Why they don’t call turkey “turkey” in Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving to you American folks who happen upon this place.

So, turkeys don’t come from Turkey. Everybody knows this, right? They’re native to North America. When Europeans “discovered” the New World and encountered the Turkey, it reminded them quite a bit of another bird, the guineafowl, which, you guessed it, is native to…Africa. Wait, that’s not Turkey, either. However, Europeans were first introduced to the guineafowl by merchants who were frequently Turks (in reality these were Mamluk or Ottoman merchants, which doesn’t necessarily make them Turks, but to Europeans in the late Middle Ages anyone or anything related to the Eastern Mediterannean, especially the Ottomans, was “Turkish”) or Indians, and so it became known as the turkey fowl or just “turkey” in some European languages (particularly in the British Isles) and something reflecting an Indian origin in others (like French, where it’s called dinde or d’inde). The bird that European voyagers discovered in America looked a little like the guineafowl, tasted kind of like the guineafowl, and came from a place that was just as exotic and unknown as the Africa from which the guineafowl hailed, so European folks figured they were the same bird or close enough, and whatever name they had given the guineafowl was applied to the new animal as well (so, for English types, “turkey”).

If you’re talking turkey with a Turk, please refer to the bird as a hindi. Apparently the Turks had bizarre ideas about where the turkey fowl came from too, and they attributed its origins to India. That’s not Africa either, but when you’re trying to name exotic new animals in the 16th century, I guess all these far-off places start to seem alike.


Did you know that Turkish was the first language? It’s true! Just ask Atatürk!

When the Republic of Turkey was formed from the hollowed out husk of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, one of the problems that its new leaders, including or maybe particularly Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (a surname that was given to him later in life, which means “father of the Turks”), was how to quickly develop a Turkish national identity to energize this new nation-state. There had been movements in favor of embracing the “Turkic” nature of the Ottoman Empire, but these never went anywhere because the emperors and their ministers were trying (and failing, for the most part) to keep the empire together and retain the loyalties of a vast array of peoples, most of whom were not Turkish. Meanwhile there were nationalist movements developing all over the empire in the 19th century, especially in its European provinces (Greece and the Balkans), and later, not fully until World War I, among its large Arab population. But for the most part there was no serious Turkish nationalist movement, because the Turks who ran the empire realized that nationalism was the last thing they wanted to be pushing.


Mustafa Kemal, "Father of the Turks"

Mustafa Kemal, “Father of the Turks”

After World War I and the collapse of the empire, though, with the empire’s geographic core (and most “Turkish” parts) being reorganized as the new Republic, Turkish nationalism became kind of a Big Deal. Atatürk recognized that a strong national identity was crucial to controlling his new state and keeping it together, not to mention how important it would be in terms of protecting Turkish interests in the post-war geopolitical order in Europe. His new government at Ankara, which had bitterly fought for and won recognition of Turkey’s nationhood during the 1919-1923 Turkish War of Independence, needed to demonstrate that the new Republic could hold together or risk European encroachment. One area where Atatürk and his supporters felt that big gains could be made in defining a uniquely Turkish identity was in the Turkish language. Because Arabic script was still hell for printing in the 1920s and because its vowel-light writing system had made it a fairly bad script for representing the vowel-heavy Turkish language, Atatürk instituted script reform in 1928, which is why modern Turkish is written in Latin, not Arabic, script. He also established the Turkish Language Foundation to research the language, primarily in order to purge the many Arabic and Persian words that had been assimilated into the Turkish lexicon and replace them with “original” Turkish vocabulary, either new words derived from Turkish roots or archaic Turkish words brought back into use and given new relevance.

In the long run this worked, and continues to work, quite well–so well, in fact, that Atatürk’s famous speeches, the ones that Turkish schoolchildren learn, have been translated multiple times over the years to make the language more contemporary and more “Turkish.” But in the short run, it had the effect of making the new, modern Turkish language unintelligible for older Turks who were accustomed to using all those Arabic and Persian words in everyday speech. In order to ease the transition while also doing a little pro-Turk ethnic puffery, the School of Language, History, and Geography at Ankara University hit upon the Güneş Dil Teorisi, or “Sun Language Theory,” by which they asserted that every other human language could be traced back to one Central Asian root, which was (obviously, duh), a proto-Turkic language whose closest contemporary relative was, of course, Turkish. There’s pretty much nothing to this theory apart from some French research (not well-regarded anymore) suggesting that Sumerian hieroglyphs and cuneiform were the first writing systems and an assertion that the Sumerians were Turks from Central Asia. These early Sumerian-Turks, the theory goes, started worshiping the sun, as one might do in their situation, and what became the Sumerian-Turkish language started as ritual chanting in praise of their sun god.

The lack of any real scholarly evidence backing the Sun Language Theory up didn’t stop it from being accepted in Turkey–I mean, it was nice to think that Turkish was the root of every other language, and the problem of so much Arabic and Persian vocabulary in the Turkish lexicon was solved, because, hey, all Arabic and Persian words were ultimately Turkish anyway! Turkish linguists created fanciful Turkish etymologies for all sorts of words, like “God” being derived from the Turkish kut (“blessing”) or the idea that the Turkish okul was actually the root of the Greek word σχολείο and the Latin schola instead of, you know, the other way around. There’s apparently a word for the creation of fake etymologies to support loony theories about linguistic origins, which I didn’t know until I started writing this post. It’s called goropism, which comes from a 16th century dude named Johannes Goropius Becanus, who asserted that some dialect of Dutch was the language spoken in Eden because, and as far as I can tell this is his actual justification, it had more short words in it than either Latin or Greek (hey, it must have made sense to him).

The people who were got the worst end of this whole language reform business were, unsurprisingly, Turkey’s Kurds, who simultaneously had their ethnic identity stripped from them (the Turkish government summarily announced that Kurds were just “Mountain Turks,” whatever the hell that means) and had their Kurdish language (which is a heck of a lot closer to Persian than to Turkish, since the Kurds are, in fact, an Iranian people, not a Turkic one) suppressed and banned from public use.

Please and thank you (and sorry), part II: say you’re sorry

How do you apologize in Turkish? Here we’ll cover both the simple “I’m sorry” and the more formal/emphatic apology.

There are a number of ways to exclaim “Sorry!” One, which really goes more toward “excuse me” (which is a subject for another entry) is affedersiniz. This comes from the verb affetmek, which means “to forgive” or “to pardon,” so saying Affedersiniz! is literally exclaiming “You pardon!” or “You forgive!” But again, this is for very minor transgressions that would usually get an “excuse me” in English. Another expression is Kusura bakmayın! which takes kusur, “flaw” or “defect,” and combines it with the negative of the verb bakmak, to look, so it literally means “Don’t look at (my) flaw!” This gets you in the direction of “forgive me,” which is also a topic for another entry, but is important to know here. Maalesef! is a transliteration of the Arabic ma al-asif, which means “with sorrow,” and as in Arabic it usually means “unfortunately,” but it may occasionally pull duty as “Sorry!” The Persian word pişman can also be used to mean “sorry,” though it’s better used to mean “regretful” or even “contrite.”

When it comes to complete sentences, “I’m sorry” is Üzgünüm. Üzgün is a Turkish word that means “sorry” or “dejected,” and we just add the short first person ending for “to be.” “I apologize” is özür dilerim. This combines the Arabic adhr, rendered in Turkish as özür, with the Turkish verb dilemek, which means “to wish” or “to beg,” making a compound construction that is a calque on the Persian azr khwastan, and means “to beg pardon” or “wish to be excused.” Dilemek is conjugated in simple present tense with a first person singular ending, so it means “I beg pardon,” or “I apologize.”


Sundown today marked the beginning of the Islamic holiday known as Aşure (Ashura), commemorated by both Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims but more more deeply honored by the Shiʿa as the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hüseyin (Husayn). This is the tenth day of the month of Muharrem, or in other words the tenth day of the new Islamic year. Please read some of the general information about the holiday at my Arabic site, and then more detail about its history and significance for Shiʿa at my Persian blog.

Disaster in the Philippines

I’m very late on this, but the devastation caused in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan is enormous, with at least 10,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, most undoubtedly into refugee camps or worse. Please give what you can, if you are able. I gave to UNICEF this evening and also sent an SMS donation to the World Food Program, but there are many ways to contribute. See here, and here, for lists of organizations, and if you have any other suggestions please leave them in comments.