Let’s Talk Turkey

Yesterday morning the annual Bainbridge Island Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Trot” went past our front yard. I took a short video of the scene and posted it on Facebook, then went back to preparing to roast our own brined, spatchcocked bird. 

After having cold leftovers for breakfast this morning (check out my recipe for homemade mincemeat) it seemed like a good time to discuss the word “turkey.” Turks sometimes object to our use of the same word to label the bird and their country. Turkish citizens spell the name “ Türkiye” and many of them wish we’d follow their lead.

I explained to a Turkish correspondent once that, regrettable as it may be, citizens do not get the last word on how their nation’s name is rendered in other languages.

English speakers don’t automatically think of cups and saucers when they refer to Zhong Guo as “China,” nor do they usually think of the roasted bird when using the English spelling to denote the Turkish nation. Even if you could get Americans to write “Turkiye” you’d never get them to include the umlaut. Except for the occasional accent aigu in a French word, most accent marks get stripped out of foreign words when they are translated into English.

Turkey gets better treatment in this regard than many other nations: in English Suomi becomes “Finland,” Deutschland is “Germany,” and Miṣr is “Egypt.” 

Cities, regions, and geographical features are often subjected to similar treatment: Firenze becomes “Florence,” Wien is “Vienna,” the Côte d’Azur is “the French Riviera,” and the Bodensee is “Lake Constance.”

Linguists call such renaming “exonyms.” Occasionally a country is successful in getting foreigners to adopt its preferred spelling. Most English writers now know not to refer to the nation of Ukraine as “The Ukraine,” a title which to Ukrainians suggests Russian claims to its territory are valid (see p. 287 of Common Errors in English Usage for a discussion of this point). 

Perhaps the most strikingly successful revision has been in the changing of the spelling from English “Peking” to “Beijing.” Neither spelling reflects the actual Chinese pronunciation, which is something like “pay-cheeng”; but the latter is the Chinese government’s preferred rendering, and we’ve followed their lead even though it leads us to mispronounce the name of their capital.

Such changes are often politically charged. An interesting scholarly volume on the subject is  Exonyms and the International Standardisation of Geographical Names: Approaches towards the Resolution of an Apparent Contradiction (published by LIT Verlag in 2007, available through Google Books).

Foreigners often assume that English speakers are the main offenders in misspelling nation names, but consider how others refer to the United States of America: Amerika (German), les Êtats-unis d’Amérique (French), and Měigu  (Chinese). 

Just as you can’t get your family to drop that annoying nickname your older sister gave you when you were five, you usually can’t persuade foreigners to refer to your nation’s place names in the way you prefer.

An interesting exception is the abolition of the peculiar English spelling of the name of the Italian city of Livorno as “Leghorn” which always reminded me of the chicken breed of that name. Which brings us back to the subject of poultry.

In contemporary English a Leghorn is a bird, but Turkey with a capital “T” is a country—one that we very much enjoyed visiting several years ago.


David said...

The Beijing spelling is pretty close to how it is pronounced (http://inogolo.com/pronunciation/Beijing). It's not pronounced pay-cheeng by the people who live there. The spelling change probably had to do with going from Wade-Giles romanization to Pinyin.

Anonymous said...

There's a genuine misspelling in your "Êtats-unis". There's an accent aigu, not an accent circonflexe on the E: "États-Unis" is better. (I'm not sure about the capital U, not being a French language pundit.)