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COMMENT ––– TURKEY
Türkiye? Stuff it

Hannah Lucinda Smith explores the meaty matter of Turkey’s new name – and asks whether it will take off.


Turkey has long been a gift to headline writers. ‘What a carve up!’ screamed the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid newspaper, following the Turkish national football team’s 8-0 defeat to England in November 1984. The journalists might have congratulated themselves on their wit but nobody was laughing in Turkey.

Or Türkiye, as it is now called. In one of his final decrees of 2021, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has already reshaped the politics and global image of his country, went one step further and renamed it. According to his order, the name of the country as it is spelt and pronounced in Turkish will replace its foreign-language equivalents, with the intent of boosting the country’s global standing. Exports will be labelled “Made in Türkiye”. International organisations will switch to the new name.

Or perhaps not. Name-changing is a tricky business, as Czechia – up until 2016 the Czech Republic – can confirm. 

“The main aim was to get a one-word designation of our country,” says Pavel Kocis, the ceo of emc Public Relations in Prague. “Czechia wasn’t really successful since many people, even in Europe, still call it Czechoslovakia, or they confuse Czechia with Chechnya. But I still believe it’s better to have the option to say Czechia than to have to keep repeating Czech Republic.”

On the international stage, countries don’t always get to self-identify. 

“There is a huge cost to the international system of identifying and amending every single instance where the name of the place is used – the whole global system of trade, travel, communications, transport, international law, finance and statistics has to adapt,” says Simon Anholt, an international-policy adviser and founder of the Good Country Index, a tally of nations’ global contributions. “It can take decades, if not generations, before people finally learn to call countries by new names. Very often it just doesn’t happen at all.”

Erdogan has made previous attempts to “Turkify” words borrowed from other languages. Yet Türkiye is itself a foreign import. “Türk” was a derogatory term in Ottoman times, applied only to peasants and provincials. Ottoman Muslims referred to themselves as Müslüman. The name Turquie has been used in Western Europe since the 13th century but its first recorded usage in Ottoman Turkish was by dissidents in the Hürriyet newspaper in 1868. The word was suppressed by Sultan Abdülhamid II, who ruled until 1909, and then re-emerged during the First World War. In 1922, Kemal Atatürk assigned it as the name of the homogenised nation-state that he founded in the ashes of the Ottoman empire.

There are examples where renaming has worked, of course. Formerly occupied countries including Sri Lanka and Myanmar have successfully shed their colonial names. India has renamed many of its cities and states since independence in 1947. In 2019 the Netherlands dropped Holland as its alternative moniker.

How many of us will be able to pronounce Türkiye  properly is another matter. In a phonetically simple language, ü is one of two Turkish letters that are hard for non-natives to get their tongues around (the other being ö). Making the correct sound involves trumpeting the lips and forcing out a sharpened “uh”, distinct from the un-umlauted “uu”, and quite unlike any English phoneme.

“Accents are a nightmare,” Anholt said. “Do Turkish people call Germany ‘Deutschland’? No, they call it Almanya.” The headline writers probably won’t need to think up new jokes any time soon.

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ILLUSTRATOR: Jonny Glover

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