- What’s On
Geoffrey Lewis, acknowledged as the dean of Turkish studies in Britain and beyond, learned the language while serving in the RAF in Egypt. When he finally visited Turkey, he was smitten for good. By Andrew Mango. Portrait by Charles Hopkinson
Quiet flows the quintessential Oxfoed don: burly, benign and thinking his scholarly thoughts. The thoughts centre on Turkey, as they have for more than half a century. And the thoughts give rise to books. At eighty, Professor Geoffrey Lewis published yet another contribution to the study of Turkish, scholarly as ever, more amusing then ever. It is an account of the Turkish language reform, the development of “pure Turkish”, shorn of Arabic and Persian loan words. Its subtitle is A Catastrophic Success (OUP 1999).
As a conservative linguist, he cannot help regretting the passing of the rich Ottoman language current at the beginning of the twentieth century. But time marches on, and Lewis now scans the internet for news of his beloved Turkey, a “country beautiful beyond all description”, as he called it in his Modern Turkey, which went through four editions between 1955 and 1974. Using modern technology as an aid to Turkish studies came naturally to him: his interest in the history of science comes second only to his love of all things Turkish.
Friends of Turkey come in all shapes and sizes and from many different backgrounds. But most of them have one thing in common: they grew to like the country when they lived in it. Some then learned the language, others never managed it. Lewis is an exception. He came to Turkey via the language, and he first learned it in Egypt, while serving with the Royal Air Force in the war. Why did this young student of classics from Oxford choose Turkish? Was it the fascination of agglutination? Whatever the reason, the choice was serendipitous. Raphaela (Raff) provided her absent serviceman husband with Turkish translations of English classics which she found in the Charing Cross Road; Lewis found an old Turkish gentleman in Egypt with whom he could practise the spoken language, which could only have been good old-fashioned Ottoman. Friendship and the study of Turkish went hand in hand.
Turkey had to wait. After the war, Lewis returned to Oxford to collect his MA in classics. Shocking his Greek tutor with the statement that he intended to switch to Turkish, Lewis was sent for advice to HAR Gibb, who, as Laudian professor of Arabic, ruled oriental studies in Oxford. Naturally, Gibb insisted that the study should begin with Arabic and Persian – sound advice for students of Ottoman, but today tantamount to telling a Turk that he would have to master Latin and Greek before learning English.
Lewis did not demur and took the classical Orientalist road, or rather sped along it. In 1947, after only two years of study, he gained a First in Arabic and Persian, the first to do so since Anthony Eden. That First earned a scholarship which allowed Lewis to spend six months in Turkey. It was love at first sight. Three years later, he acquired his DPhil with a thesis on mediaeval Islamic philosophy (published as Plotiniana Arabica in 1959). It was thus with solid scholarly credentials that he took up his first university appointment as lecturer in Arabic and Turkish. Turkish predominated.
Lewis went to Turkey repeatedly. He travelled in a four-wheel-drive vehicle on bad roads to towns which had no hotels in the modern sense of the word. He took Raff and their young children with him. Everywhere he met with a friendly reception. Turkey was opening up to the West after the years of isolation imposed by the Second World War.
Lewis wanted to share the pleasure he felt at getting to know a people “friendly and decent…trying, like the rest of us, to make an honest living in this troubled and confusing world”. His Modern Turkey was the result. It packed history, politics, facts and figures into a readable, accurate introduction to the country. His Teach Yourself Turkish, first published by the English Universities Press in 1953 (and revised in 1988), could be considered a companion work.
With these two deservedly popular books, Lewis did more than anyone else to bring Turks and their language to the attention of the English-speaking world. He introduced Turkey to a whole generation of readers before the advent of mass tourism, the increase in commercial relations, the growth of Turkish communities in Europe and of the Western expatriate community in Istanbul. There are many channels of communication today. He was a pioneer when there were few…
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