What word do you use to refer to the country that lies on the Anatolian Peninsula?
If you answered with “Turkey,” that might be changing soon.
The Turkish government recently announced plans to change its official name in the United Nations’ registry of country names to “Türkiye,” which reflects the country’s name in the Turkish language. However, due to troubles with the umlaut in the “ü” character, some troubleshooting is in order before any changes are officially made.
Last December, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the global community to refer to the country as Türkiye in all languages. However, that hasn’t stopped “Turkey” from remaining the dominant word form, at least in English. All major U.S. news outlets refer to the country as “Turkey,” which has been used as the dominant English form since at least the 1300s (alongside a handful of alternative spellings that have long since fallen out of favor, like “Turkie,” “Turkeye,” and “Turquey”).
The name entered the English language via French “Turquie,” which in turn comes from the Medieval Latin “Turchia,” which literally means “land of the Turks.” This combines a Latinized form of the native Turkic name “Türk” (referring to the people group) with the Latin suffix “-ia,” meaning “land of.”
Prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turks used a handful of different words to name the empire, though “Osmânîye” (derived from the name of the empire’s founder, Osman I) was particularly prominent. The name “Türkiye” — etymologically related to English “Turkey” — was not widely used in the Turkish language until it became the country’s official name when it declared itself the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
The push to use “Türkiye” in all languages raises new questions about how place names should be translated from one language to another. Another prominent discussion in recent months has featured two spelling forms for the capital of Ukraine: “Kiev” and “Kyiv.” In this case, “Kyiv” has been adopted by many English speakers to reflect the geopolitical status of Ukraine as an independent nation.
In the case of “Turkey” and “Türkiye,” things are a bit different, especially given the fact that Turkey has not been under the control of imperialist forces in the same way as Ukraine. “Turkey” and “Türkiye,” along with the French and German “Turquie” and “Türkei,” are all related forms that have been rendered to fit into the phonological and spelling conventions of their respective languages.
The English spelling and pronunciation of “Turkey” has long been a sore spot for Turkish people, as the English word is pronounced and spelled exactly the same as the word “turkey,” which refers to a type of game bird, or, less commonly, is used synonymously with the word “flop” or “failure.”
While spelling change is fairly easy — all the Turkish government has to do to officially change the spelling of the country’s name is register the new spelling in the UN’s registry — pronunciation change is likely to take a bit more time, if it occurs at all.
Since English spelling often does not correspond to English pronunciation, it’s unlikely that native English speakers’ pronunciation of the country name will change simply because the spelling has changed. Still, it’s unclear whether or not the country wants speakers of other languages to change their pronunciation, or simply adopt the native spelling without changing their respective pronunciations.