Not Your Stereotype: Laz Written Expression in Turkey

Cover of book with large numerals in blue at top and text in white on black background below.
The cover of Oxesapuşı Supara, a facsimile of a 1933 Lazuri mathematics textbook from the Soviet Union.

A few months ago, I wrote about a small-run personal history of the town of Azakh written in the Azakheni dialect of Arabic. In the preamble, I mentioned that there are a whole host of ethnicities resident in Turkey lacking official recognition or support for cultural autonomy. Despite such administrative inertia, the names and customs of many of these groups are integrated into Turkish popular culture. They often act as bywords for stereotypes, broad-brush categories, and uniform types that might have been based on Ottoman ideas about social hierarchies at one point, but have since become divorced from the realities of contemporary existence. Among the most commonly heard epithets is that of Laz. Rather than enumerating the occasionally pejorative and always constricting stereotypes, in this blog post I will explore key components of Laz existence in Turkey, and the struggle for cultural autonomy under the AKP, ending with a look at a unique addition to the British Library’s collections.

Laz (Lazuri) as a lect is a member of the Kartvelian languages, the most-widely spoken of which is Georgian. Laz’s closest relative in terms of genetic affiliation is the Mingrelian language, widespread in the Samegrelo region of Georgia. Laz and Mingrelian are not always mutually intelligible, but they do share common linguistic features as well as socio-linguistic ones. Dr. Karina Vamling of Malmö University has provided us with an overview of Mingrelian speakers’ attitudes towards the use of Mingrelian throughout the territory of Georgia and in various media. There is a clear bias against the use of Mingrelian in written form, despite a general desire to maintain the use of the language. From the Stalinist period onward, Mingrelian did not have an officially sanctioned alphabet or linguistic standard. As a result, textual production was undertaken briefly in a modified Latin script, or more usually in a modified form of Georgian. Vamling does not detail a concerted and organized effort to deny Mingrelian the status of vehicle of cultural production, but rather a whole gamut of socio-economic factors that keep it relegated to the home and personal relationships.

For Lazuri, the lack of a centralized, state-recognized or state-supported organization devoted to cultural autonomy throughout the 20th century has produced similar results. Today, Lazuri is usually written in a modified form of the Turkish alphabet, but the Georgian and Arabic scripts have also been used in the past. The current system preferred by cultural activists was, in fact, only created in 1984 with the help of two foreign linguists, Dr. Wolfgang Feurstein and Dr. Gōichi Kojima. Moreover, the language has largely been relegated to the home and parochial fora, particularly in those regions with the greatest concentrations of Laz speakers (the north-east of contemporary Turkey, including Lazistan). Unlike Mingrelian, however, the presence of a staunchly assimilationist and stridently nationalist regime in Ankara over much of the 20th century has provided little encouragement for a rejuvenation of the wider use and celebration of the language in Turkish society.

Within Turkish academia, studies of Laz culture, history and language are still relatively small, but present nonetheless. Lazuri, or Lazca in Turkish, has provided a space within which both linguists and ethnographers, as well as historians, can explore the diachronic development of Laz communities in what is today Turkey, as well as relations between the Laz and their Turkish neighbours. Dr. Hanife Yaman of Gaziosmanpaşa Üniversitesi has provided us with a most valuable contribution in her 2019 bibliography of works in Lazuri, or about it, which appeared in the journal Tehlikedeki Diller Dergisi. While the list does demonstrate some interest in Laz publishing and studies over the course of the 20th century, the fact remains that it is only recently that a concerted push to produce scholarly outputs inside Turkey can be noted. This includes, but is not limited to: Dr. Balkız Öztürk’s exploration of subjects in Pazar and Ardesheni Laz from 2010; Dr. Nanuli Kaçarava’s historical approach to the transfer of lexemes from Greek to Mingrelian, published in 2012; Dr. Ayşe Serdar’s 2015 contribution on the local and national limits of Laz identity; Dr. İrfan Aleksiva Çağatay’s 2018 hunt for Laz elements in the Derleme Sözlüğü, Turkey’s grand opus of dialectal forms; and, finally, a 2020 paper by Dr. Dilek Çoşan and Dr. Yılmaz Seçim on the cultural, linguistic and culinary traits of the Black Sea region’s Laz communities. As focused as these works might seem, their totality suggests that Laz Studies in Turkey is still a field in which much work is waiting to be done.  

The Laz have largely escaped the interest of Euro-American scholars, but that does not imply that there is absolutely no scholarship on this particular cultural group available in English. They have featured in broader surveys of ethno-linguistic minorities in Turkey, such as the edited monograph Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey. Here, Dr. Rüdiger Benninghaus provides us with a comprehensive overview of the socio-cultural position of the community in Turkey at the end of the 20th century. It appears that Benninghaus was intending to produce an edited volume on the history and culture of Laz communities following his contribution to the aforementioned work. I haven’t been able to find reference to it on WorldCat, but I have seen a draft version of a chapter by Dr. Silvia Kutscher of Humboldt University in Berlin on the linguistic characteristics of the language. According to Dr. Kutscher’s professional page, she has authored or contributed to a number of other studies on Lazuri and chrestomathies of Laz texts. Among these is a look at language change among Laz communities in the country, and the possible reasons for a shift from Lazuri to Turkish, published in Turkic Studies in 2008.

A clip from a 2016 Turkish-language documentary on Laz music and traditional culture.

Linguistics and ethnology aren’t the only fields in which an interest in Laz culture can be found in Euro-American academia. Ethnomusicology, too, has provided some impetus for scholars to problematize Laz cultural spheres. Dr. Thomas Solomon of the University of Bergen, for example, has explored the way in which the organic development of Laz music has contributed to the enunciation of cultural identity and heritage, as well as demands for greater cultural autonomy. In “Who Are The Laz?”, Solomon contrast two concepts of Laz-ness – one arising from a historically-rooted community, and the other an amalgam of stereotypes and misconceptions – that play out in Turkish musical culture. In doing so, he has gone some length to distinguish the equation of the epithet Laz to a broad Black Sea identity, from its use as a historically-rooted and distinct self-expression reliant on culture and descent.

Much of Solomon’s basic no-musical groundwork on Laz ethnology comes from the scholarship of Dr. Hale Yılmaz of Southern Illinois University. In her chapter “Construction of a New Laz Identity in Turkey and its Future Prospects,” Yılmaz succinctly explores the rise and consolidation of a Laz identity movement in Turkey and Germany, as well as the historical threats to and opportunities for Laz linguistic and cultural development. In doing so, she provides ample evidence of the Turkish state’s aggressive assimilationist approach. Combined with the dismissive attitudes of some Laz intellectuals, these have produced considerable pressure on Laz communities to abandon or not prioritize the use and preservation of their language. The process of induced self-orientalization, shame, and internalized prejudice is one common in many minority and indigenous communities around the world (see, for example, Iseke-Barnes, Kiossev, and Garcia-Olp, to name a few). It also helps to contextualize Yılmaz’s investigation of a resurgence in Laz language and identity, revealing not only an interest among young Laz in their language and culture, but also a re-reading of history and oral literature. As such, Yılmaz highlights the trap of an essentialized and static Laz identity as a response to the assimilationist and essentialist Turkish identity promoted by the state. Nonetheless, she finds that the plethora of groups engaged in Laz activism, and the unique context of the Laz as a small, dispersed ethnic group, act as barriers to the wholesale adoption of such constrictive and monolithic solutions, as witnessed in other ethnic groups in Anatolia.

Other works of Anglophone scholarship also point to the appearance of the Laz – whether in the endogamous or exogenous sense of the term – in Ottoman and Turkish history. In Dr. Ryan Gingeras’ “Beyond Istanbul’s ‘Laz Underworld’”, we are treated to a history of the emergence and development of “Laz” criminal syndicates. Gingeras, well-known for his work on many of the Empire’s other ethnic minorities, explores how the “Laz” often fell into a niche in Istanbul and other cities, laying the groundwork for some of the stereotypes still prevalent to this day. Dr. Zeki Sarigil of Bilkent University in Ankara provides another interesting look at Laz integration into Turkish society in his paper “Ethnic Groups at ‘Critical Junctures’: The Laz vs. Kurds.” In it, Sarigil contrasts the movement for a Laz cultural rejuvenation with the political and cultural demands of Kurdish communities living in Turkey. As Yılmaz explored in 2006, Sarigil too explains that the Laz movement is very much restricted to the cultural plane and generally eschews political organization. He seeks out the causes for this contrast with the country’s far more active and assertive Kurdish groups in the historically-contingent experiences of the Laz in dealing with both Russian and Ottoman imperial expansion.

Screenshot of webpage with dark blue header and various articles arranged in blocks
The homepage of the Laz Kültür Derneği showing various activities and offerings of the organization. (© Laz Kültür Derneği).

The relatively apolitical nature of Laz cultural movements – or rather the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of a Laz cultural identity and Turkish nationalist politics within the same communities – is a running theme throughout much Anglophone scholarship. Given the pressure exerted by some of Turkey’s governments for the suppression of minority cultural expressions, this appears to be a rational response on the part of Anatolian communities. Yılmaz points out that Laz people in Germany, in contrast, have been particularly active in encouraging a renewed sense of pride in the identity since the 1980s. But that does not imply that Laz living in Anatolia are not as committed to the preservation of Laz culture in Turkey as their brethren in Germany. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, magazines in Lazuri and Turkish were published in the Republic, all aimed at creating a space for the continued use and development of the language and culture. Ogni first appeared in 1993 and encouraged the spread of a consciousness about Laz identity. Ogni closed its doors after only 6 issues, but was later followed by Mjora, meaning “sun”, in 2000. This periodical, too, was short lived, but it did continue on Ogni’s mission, providing readers with a wide spectrum of articles about the Laz language and culture. Other periodicals appeared as well, including Skani Nena (Your Voice, Your Language)(2009-present?), published by the Laz Kültür Derneği, and Tanura (2011-12), of which I have only been able to locate three issues. According to Yılmaz and Wikipedia, the Laz resident in Germany also benefitted from a periodical known as Lazebura, which is the same name as the Laz organization founded in 1997 in Dortmund.  

Screenshot of webpage featuring white header with scrolling gallery of news stories, with the current item showing pictures of books as well as white text on a light blue over background
Screen shot of the Laz Enstitüsü home page, showing a report on seven years or Lazuri courses, as well as textbooks for learning Lazuri. (© Laz Enstitüsü)

Among the earliest Laz cultural institutions formed in Turkey that I have found mention of is the Laz Kültür Enstitüsü, which was established in 1993. Little information is available online regarding their activities. The presence of publications linked to them from as early as 1994, however, would imply that they were engaged in the preservation and promotion of Laz culture and language, including through the reissuance of earlier Laz pedagogical texts. Since 1996, the SİMA Doğu Karadenizlileri Hizmet Vakfı, founded in Kocaeli (officially known as İzmit), has provided a relatively public forum for members of the Laz community to celebrate their culture and preserve and pass on its attributes. The Vakfı provides little information about its activities or goals online, but the presence of newspaper articles about its events does imply that it has been continually active over the last 25 years.

Screenshot of website with very light purple background with dark purple side bar and images of a magazine at top left and of elderly people in traditional Laz dress at bottom right
An article on Skani Nena magazine on the Laz-focused new website (©

The publisher of Skani Nena, the Laz Kültür Derneği, is perhaps the most prominent of bodies leading the charge for the preservation of Laz language and culture. Its website provides a central hub for information about the Laz community in Turkey, as well as the history and culture of the Laz people. Founded in 2008, the Organization has a long history of providing support for those wishing to practice their culture and discover their roots. It was joined, in 2013, by the Laz Enstitüsü, which is an institution dedicated primarily to the protection and promotion of Lazuri, as well as its documentation. It’s not the only place that you can learn the language, however. The internet has allowed aficionados and other interested Laz people to share their experiences and knowledge in a way previously unimaginable – including through online lessons in the language, such as these. Although there is so much more to explore in terms of Laz cultural and linguistic activism inside Turkey at the current moment, the constraints of space and focus require me to move on to a new topic at this point. It suffices to say that the community’s undertakings to preserve and promote the language and culture have grown considerably over the last ten years, both in quantity and in confidence.

Publishing activities in Lazuri, as evidenced by both the periodicals and Yaman’s bibliography, have grown in tandem with this. While some of the material is forward-looking, there have also been attempts at capturing and rediscovering Lazuri publishing from years past. I was lucky enough to find a book that put just that into emphasis earlier this year. Entitled Oxesapuşı Supara, it is a critical edition (of sorts) and facsimile of a mathematics textbook originally compiled by İsqender Chitaşi (his name is given in the Cyrillic alphabet as Циташи Искандер Теймуразович) and issued in 1933. Little is known about Chitaşi apart from the fact that he worked as the Editor in Chief of the Laz Communist newspaper in the Georgian SSR and was a member of the committee overseeing the creation of a new Laz alphabet. He worked tirelessly over the 1930s to extend and consolidate Laz-language education across the GSSR, collaborating with Soviet, Georgian and Abkhaz authorities to this end. Sadly, like so many of his colleagues and compatriots, he met an untimely death during the Great Terror in 1938.

Bibliographic data about minority language publications in many former Soviet countries can be especially difficult to come by online. WorldCat produces no hits for Chitaşi when searching under his transliterated Cyrillic surname, but we do get two publications listed under his Turkified spelling. Both issued by the Laz Kültür Derneği and edited by Aleksişi, they include Alboni, a Lazuri primer first published in 1935 (listed here in the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia), and then again in 1994 and 2014; and Çquni çhara Albonişi Supara, another Lazuri grammar that appeared in 2012. As is the case with many intellectuals and activists who fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge, little would be known of Chitaşi’s activies and oeuvre if it were not for the tireless work of contemporary scholars determined to uncover long-silenced lives and narratives.

The original Okitxuşeni Supara (the difference in orthography might be down to difference in spelling or in transliteration) was based on an earlier Russian math textbook by Natalya Sergeevna Popova. Учебник арифметики для начальной школы (Arithmetic primer for primary schools) was also published in 1933, demonstrating that Chitaşi was likely concerned with providing Laz children with the latest in Soviet pedagogy. The book, as we shall see, is so much more than just a manual of arithmetic, just as Chitaşi himself must have been so much more than just a translator or editor. This, however, is the extent of the biographical and bibliographical information gathered by the editor of the critical edition, Irfan Ç. Aleksişi (Irfan Ç. Aleksiva; whose exploration of the Derleme Sözlüğü is found above).

The facsimile, based on an original copy held in the library of BULAC in Paris, was published by GeoAktif Yayınları in 2012. At 240 pages, the vast majority of which are copies of the original work, it is a fairly comprehensive textbook for anyone looking to study basic mathematics. It contains copious illustrations, all of which are a reminder of some of the wonderful drawings and sketches that accompanied children’s pedagogical works across the Soviet Union. The work was produced in the Uniform Alphabet, a compendious Latin script that was imposed on a wide swathe of the languages spoken across the Union in the late 1920s. The Uniform Alphabet, when applied to Lazuri, requires the use of a subset of characters that is wholly reminiscent of contemporary Turkish orthography, resulting in a text that is in no way strange or unsettling to those who are used to materials produced in the Republic of Turkey. This is especially fortunate given the close correlation between the Lazuri alphabet currently promoted by activists in Turkey and Germany, and the script adopted by Atatürk in 1928.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the work, however, comes at the end. Here, the efforts of both Chitaşi and Aleksişi have combined to produce a comprehensive glossary of mathematical terms in Lazuri matched to Russian and Turkish equivalents, or explained in Lazuri. It is this way that we learn that “opinoru” means an action or activity, and “ochonale” scales. As I explored in an earlier piece on the 1970s Iraqi Assyrian periodical Múrdinā Atúrāyā, one of the great challenges for any activist seeking to promote the use of a minority language in all aspects of social life is to encourage the adoption of endogenous terminology when exogenous vocabulary is so readily available. This textbook was obviously not just a means of providing first-language education to monolingual Laz children. It was also intended to create the basis for a new generation of Laz to operate in contemporary Soviet society without the need for Russian or Georgian. Given the intense assimilationist pressures faced by minority groups in the Republic of Turkey, it is unlikely that there is a sizable community of monolingual Laz children who might replicate such conditions today. But Chitaşi’s goal is no less pertinent to Laz living in Turkey than it was to the Soviet community in the 1930s. Greater effort might be needed, but such works still do open the door to alternate possibilities for linguistic and cultural autonomy.

Digital communication has created broad new vistas for the retention and rejuvenation of Laz language and culture in Turkey, but it also creates greater challenges. Just as the internet provides a platform for interested members of the community to connect to one another and learn and practice their ancestral language, so too can it submerge these green shoots in the omnipresent flood of hegemonic languages. Many of the Laz forums operate today in Turkish, albeit with content in Lazuri, highlighting widespread bilingualism, or monolingualism in the dominant language. Yet the efforts of activists around the world show that a decline in language usage is neither deterministic nor ahistorical. Rather, these fascinating snippets of Lazuri publishing demonstrate that through collaboration and perseverance, it is possible to carve out a space for smaller linguistic communities amongst the monocultures of the 21st century.

%d bloggers like this: