The Return: Part II, Talkin' Türkiye

Thursday, June 23, 2022

What's in a name?

Some people have been asking what I think about Turkey's "name change," i.e. from just plain "Turkey" to the new and exciting "Turkey-yay!" (as "Türkiye" is pronounced, sort of). 

Who knows? Maybe they're on to something. 


Actually, I remember back in 1992 a number of my students at Marmara University "correcting" my references to "Turkey" on the black board. Then Turkish president Turgut Özal had, they assured me, settled this issue by formally changing the country's English-language name to, you guessed it, Türkiye. 

I tried to explain to them that it wasn't really the job of the president of Turkey to determine the name that is used for their country in other languages, but this was met with skepticism. When I asked why they felt the country's English-language name needed to be changed, I was told that sharing a name with "a stupid bird" was an obvious insult to Turkey. 


On the one hand, this is easy to make fun of, especially since the Turkish word for "Turkey" (the bird) is hindi, which derives from Turkish words relating to "India" (Hindistan) and "Indian" (Hintli). As is the case with French (where the word for the bird is dinde, or "from India," d'Inde), the Turkish word for the bird, like the English one, comes from the mistaken premise that the Turkey is a bird that is native to Asia. 

What isn't so easy to make fun of is the fact that this actually resonates with some people in Turkey. While Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan's newfound insistence that the English-speaking world call the country (and, now, it's national airline) by a new name strikes me as an obvious ploy to appear as a defender of Turkey's interests at a time of spectacular economic mismanagement, what does it mean that so many people in Turkey would consider the name a deliberate insult?

Because there is meaning to this. I don't think it's simply a case of people being ridiculous, or trying to distract the public from bigger problems, although these are without question components behind the government's sudden interest in changing the country's name. 

I don't plan to change every reference to "Turkey" in my upcoming book to "Turkey-yay!" But, it still might be worth thinking some more about where all of this is coming from. In some ways, Ankara's current efforts at a name-change is the story of Erdoğan's rule in a microcosm: he's making a crude attempt to exploit people's sense of resentment. However, in many cases these resentments derive from causes that are, in fact, real, and actually aren't so funny. 


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.  

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.   

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