The Observer’s take on Turkey’s name change | Observer Editorial
What’s in a name? A lot, if we are to believe the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His years-long quest to change his country’s nickname to Türkiye (pronounced Tur-key-yay) culminated last week when the UN gave its official blessing. “Turkey is the best representation and expression of the culture, civilization and values of the Turkish people,” Erdoğan said. Perhaps so, although in typically authoritarian fashion, Erdoğan does not seem to have asked the Turkish people’s opinion.
Nor did he consult the Welsh and French speakers, for example, who have their own way of speaking turkey. Trying to book a flight from Caerdydd (Cardiff) to Twrci this summer could be confusing. The French, being French, will probably stick to Turkey.
The move to Türkiye has a solid historical basis. The land areas occupied by present-day Turks were known by various names over the centuries, including Asia Minor, Anatolia, and Eastern Thrace. But Turkey officially became the Republic of Türkiye (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti) after independence in 1923, following the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate. Its centenary will fall next year.
Erdoğan would have liked to get rid of a westernized and anglicized name that clashed with his neo-Islamist, nationalist-populist brand. In Ankara, as elsewhere, identity is paramount. More prosaically, it is suggested that the word turkey conjures up unwelcome images of Thanksgiving dinners and the Christian holiday of Christmas. Worse still, in American slang, a turkey is a silly, stupid person.
Changing the name of a country is not a new idea. Changing political landscapes are often the cause. In 1707, the Acts of Union created the new concept of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. In 2019, Macedonia, a former republic within Yugoslavia, itself a 20th-century invention, became North Macedonia after a vexatious dispute with Greece.
What became the United States was previously known, at least to native peoples, as Turtle Island. Before the revolution of 1776, it gloried in the name of the United Colonies. Some now call him Great Satan or Global Hegemon. Russia became part of the USSR, then had doubts. The war also transformed East Pakistan, originally East Bengal, into Bangladesh. Less dramatically, Swaziland became Eswatini in 2018 so as not to be confused with Switzerland.
The colonial hangover has inspired many national makeovers. Casting off the yoke, Bechuanaland became Botswana, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Nyasaland became Malawi. Similarly, Siam became Thailand. Until 1972, Queen Elizabeth II was also Queen of Ceylon. When it became Sri Lanka, it deposed her by mutual consent. By contrast, the transformation of Burma into Myanmar in 1989 was controversial. Opponents have rightly complained that the new name was imposed by decree by an unelected military junta.
Geography is another determining factor, as with the relatively new creations from North Korea and East Timor. When the southern regions of Sudan gained independence from the north in 2011, they chose, somewhat unimaginatively, to become South Sudan. Like Mesopotamia and Palestine, Persia was as much a place and a civilization as it was a country. Now it is called Iran.
Many major global cities have also changed their names, reflecting ancient roots and changing identities. New York was once New Amsterdam and, briefly, New Orange, a surprising name for the Big Apple. Saint Petersburg was Petrograd and Leningrad in between. Bombay is Bombay. Constantinople, formerly Byzantium, now bears the less exotic name of Istanbul, which brings us back to Tur-key-yah.
Should the UK follow Erdoğan’s example? If Scotland secedes, it will no longer be united. And the way the young royals go on, it could soon be a republic. As Britain shrinks and shrinks inexorably into Little England, a new name may be needed. How about Brexitannia?