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Euro-Turkish: Loanwords Impact Turkish Language Development.

Martin Gani is a freelance writer based in Italy.

Every year a fiercely fought Eurovision Song Contest is held in the Old World. Some 160 million eager TV viewers tune in to watch the 26-nation competition. In 2003 Turkey decided to participate in this musical extravaganza with an English song, "Every Way That I Can." The decision ended up upsetting the Turcuk Dil Kurumu (TDK), a venerable Turkish- language institute. The TDK's sole reason for existence is to protect and promote Turkish. The wealthy institute voiced its disapproval to the entire world by posting a curt dismissal of the English-language entry on its Web site, which is, naturally, totally in Turkish.

The lyrics may have been all in English, but the music of "Every Way That I Can" was really a blend of East and West, just as Turkey is in its geography, culture, and language. Unlike most European languages, Turkish does not belong to the Indo-European family. It derives from the Altaic group of Central Asian tongues. But Europeans learning even a sprinkling of contemporary Turkish soon realize there are many easily recognizable loanwords coming their way. Virtually in any walk of life, be it politics, entertainment, sport, business, medicine, technology, or any other field, the modern Turkish language has been Europeanized. Euro-sounds are ubiquitous. Often, in the form of written Turkish, these adopted European terms may appear enigmatically disguised. But when the Turks pronounce them, they suddenly sound delightfully familiar.

We may, for example, learn that the lider (leader) of such and such parti (party) has taken the inisiyatif (initiative) to call for a miting (meeting) to discuss the ekonomik (economic) kriz (crise from French) and propose measures to fight enflasyon (inflation) and if necessary lobi (lobby) the government together with any sosyal (social) grup (group) and workers' sendika (syndicate) willing to join them to challenge the ineffective, rutin (routine) prosederler (procedures) being applied in every sektur (sector) of the ekonomi (economy) and raise the standartlar (standards) to levels of Avrupa (Europa from Italian).

As these words clearly indicate, the spelling of borrowed words or terms goes through a kind of surgery. Turks pronouncing the words reproduce the original sounds as perfectly as native English, Italian, and French speakers would. If, of course, the loanword is spelling friendly, it is left unadulterated. English words such as reform, slogan, problem, program, park, platform, plan and the Italian words such as bomba, parlamento, protesto, posta, and the false friend pasta (which in Turkish means pastry) have been easily adopted.

But those who think that the use of loanwords simply confirms that English or American is taking over the world would be wrong in the case of Turkish. If the English and French were to hold a battle of words in twenty-first century Turkish, Napoleon's descendants would convincingly win ten to one. According to the latest (1998) Turkish dictionary compiled by the TDK, the French contribution to modern Turkish is some 4,700 root words, compared with 470 from English, 620 from Italian, 380 from Greek, and around 100 from German. In all, a total of 60,700 root words produces 100,000 or so terms in the dictionary.

Perfectly natural contemporary Turkish is thus flavored with French: During the bufe (buffet) lunch, a young Turk (Turc) meets a Fransiz (Francaise) girl from Paris at a meteoroloji (meteorologie) konvansiyon (convention). They decide to have an evening out. He goes to the randevu (rendez-vous) by otomobil (automobile) rather than tren (train) or otobus (autobus) as he usually does in case he has to eskort (escort) the lady somewhere.

He suggests going to a konser (concert) or the sinema (cinema) down the bulvar (boulevard) as an alternatif (alternative). They catch a movie, a komedi (comedie), and then have dinner at a restoran (restaurant) and talk about the weather for a long time. The diyalog (dialogue) briefly moves onto Turkish kultur (culture) and their future kariyer (career) proje (projet). As the romantik (romantique) suare (soiree) draws to a close, the young man invites the girl to his apartman (appartement) for a konyak (cognac) or perhaps to listen to some muzik (musique). She says no."Mersi (merci), maybe next time." His face a tablo (tableau) of depresyon (depression), the young man drives the lady to her otel (Hotel).

Birth of Euro-Turkish

Turks are of Central Asian origin, and the name Turk was coined by their neighbors, mainly Chinese, as Tu-Kueh or Durko. Nomadic and belligerent, the early Turks soon expanded their territories in all directions. By the sixth century a.d. they had formed the largest nomadic empire in history. Starting in the eighth century, they began moving westward toward Europe. Turks adopted Islam in the ninth century and eventually settled in eastern Anatolia around the eleventh, forming the second Turkish empire.

This empire was a sedentary one, named after the dominating clan, the Seljuks. The Mongolians of Genghis Khan invaded Anatolia in the 1250s, causing widespread havoc and ending the Seljuk empire. Mongolian dominion lasted but a generation. The remaining Seljuks and the rebel, irregular Turkoman tribes (who adopted Islam later) set up some ten independent principalities. One of the ruling princes was Osman, who was destined to initiate the third Turkish empire. The Ottoman Empire would surpass the previous two Turkish empires in size, influence, and longevity.

The Ottomans first set foot in Europe in 1337. They came not by force nor deception but at the invitation of John Cantacuzenus. He proclaimed himself Byzantine emperor against the legitimate heir, John Palaeologus, and needed Ottoman support to fight the civil war that ensued. In 1345 Cantacuzenus gave his daughter, Theodora, in marriage to Osman's son, Orhan. This act sealed the alliance.

In the fourteenth century the Ottomans subjugated parts of the Balkans. If it hadn't been for Timur the Tartar invading Anatolia at the turn of the fifteenth century, they would have already conquered Constantinople. The arduous job of conquering Constantinople was left to Mehmet II in 1453. Constantinople became Istanbul in Turkish after the Greek words is tin poli (to the city). The expansion continued into the heart of Europe as far as the outskirts of Vienna, without actually conquering the city itself.

The Ottoman Empire also extended its borders deep into Islamic territories in northern Africa and the Middle East. Eventually the Ottoman sultan also became the caliph, the head of Islam. Consequently vocabulary seeped into the Ottoman Turkish from Europe, but many more words and terms were borrowed from Arabic and Persian. In the TDK's 1998 dictionary, the Arabic root words count 6,455 as the most dominant foreign influence, with Persian second at 1,360.

More traumatic changes, both political and linguistic, were on the way. The Ottomans entered World War I on the wrong side. Only thanks to the efforts of Mustafa Kemal (1881--1938), the founder of modern Turkey, was the empire replaced by Turkiye (the Turkish Republic) in 1923. Kemal put together an army of Anatolians and successfully resisted annexation of Turkey by the allied forces. Turks returned calling themselves Turks again, like their sixth-century ancestors, and no longer Osmanli.

Kemal, affectionately known as Ataturk or "father Turk," had clear ideas for Turkey. The nation was to look to the West, to Europe, as a model to follow. Politics and religion were clearly separated, polygamy was abolished, and women were able to sue for divorce and to vote by 1930. Ataturk also took it upon himself, as the first president of the newborn republic, to replace the Arabic script of the Ottoman alphabet with the Roman script used all over Europe. In 1928 he commissioned a panel of experts--including European and American linguists--to begin the task. They came up with a 29-letter, Western-style alphabet in just six weeks. By the end of the year the "new-write" had become law and was rigorously applied. The president himself traveled up and down the country promoting the change. There are photos of him teaching the new alphabet to children in schools and public gardens.

In 1932 something just as fundamental happened. The TDK was born. The institute was given the job of purging Turkish of foreign influences while also modernizing it. The TDK expelled thousands of Arabic and Persian words, deliberately attempting to break with the predominant Islamic culture. It filled the void with importations from Ottoman Turkish and Europe. At that time French was considered the most influential tongue, the lingua franca, much as English is today.

The changes were not easy for Turks to accept. Nor was it easy to assimilate the transition so rapidly. Before this time the educated classes had used Persian to discuss art and literature. Arabic was the main language for the discussion of religion, and the ordinary people used Ottoman Turkish to conduct their daily lives and business. More of a dialect, Ottoman Turkish was rarely written. With the new alphabet, a new era began. The Turkish spoken in the streets, interlaced with European sounds, became dominant and had to be learned and written by all. The gap between the language of the elite and ordinary people was bridged. Turks began to understand each other a little better and also began feeling closer to Europe.

Turkish today

Turkish is an easy language to pronounce. It has a phonetic alphabet that allows no exceptions. Every letter is designated for one sound and- -when composed into words--letters retain their sound whatever the combination may be. This regularity is exactly the same in the universal language, Esperanto, invented by the Russian linguist Ludwik L. Zamenhof (1859--1917). Esperanto (Zamenhof's pen name) first appeared in 1887. Through its regularity, use of simple grammar rules, and incorporation of the most common vocabulary, Esperanto was supposed to unite the peoples of Europe. It never caught on.

Unlike Esperanto, Turkish is an agglutinating language. All the tenses, auxiliaries (such as "to be"), modals ("can"), and prepositions are added onto the root word as suffixes. Consequently, one can end up with words as long as a train, something like Ingilizlestiremediklermizdenmisler, which means "they say they are among those we have not been able to transform into English."

The root Ingiliz can be guessed as it derives from the French word for English, Anglaise. So we know it has something to do with English but probably could understand little else.

There are other complications. Except for the location of the predicate, Turkish syntax is a mirror image of English. In both languages the subject comes at the beginning of the sentence. In Turkish the verb comes at the very end of the sentence. In Turkish the verb comes at the very end of the sentence. In major European languages the verb comes right after the subject or it may even start the sentence, such as in Italian and French, where the declination of the verb clearly indicates the subject. Due to the placement of the verb in Turkish a complex sentence can cause comprehension difficulties. This too is changing. It is not uncommon to hear twenty-first-century Turkish speakers put the verb at the beginning of a spoken sentence. As Turkish linguist Mehmet Un explains, "Turkish word order, technically speaking, requires a kind of memory to store all the necessary operational parameters until the operation code (that is the verb) is caught. Because of this memory requirement, many of us prefer simple sentences. As it evolves I foresee a remarkable increase in the use of the verb at the beginning, as in English. It seems more natural."

The development of contemporary Turkish is ongoing. Walking around Istanbul today, one notices a bewildering number of billboards advertising European-language courses. The great majority offer English. If only Ataturk had known how dominant English-American would become, we would probably have a completely different Turkish today. I asked Burcu Edizer, a graduate of Ankara Conservatory and a music teacher, whether the large body of foreign words in Turkish impedes communication. "Many French-derived words have been in use for many generations now and don't present any problems. Frankly, I wouldn't know how else to express them," she says. "Most musical terms, like do re mi, tempo, opera, come straight from Italian. Others, like konservatuvar (conservatoire) and senfoni (symphonie), come from French and are easy enough to understand, too. The newcomers, mostly from English, can be problematic. For instance, self-determinasyon, brifing (briefing), and a series of very new ones where the spelling is left unchanged, as in sneak preview, single, spot, standby, and side effect, may not be immediately accessible."

But help is at hand. The TDK has a list of troublesome terms circulating in the mass media. The institute gives its definitions and supplies a Turkish alternative on its Web site. Often this is simply a literal, but accurate, clever translation and may end up replacing the borrowed word. One good example is bilgisayar (knowledge counter), which has successfully ousted komputur (computer) from Turkish.

With a Turkish accent

The Latin alphabet helped modernize Turkey and increased literacy substantially. It is also enabling Turks to learn other European languages much more easily. I spoke with Erol Yasa, an engineer from Antalya in southern Turkey. Yasa is learning Italian in Italy, and I asked how he found his experience. "Reading and pronunciation are no problem at all, much easier than English. I was amazed to find so many Italian words we already use in Turkish like foto, grado (grade), gusto, gala, salvo, fattura (invoice). Others we say the same but adopt to Turkish spelling. They write banca, piano, scala (scale), and Italia; we write banka, piyano, skala, and Italya."

During the Ottoman days, things were not that simple. Turkish had no European loanwords, and despite running a multiracial, multilingual empire, few Ottoman administrators spoke a European language (just as few European diplomats spoke Turkish). Translators, usually Greeks, were employed to bridge the communication gap. In 1789, the year the French Revolution got under way, Sultan Selim III became emperor and ushered in what's known as the Age of Reform. Four years later, believing in more direct contact between European and Ottoman governments, Selim opened embassies in Europe's major cities, starting with London.

Selim sent Turkish diplomats to learn Western ways and languages. Soon "translation chambers" were instituted, followed by foreign-language schools. In time Greek translators lost their jobs to Muslims. In 1834 Sultan Mahmud launched the first Turkish newspaper in Istanbul, accompanied by a French version called Moniteur Ottoman. Mahmud also opened the first secular school, a medical academy, and employed European teachers. For the first time, teaching was to take place in both French and Turkish. At the inauguration ceremony, Mahmud encouraged the new students: "You will study scientific medicine in French. ... My purpose in having you taught French is not to educate you in the French language; it is to teach you scientific medicine and little by little to take it into our own language."

From that time on, the Europeanization of Turkish went from strength to strength. Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe since it was established in 1949 to unite European nations. In 1995 Turks signed a custom-union agreement with the European Union (EU) and in 1999 Turkey was officially accepted as an EU candidate nation. In December 2004, pending a report on social and economic reforms, the Muslim nation will start negotiations to join the EU as a full member. Once that happens, Turkey, with its current 67 or so million inhabitants, will be the second-largest nation in the EU. Germany would be first.

Finally, it has to be said that Turkish has not spent the last centuries simply borrowing words from Europe. It has also loaned some to the West. Turkish words that have been adopted into common European usage include kiosk, divan, tulip, turban, yogurt, pilau, and kilim. Coffee and cafe, from the Turkish word kahve, derives from the Arabic word for drink, kahwa. Turkey, the main ingredient of the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, however, has no direct connection with Turkey the republic. This pheasant is in fact an American native. Turks call it hindi. Apparently an African bird, the guinea fowl, looks very similar to a turkey and was introduced to Europe via Turkey. When Europeans first immigrated to America in the sixteenth century and saw the local turkey, they thought it was the guinea fowl they were familiar with. So they called it turkey too. But no other European language calls turkey "turkey." The French call it dindon, the Germans Truthahn, the Spaniards pavo, and the Italians musically intone tacchino.

To close, I'd like to mention that Ertab Erener, the popular singer who sang "Every Way That I Can" in Turkish-accented English at the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest, actually won the event. The victory made all Turks very proud indeed.
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Author:Gani, Martin
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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