Turkish Money Talk

January 11, 2009
"That'll be one million seven hundred thousand" said the man in the shop, charging me an amount which, if calculated literally, would come out to a little more than one million US dollars. I was purchasing a small box of band-aids.

On January 1st of this year, the government of Turkey replaced the currency, which previously had been called the New Turkish Lira. The new currency is just called the Turkish Lira, minus the 'new.'

So: the old currency is called the New Lira, and the new currency is just called the Lira. This is because, in the bad old days of 100% annual inflation the (old) Turkish Lira (not the old New Turkish Lira) was devalued so much against the dollar that it had to be replaced by the New Turkish Lira, which is now old. Now, they're dropping the 'New' and going back to the old. This of course is not the old Lira, but a new Lira entirely. But not, mind you, the New Lira.
When I first moved to Turkey in 1992, there were 6700 Turkish Liras to the dollar. My first private lesson paid 150,000 TL (Turkish Lira) an hour. I earned about four million Liras a month working part-time at a high school.

But inflation and devaluation took their toll on the currency, and by the time I moved back to the United States in 1999, there were hundreds of thousands of Turkish Liras to the dollar. Fortunately, in Turkish, the words for 'hundred' and 'thousand' are short. "One hundred" in Turkish is yüz (they don't say "one hundred," but rather simply "hundred). "One thousand" is bin. So, if a loaf of bread cost four hundred thousand liras, for example, you could just say "dört yüz bin" which is a lot shorter and easier than saying "four hundred thousand." This was obviously one of the main reasons behind Turkey's rampant inflation back then. 

By the early 2000s, there were more than a million Turkish Liras to the dollar. In time, however, the government got inflation largely under control, so they were able to drop six zeroes from the money and introduce a new currency. On January 1, 2005, the New Turkish Lira was introduced, which was called the Yeni Türk Lirası, or Y.T.L. ("yay, tae, lay") for short.

I was living in Turkey when the Y.T.L. was introduced, and one thing I noticed early on was that shopkeepers often seemed a little reluctant to just say the number of an item, which is what they'd always done with the (old) Lira. For example, if something cost twenty-five liras, people wouldn't just say "twenty-five." Instead they'd either say "twenty-five liras" or "twenty-five Y.T.L." Under the old currency, however, nobody had ever said "lira." If something had cost twenty-five million, they'd just say "yirmibeş milyon," not "yirmibeş milyon lira."
Relic from the days of millions

It was as if people sensed that something was missing when they just said "twenty-five." After so many years of saying  "four-hundred and fifty-thousand" when charging people for a newspaper or pack of gum, it just didn't feel right to quote a price with numbers only. More words were needed.  So, when quoting prices in the new currency (both currencies co-existed throughout the calendar year of 2005), prices always preceded either "Y.T.L." or "lira," while prices quoted in the old currency never did.  People weren't saying "thousand" or "million" so much anymore, but rather "Y.T.L." or "Lira." "Y.T.L." and "lira" had taken the place of "thousand" or "million" in the popular lexicon, but saying just "twenty-five" was not an option.
After the New Turkish Lira was introduced, my joke was always to ask how much things cost in "E.T.L.," which I would then explain stood for "Eski Türk Lirası," or "Old Turkish Lira." This always got a laugh. Mostly. "Ne T.L.'sı olsun?" I would ask. "Y.T.L. mi, E.T.L. mi?" Most people thought I was being incredibly witty.
Now that four years have passed since the Y.T.L. was introduced, the government felt it was safe to go back to just plain "Turkish Lira." After all, the New Lira wasn't getting any newer. So the currency is now just called the "Turkish Lira" (although, once again, both the outgoing and the incoming currencies will be in circulation for the entire calendar year--while Turks were only given six months to change from the Arabic script to the Latin script in 1928, they have twice that amount of time to change currencies).

But many people, myself included, like the old ways. Three years after the  previous incarnation of the Turkish Lira was withdrawn from circulation, we still like saying "one million five-hundred thousand" to refer to the cost of a bus ticket. It shows that we've been around, that we're hold-overs from the days when someone could be earning hundreds of millions of liras a month and still not be able to pay the rent. Once 2009 is over and the Y.T.L. is no longer a circulating currency, we won't be able to say "yay, tae, lay" anymore, so it's not surprising that many of us are clinging to the old thousands and millions, tacking on an extra six zeroes to prices just because saying only "twenty-five" will seem so strange.

Ultimately, we'll have to give this up, of course. I imagine I'll switch to saying "lira" after giving the amount, but even this seems a little lame.  I'm still casting about for a formal replacement, but my current idea is to call the new money the "Y.Y.T.L." (Yepyeni Türk Lirası, or "Brand New Turkish Lira). I'm not sure if this will catch on, but it certainly seems like the simplest and most practical solution.