkic people who wanted to worship the sun transformed the meaningless sounds they had previously uttered into a language. ‘Sun’ or ‘agh’ became the first word man ever spoke, and the root that all other words and languages were consequently derived from.

As this proto-Turkic language allegedly closely resembled modern Turkish, the Turks considered themselves as the direct descendants of these cultivated Central Asian Turks. The Turkish linguists argued that all other languages could be traced back to a Turkic root, elevating the status of their own language above all others.

Not just that, the Sumerians and Egyptians were also incorporated into the fold. According to the sun language theory the Sumerians and Egyptians (establishers of two of the oldest urban society known) were actually Turks who had originated in Central Asia. Using this ‘fact’, Turkish linguists argued that therefore the Turks were also the first people ever to have used the script.  In 1930s Turkey, schools and universities taught that all modern-day languages were derived from Turkish, the first language ever spoken on earth. Although not personally responsible for inventing the theory itself, Atatürk recognized its importance and saw to it that scientists were extensively researching this particularly useful and nationalist theory.

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A radical revision of history as it was known until then, Atatürk was trying to boost the self-confidence of his newly created Turkish nation. Creating a clear break with the Islamic past of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s pre-Islamic and Central Asian roots were praised. A strong sense of identity was necessary to keep the young Turkish Republic together, and the sun theory might just help to do that. Outside of Turkey however, reactions were markedly less enthusiastic, and in the course of time the theory was largely abandoned, until it died with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. What is left is a reminder of the interconnection between linguistics and politics.

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