Celebrating Father’s Day with Three Fathers of Language

Category: Culture, Language

For Father’s Day, you might give Dad a card, a dinner out, or a new piece of electronic gadgetry. But what do you get for the father of a language? That’s a little trickier.

Esperanto, Turkish and Serbian have definite father figures, usually the spearhead of major language reforms. In celebration of fathers everywhere this Father’s Day, here are their stories.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938) was the first president of Turkey and is easily recognizable today with his image appearing on money, statues, and banners in almost every town. The name Atatürk was granted to him by the Turkish Parliament in 1934; it literally means “Father of the Turks.” In 1928 he unveiled a new Turkish alphabet based on Latin script, not Arabic. In the 1930s, Atatürk continued his reforms with a movement to eliminate the borrowings from foreign languages that made up much of Turkish’s vocabulary, going back to words used in earlier centuries before Ottoman rule. Turkish today reflects these major shifts as well as an incredible increase of literacy since the introduction of Atatürk’s alphabet.

Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917) was not a national leader, yet his created language Esperanto is spoken around the world. A polyglot in his own right (he spoke Russian, Yiddish, Polish, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and English, as well as had an interest in Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian), Zamenhof thought that as a common second language it would help foster diplomatic communication between speakers of different languages. Zamenhof’s first work on Esperanto, the Unua Libro (First Book) was published in 1887 under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” (Doctor Hopeful). Zamenhof called the language simply Internacia Lingvo (“International Language”), but people began to call it Esperanto, after his pseudonym. The language was recognized by UNESCO in 1954.

Less known perhaps is Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787–1864), considered the father of the Serbian language. A language scholar and collector of folk-literature (poetry, songs, tales, etc.), Karadžić also reformed the Serbian alphabet, writing a Serbian grammar and dictionary that are still viewed as the basis for modern Serbian Cyrillic. Karadžić’s phonetic focus of “one letter, one sound” led to a complete overhaul of the Serbian language, making the written form closer to what people actually spoke as well as much easier to read and write. Though the church and many writers strongly opposed his reforms, the Serbian government in 1868 finally adopted Karadžić’s amended alphabet, which is still used today.

Any other great fathers of language spring to mind? Let us know below!