Mind your language

Why should Turkey be allowed to change its name?

11 June 2022

9:00 AM

11 June 2022

9:00 AM

Turkey has told the UN it wants tobe called Türkiye. Even when it is written in capitals, it would still like thelittle dot over the i, thank you, as İ. Exports will now bear thelabel ‘Made in Türkiye’ instead of ‘Made in Turkey’.

Turkey is of course a name for a delicious bird – atfirst labelled the guinea fowl, until the New World creature was discovered.But the country’s state broadcaster TRT World complains that dictionaries alsodefine turkey as ‘something that fails badly’. There’s worse. The OxfordEnglish Dictionary (in an entry written in 1915, when Britain was at waragainst Turkey) records under Turk: ‘anyone having qualities historicallyattributed to Turks; a cruel, rigorous, or tyrannical person; any one behavingbarbarically or savagely. Also: a bad-tempered or unmanageable person; a manwho treats his wife harshly.’ The Church of England’s Book of Homilies(1563) speaks of the ‘cruelty of the enemy of our Lord Christ, the great Turk’,meaning the Ottoman Sultan, who no longer exists.


But unless we burn all old books, a change of spelling ofTurkey won’t make much difference. It is less than 100 years since Turkey underAtatürk adopted the Roman alphabet in place of Arabic. And for all that timeTurkey has called itself Türkiye. Other countries took no notice, forthey express their own sounds by different conventions from Turkey’s.

The Turkish alphabet has 29 letters. A Turkish typewriterdoes not begin Qwerty but Fgğiod. Unless you can play the pianositting on the floor and facing backwards, the Turkish typewriter is animpossible instrument.

One of the Turkish President’s names, Erdoğan, has a gwith a breve over it, ğ, to separate the o and the a, butnot standing for anything. In Türkiye, since the dotted i is likeour i in fit, one need worry only about the ü. It’s likethe vowel in English too followed by an untrilled r (not like thethroaty French r).

And this suggests an obvious point: that we do not pronouncethe country France anything like the way that the French do. Germany hasan entirely different name, as does Greece. It is hardly reasonable for Turkeyto expect an exception.

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