Sami – Hero of Two Nations

Şemseddin Sami is hailed as a man of literature, an encyclopedist, and –for me most importantly– a lexicograph both in Turkey and in Albania. He is considered to be a hero in both countries for his services for the Turkish and Albanian languages. Being one of the most important dictionaries of the Turkish language in the modern sense, his Kamus-ı Türki (1899) is still widely used as a reference today alongside Redhouse’s Turkish Lexicon (1890).

In addition to a few other dictionaries, such as Kamûs-ı Fransevî (French-Turkish dictionary) and Kamûs-ı 'Arabî (an unfinished work of Arabic-Turkish dictionary), he also published the first encyclopedia in Turkey, on the Islamic world.

Known as Şemseddin Sami in Turkey and as Sami Frashëri in Albania, he was an intriguing character with his contributions to the formation of the Albanian identity as well as to the independence of the Albanian people, however, at the same time producing intellectual material for Ottomanism and Turkism.

His eccentricity was also visible in his personal life. His second wife, who was said to hate the piles of papers and old books in the house, was the sister of his first wife. He was scared of Saturdays to death, as all of his 8 siblings died on a Saturday. Ironically, he died himself on a Saturday too. He was splenetic in protecting his wardrobe, using a pair of shoes for more than 10 years.

He used to haircut himself since he didn’t trust the barbers. He used to use his own formula for the ink in his typing routine. He spoke Albanian, Greek, Turkish, Italian, French, Arabic, and Persian. He was an amateur architect also. He had designed his own mansion in Istanbul, which was sold by his wife after his death. For the sake of irritating those criticizing his translation of Robinson Crusoe, he published it with a huge banner, that read “Translated Literally.”

In addition to his prolific career as a playwright, translator, encyclopedist, and political writings, he has also been a prominent lexicograph, having compiled a magnificent lexicon –Kamus-ı Türki, the most significant work of his entire legacy for the Turkish linguists and historians. In its preface (ifade-i meram – expressing of intent) in the form of a manifesto, he propogated that the imperial Ottoman language is originally Western Turkish, separated from its Eastern relatives under the influence of Arabic and Persian, and should embrace its Turkic origins again.

In this work, unlike Redhouse’s Lexicon, he especially excluded the Arabic and Persian words, that were out of use in daily conversations and in the printed world, commending the use of words in actual necessity and normality for Turkish readers, while Redhouse intended to retain any and every bit of vocable, regardless of their origin, used in any form in any period in the Turkish history. Sami’s work had an agenda – to educate the Turkish public to attain a level of literacy, not alienated by the foreignness of Arabic and Persian words.

Althogh his efforts have been successful to some extent, it was taken way too far with the Language Reform such that an animosity against any foreign-sounding word, especially Arabic and Persian, caused thousands of neologisms to replace the milliennia old uses of certain words, limping the established lore. 

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