Turkey vs. Türkiye
My thoughts on the name change
It’s been a while, and I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now: the great country located between Iran and Bulgaria has asked you to please stop calling it “Turkey”. It has also asked you to stop calling it Türkei, Турция, Turquie, 火鸡, Turkki, Turecko, Kalkun, or anything else of the kind. Our government would like you - yes that’s all of you, the entire species - to refer to our country as “Türkiye”.
How did this happen? And why?
The executive decision in the official gazette #31679 published on December 4, 2021, states that the word Türkiye “best expresses the Turkish nation’s culture, civilization and values” and that “from now on, it is aimed that the thousands of years of experience of our nation and our state will be represented under the brand of ‘Türkiye’”. (Yes, country names are brands now. Like Nike or Kleenex). To this effect, Turkish correspondence will use this word in its foreign-language correspondence and will seek to “strengthen the ‘Türkiye’ brand”.
This policy has been in the works for some time. For the past few years, Turkish goods were already being shipped with the “Made in Türkiye” label, just to test the waters if you will, and now, our embassies, news organizations and other institutions have also made the switch. The “Republic of Türkiye Directorate of Communications”, the powerful presidential institution behind the policy, has launched a glossy PR campaign to announce the policy to the world. Turkish diplomats have formally asked the UN to change the country’s name plate.
There have been other countries to change their names of course. Holland became the Netherlands, Burma became Myanmar, the Czech Republic became Czechia, and Macedonia of course, traversed a rocky road to being called North Macedonia. Still, none of these were nearly as incisive as the policy Ankara has embarked upon. We are talking about reaching into every single language in the world and uniformizing a single word to achieve a global metaphysical effect.
There are some serious practical problems with the policy. I’ll try to list the most important ones below, then continue with some reflect on why all this happened.
So first, consider the grammatical difficulties. Changing the word for a country without changing the words derived from it is extremely awkward. While the English noun “Turkey” for example, is to become “Türkiye”, relating nouns such as “Turk” or the adjectives “Turkish” and “Turkishness” remain unaltered. So “Türkiye” has been substituted for “Turkey,” but there is still a ghost “Turkey” from which all the other Turkey-related words are derived. Does the English language live with that amputation? Perhaps it could go further and revise the entire group of words to simply use the Turkish words. “Turk” and “Turkish” would simply become “Türk,” etc. Of course this would have to be done in all languages.
Second, there are typological concerns. A lot of languages use the Latin alphabet but don’t have an “ü”. Are they to adopt it? Will we insist on it? Languages that have the Latin alphabet will presumably go for the next-best phonetic alternative, but is that really enough? Does the full feeling of “Türkiye” really come across sufficiently, even if the Thai (ตุรกี) slightly change their spelling (I wouldn’t know how) to adjust to the Turkish pronunciation of the word?
Third, and most concerning of all: pronunciation. The words countries currently use often sound a lot like “Türkiye”, with a strong “Tur” sound at the beginning, a “k” sound in the middle, and an “i” sound towards the end (though it’s the suffix that varies the most: Turchia, Turquía, तुर्की [Tuurki]). My understanding of the new law is that Ankara has asked everyone to reign in all of these particularities and henceforth use Turkish pronunciation only. When a woman from Minnesota, for example, says, as Ankara wants her to, “we went on vacation in Türkiye last year, and it was lovely”, she would ideally switch her pronunciation mid-sentence into Turkish pronunciation - just for that word - then switch back into English to finish their sentence. It would be as if she metamorphosed into a Turkish person for a second, then revert to her Minnesotan (or perhaps she’d rather have us say “Minesoodan”) self.
This is not as uncommon as one might think. People often switch between pronunciations when they speak a foreign language, especially if the word is the same or similar in their native language. A German person saying “I am from Frankfurt” might pronounce Frankfurt it in the German way, the with the flat “a” and elongated “u”, rather than the rounder English pronunciation. If you’re Turkish and you’re speaking English, for example, you’re likely softening up that “g” in names like “Erdoğan”. (Remember Obama saying “Pakistan”?)
In all those cases though, it’s someone who knows the language they’re importing the word from. The executive decision in official gazette #31679 in effect asks everyone in the world who doesn’t know Turkish to acquaint themselves with Turkish pronunciation for the purposes of uttering the name of our country. People try to do this in the promotional material for the policy, with mixed results.
Now, the diplomatic geniuses at the “Republic of Türkiye Directorate of Communications” may well claim that they’ll tolerate imperfect pronunciation and spelling, but what’s the point of the policy then? Also, where do we draw the line? At what point of the outside world’s struggles with our language does the thousand-year experience of our country shine through sufficiently? What if people cheat and slowly sneak in pronunciation patterns of their native languages into the word? Will Ankara set and maintain standards of some kind? Will it assist countries (or linguistic groups?) in their quests to nail down the correct pronunciation? It seems to me that there is a risk of catastrophic failure here, where the world serially butchers the sacred name of our country, decimating our “brand,” and with it, the metaphysical power of our immortal civilization.
Those, it seems to me, are the practical concerns. I find it a little strange that, as far as I can tell, I’m the first person to bring them up.
It is also worth reflecting on the uniqueness of the feat at hand. The speaking of words is obviously important in Abrahamic religions. The Jews called their god “Yahweh”, but as they became more monotheistic, decided that speaking that name out loud was inappropriate, and began to use “Elohim” (god/gods) or hashem (השם) meaning “the name”. Christians seem to have been more relaxed, even early on. The New Testament was in ancient Greek, but Western Christians recited prayers in Latin, even after people didn’t speak it in their daily lives. Translation was built into the religion in a way that wasn’t the case with Judaism. After the reformation and the printing press, there came to be an expectation that one read holy tests in one’s own language and applied its lessons to one’s daily life.
Islam has its protestants too, but remains pretty intense about linguistic hygiene. Unlike the Bible, Islam’s holy book is officially untranslatable. When it is translated it is no longer called “the Holy Quran” but a “translation” or to use the Arabic word (as we do in Turkish) a “me-al”. With the exception of 18 years in Kemalist Turkey, Muslims always recite Quranic verses in Arabic. Pronunciation is difficult, but people make an effort to get as close to native styles as possible. I’ve spoken to several people who have prayed with President Erdoğan, and they’re always struck by the quality of his “qıraat”, which literally means “reading,” but in this context refers to someone’s pronunciation of Quranic verse.
It may be this sensitivity that makes Muslims especially outraged at the images and unflattering cartoons of the prophet Muhammed (the utterance of whose name is always to be followed by “peace be upon him” mercifully abbreviated as “pbuh” in English). Think of the cartoon as the translation of a concept into the language of visual arts. That concept is simply not allowed to be translated into that particular language. Anywhere, at any time. It’s a universal law that some have tried to enforce universally.
The executive decision in official gazette #31679 aspires to something similar. It bans the translation of a holy word and seeks to obliterate a certain spectrum of cultural diversity and contingency: Thou shalt not take our country’s name in vain.
Is that what happened?
This, I believe, is where we run into the issue of the bird in the English language. In its explainer on the policy, the Turkish state broadcaster’s English-language outlet cites the Cambridge Dictionary to say that “turkey” in English can mean “something that fails badly” or “a stupid or a silly person.” I don’t think it’s a very common interpretation, but I can see how that would be the case. It is a strange bird.
Whenever this issue comes up, I think of my friend Danny. When I was 14, my father was posted to our Consulate in Chicago (he was a diplomat), so I went to high school there. Every year when Thanksgiving approached, my friend Danny would make Turkey jokes. He’d poke me and say something like “do they eat turkey in Turkey?” Then he’s laugh, because nobody else would.
Now Danny was a smart kid, he knew it was silly, he knew nobody would laugh at it, and that was the point. He was pretending to be a doofus. It’s as if he was saying “wouldn’t it be ridiculous if someone was stupid enough to make a joke like that?” If I had taken offense and chased Danny through the hallways (maybe I did sometimes, I don’t remember), it would have betrayed a lack of understanding. An appropriate response might have been to say something like “you’re a genius Danny. How do you come up with these things?” or “oh wow let me write that one down.” That’d be it.
My point is this: we were teenagers, but we understood that language was full of little idiosyncrasies like that. I never thought of it as a problem and I don’t know any serious people who did, including senior diplomats, journalists, scholars and statesmen.
Clearly, somebody feels differently. We can only guess what happened in the hallowed chambers of the Beştepe palace, but I suspect the president never liked the association with the bird. I’m also guessing that his chief spin doctor is under some pressure to deliver a big, interesting policy every few months or so.
President Edoğan is famously monolingual, probably the first major Turkish leader to be so. If he was told that other countries are making fun of Turkey because in the global lingua franca, there is an association with the bird, he may not have had any experience in which to assess the matter. Someone who doesn’t inhabit any other language doesn’t know what it’s like to switch between different ways of speaking. He doesn’t have first-hand experience at how people approach linguistic quirks. It may not have been difficult to convince him that this was a problem.
A name change (or more accurately, a translation prohibition) would also sound like an opportunity to bury “Old Turkey,” a timid, self-hating country, and accentuate “New Turkey,” a rising civilization of immense wisdom and power. The central successor of the Ottoman Empire, a country that aspires to lead the Muslim world, would not suffer the indignity of sharing its name with a flightless bird.
But they couldn’t just ask the English language to change it - that’d be too obvious. They wouldn’t want to hint too strongly that they’re hung up on the “bird issue,” so they asked the entire world to stop translating the name of the country.
Not that they’re going to share the reasoning behind the policy, but I think those are the broad strokes of it.
As far as bad policy goes, this is special. Any country can have a badly structured tax policy, an over-budget railway construction, or even eccentric educational curricula. It happens all the time. This policy is not like that. It doesn’t harm people directly, but it betrays a twisted and petty world view. It is ignorance and incompetence distilled at a very high consistency, served in fine china by white-gloved waiters.
I think part of why people haven’t talked about it much is because of how strange it is. At home, inflation is in the triple digits, and people wouldn’t have cared if the country’s name had been changed to “Dodo.” Abroad, people didn’t think it was important enough to upset a very prickly regime, so they went along.
I see some people sort of dragging their feet on this, hoping that the policy will be reversed. I was watching footage of Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu speaking in English the other day, and notice how he kept avoiding the name of his own country, pausing awkwardly, sometimes saying “my country” just to avoid the unnatural mid-sentence shift into Turkish and back (that’s probably another argument against the policy: language shifting is neurologically draining and uncomfortable to do).
We live in the age of nationalism, and there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. Of course the name of our countries is important to us. I notice my eyes dart across pages as I read anything political, looking for that capital “T.” Hearing my country’s name is a bit like hearing my own.
Now that I think of it, I also like to hear the sound of it in different languages. There’s always a moment when you’re in a different country, and you hear your country’s name in that different language for the first time. It’s a little different, but also the same. It’s a “through the looking glass” moment. You’re in Vietnam for the first time, say, trying to talk to a person who is saying a lot of things you’ll never understand, but then he says “Thổ Nhĩ Kỳ.” Yes, you point at your chest, “Tho ni kiii.” Then you point into the distance, as if he doesn’t already know, that you’ve come from very far away.
The world looks fresh and exciting all of a sudden. You’re in a strange place, and they have their own sacred things there, and you do your best to understand. That’s how you get to anything resembling universalism. Not through crude impositions.
But I digress, dear reader. Suffice it to say that I don’t think the name regulation in the official gazette #31679 will be a success.
I won’t adopt it, and neither should you. It’s undignified.
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And now we have the following problem: Should Turkey change its Turkish word for turkey? Hindi it means Indian from India (Hindistan). Or Hindu.
Although this Hindi really means American (it comes from the Spanish misconception of the travel to "Indias" when they travelled to the Americas, and other languages also call turkey as "Rooster from Indias").
A complete mess ;)