What’s in a name?
Everything and nothing, all at once
BY Andrew Warner
After countless nights spent in high school scrolling through obscure Wikipedia pages on topics like the “Phonological history of Spanish coronal fricatives” and working my way through problem sets from the International Linguistics Olympiad, I enrolled in a historical linguistics class while studying at UCLA. In large part, this was to satisfy the requirements for my bachelor’s degree, but it was also one of the first times where the trivial knowledge I’d acquired digging my way down these linguistic rabbit holes actually proved to be useful.
On the first day of class, the professor went through the usual motions of introducing the syllabus and outlining some of the major topics we’d encounter over the course of the spring quarter, before finally diving into the first lecture of the academic period. There was one part of this introductory lecture that’s always stuck with me — to demonstrate the level of cognitive cooperation necessary for languages to evolve, he provided us with a hyperbolic example.
“If I decided one day to start calling this thing a ‘skopliotron,’ and nobody else in this room picked up the new word, it would cease to actually be a skopliotron,” my professor said, holding up and clicking the ballpoint pen he’d hastily grabbed from the podium in front of him to illustrate his point. “For a new word to enter a language, it has to be adopted by an entire community of speakers — not just one or two here and there.”
It was strange to me that this concept needed explaining — “Of course you can’t just make up new words whenever you want,” I remember thinking. For nouns and verbs to evolve, it takes a series of very gradual shifts — phonological twists and semantic turns, if you will — that take place over time. Take, for example, the English word “pen,” which we have as a descendant of the Latin “penna” (meaning “feather” or “wing”) passing through roughly two millennia of said twists and turns.
When it comes to language change, place names make particularly interesting specimens to observe. Toponyms — or the words used to name cities, nations, continents, and everything in between — have a tendency to become so far-obscured from their original meaning that they instead become synonymous not with the original meaning, but with the place itself. Indeed, some linguistic scholars go as far as claiming that proper nouns are essentially meaningless. My hometown, Sacramento, California, for instance, takes its name from the Spanish word “sacramento” meaning “sacrament.” Yet this name has an entirely different connotation to me than the connotation it had to the Spaniards who named the valley where the city of Sacramento now lies.
While Sacramento’s spelling remains unchanged from its Spanish origins, its pronunciation in the city’s primary language differs significantly. In my English pronunciation of the word, I use vowels that simply do not exist in the phonemic inventory of the Spanish language, I ignore the presence of the letter “t” entirely, and I let the “o” linger just a touch longer than most native Spanish speakers would in their pronunciation of “sacramento.”
Unlike your average noun, once a place is named, that name becomes ingrained not only in linguistics, but also in historical narratives and political agendas. Even if a committed group of English-speaking residents decided to rename the city of Sacramento to, say, “Skopliotron,” (to borrow an example from my professor) it would take some degree of legislative action for that change to really have any sticking power.
While politics may be influential as a catalyst triggering place names to change (the majority of Sacramento natives would likely still be using the Spanish pronunciation had it not been for the Mexican-American war), political factors alone aren’t enough either. Earlier this year, for example, Turkey’s leadership requested that the international community refer to it as Türkiye in official communications, to reflect the Turkish-language pronunciation and spelling of the country’s name.
The move to refer to Turkey as “Türkiye” outside of the nation’s linguistic and political borders is interesting in part because it hasn’t been very successful so far. While the United Nations registry officially recognized the country’s name as Türkiye in June, that recognition just about ends there — a brief scan of major newspapers published in English, French, Spanish, and Indonesian (which, like Turkish, all use the Latin alphabet) yields not “Türkiye,” but “Turkey,” “Turquie,” “Turquía,” and “Turki.”
These things do take time — after all, the United States government still refers to Myanmar as Burma in most official communication, despite the fact that that country officially changed its name in 1989. In order for a place’s name to evolve, politics and linguistics have to align in just the right way, so that proposed name changes don’t fall under the radar — or worse, come across as totally arbitrary — for speakers that aren’t as familiar with the linguistic or geopolitical implications of the old name. With the recent campaign to change the name of Turkey — ahem, Türkiye — it’s a good time to look at how and why these things change.
When the Turkish government moved to officially change the country’s name in May, it had already expressed its discontent with certain exonyms for the country. In December 2021, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan requested that the international community refer to the country as Türkiye in every language.
“Türkiye is accepted as an umbrella brand for our country in national and international venues,” Erdoğan said in a memorandum. “Türkiye is the best representation and expression of the Turkish people’s culture, civilization, and values.”
In addition to better representing the country’s culture, there’s another reason the country’s leadership may want to distance itself from the name “Turkey:” In English at least, the country’s name is identical to the name of the goofy-looking bird that folks in the US traditionally eat for Thanksgiving dinner. While it may sound too silly to be true, Turkish media has suggested that “Turkey”’s similarities with the English word “turkey” are a bit of a sore spot for the Turkish ruling class.
“Type ‘Turkey’ into Google, and you will get a muddled set of images, articles, and dictionary definitions that conflate the country with Meleagris — otherwise known as the turkey, a large bird native to North America,” reads a December 2021 report from TRT World, a publication covering Turkish news. “Flip through the Cambridge Dictionary and ‘turkey’ is defined as ‘something that fails badly’ or ‘a stupid or silly person.’”
President Erdoğan also recommended that Turkish companies that sell products internationally begin labeling their products not as “Made in Turkey” or “Hecho en Turquía,” but as “Made in Türkiye” and “Hecho en Türkiye.”
The English word “Turkey” and the Turkish word “Türkiye” can both be traced back to the Old Turkic word “türk” or “türük,” variants of which were (and still are) used in Turkic and non-Turkic languages to refer to Turkic people. The English “Turkey” comes from the medieval Latin word “Turchia,” which combines the “türk” root with the suffix “-ia” to denote the land of the Turks. English-speakers used all sorts of wild and seemingly random spelling conventions to write this word down — “Turkye,” “Turkie,” and “Turquey” are all attested in English-language sources throughout the ages.
English has a lot of phonological constraints that make an authentic pronunciation of “Türkiye” unlikely to take hold in the Anglophone world — English lacks the first vowel denoted by the umlauted “u,” a high, front, round vowel, found in languages like Turkish, French, and Mandarin Chinese. That’s not to mention the fact that English also only allows a comparatively small set of vowel sounds to come at the end of words, meaning most English speakers wouldn’t pronounce the “e” at the end very accurately.
In turn, most English speakers’ pronunciation of the word isn’t likely to change much, if at all — the pronunciation closest to the Turkish-language “Türkiye” that fits within the rules and constraints of the English language sounds identical to the pronunciation of “Turkey.” Perhaps if the country’s own language had a different name — a name more dramatically different from the native English word — it would make for an easier adaptation into the English language.
While Myanmar’s had a lot more time to move away from the name Burma, the two words are both different enough from each other that the change was always fairly noticeable to the unobservant eye. The distinction between Turkey and Türkiye, on the other hand, is not. Both “Myanmar” and “Burma” are derived from words used in the Burmese language to refer to the country (“Burma” comes from a more colloquial, spoken register, while “Myanmar” is more formal and literary).
The important part is that, in both writing and speaking, “Myanmar” and “Burma” have virtually no similarities, or at least none that are particularly obvious to the untrained eye. People are simply more likely to notice those differences than the differences between two extremely similar and closely related words.
Additionally, the shift from “Burma” to “Myanmar” had a bit more geopolitical oomph to it, so to speak. Throughout its history, “Burma” had been used by colonial rulers to refer to the country. In an effort to distance Myanmar from its colonial past, military rulers called on other nations to refer to the country as “Myanmar” in place of “Burma.”
In contrast, President Erdoğan’s justification for switching to “Türkiye” in an international context falls a bit flat. Sure, the country’s official language is probably a better means of representing its “culture, civilization, and values,” but that’s not quite as attention-grabbing as the imagery of military rulers quashing a democratic uprising and demanding that the international community adopt an entirely different name for their country.
Türkiye has yet to take hold in the same way Myanmar has, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t take hold. It’s been more than three decades since the country formerly known as Burma became Myanmar — at first, many people were skeptical of the name “Myanmar,” in large part due to its association with an undemocratic military regime. People continued to call the country Burma for a while, though the name “Myanmar” became more widely accepted as the country slowly grew more democratic. As with any sort of language shift, changes like this can take a while to really spread, and Myanmar does have a long way to go — Türkiye’s probably going to have to wait even longer.
When countries rebrand themselves like Turkey has attempted to, it creates a bit of difficulty for translators.
Proper nouns are already harder to translate than other types of words due to the fact that they don’t have any true meaning — this isn’t just true of toponyms, but really, all names. This may be more obvious when we think about the names of people; a person named “Grace” is not necessarily any more graceful than somebody named “Eric.” Moreover, if you asked an English speaker what the word “Eric” means, they’d probably just stare back at you with a dumbfounded look on their face, unable to give you an adequate answer.
Because words essentially lose their meaning when they become names, they also become difficult to translate. The Spanish name “Consuelo” is derived from a word meaning “consolation” — but if you addressed a woman named Consuelo as “Consolation” in English, she’d, once again, probably be quite confused.
Moreover, when foreign names are introduced into other languages, they’re typically adapted to phonologically fit into the target language, but the spelling may not change, especially if the languages use the same writing system. The famous Manhattan socialite Consuelo Vanderbilt probably pronounced her name a bit differently from the Mexican-American singer Consuelo Silva, just as my pronunciation of “Sacramento” is quite different from the Spanish pronunciation of the city’s name.
Many names do have equivalent counterparts in foreign tongues, making a direct translation possible when localizing entertainment like video games or movies. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find any (reputable) English-language newspaper referring to the Mexican president as Andrew in the place of his actual name Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
When it comes to toponyms, things get a bit messier. From century to century, land is taken from one ruler and given to another. With power shifts like these often come linguistic shifts as well. When one nation conquers another one (or a piece of another one), it can rename the territory entirely or adopt variants of the original name that fit more closely into their native language — this means that, more often than not, cities and countries have lots of different names in lots of different languages.
Sometimes differences in naming conventions are subtle. Think back to Sacramento: The letters used to write and spell the city’s name never changed, but the pronunciation did. In the US, this is particularly common — names are adapted from the language of the previous settlers in a way that fits the phonology of North American English.
Sometimes the differences are not so subtle. Germany is a particularly interesting example of a country that has many different names that are wildly different from language to language. While English speakers call it Germany, Spanish speakers call it “Alemania,” and Polish speakers call it “Niemcy.” It’s not particularly surprising that Germany has so many names, given the fact that it spent much of its history as a series of fragmented states, each with their own names and unique relationships to neighboring regions.
Germany might be a bit of an extreme example, but the truth is, the same can be said of most places. Different languages simply have different names for the same places, as a result of their distinct rules and histories. These differences are often minor, or at the very least, inoffensive — hardly anybody would find the name “Germany” controversial or scandalous in comparison to “Deutschland” or “Alemania.” However, some instances grow to be quite politically charged. In general then, the best practice when translating the names of places is to go with the name that’s most widely used and recognized in the target language, in order to be well understood.
“Türkiye” has yet to become politically charged in the same way that other place names have — for example, translating the Ukrainian capital’s name into English as “Kyiv” suggests some sort of geopolitical alignment with Ukraine, while translating it as “Kiev” connotes an inclination toward the Russian side of the conflict. Along with the Myanmar-Burma distinction, this is one instance where politics and etymology collide. In his efforts to rebrand the country, President Erdoğan has attempted to create a similar situation, but it remains to be seen what will come of these efforts.
Ultimately these changes — as with any other linguistic change — must occur organically, whether it’s the result of political strife or a minor phonological change. Because our homeland is so innately tied to a part of our identity, it can be tempting to want to control the names people use when talking about it. However, these efforts fall flat when they fail to take into consideration the sociolinguistic and historical factors underlying the reasons why place names change.
In this sense, asking the entire world to start calling Turkey “Türkiye” without a really convincing justification is sort of akin to asking a group of 40 undergraduate linguistics students to call a pen a “skopliotron.”
Andrew Warner is a staff writer for MultiLingual Media.