Turkey changed country’s English name to Türkiye

President Erdogan wants the English world to use the Turkish pronunciation and spelling of the country name

Today's expression: Turn the tables
Explore more: Lesson #467
May 12, 2022:

Turkey, the country, officially changed its English name. If you Google “Turkey,” chances are there will be a mix of search results: everything from ugly birds, to a fungus, to the country itself. This bothers President Erdogan, so he decided to re-brand the country internationally from Turkey to Türkiye. Plus, learn what it means to “turn the tables.”

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Here’s a quiz: This country’s capital is not Istanbul, as I mistakenly said in Lesson 97 , but Ankara. What’s the country? Don’t jump to conclusions—I’ll tell you in a second.

Lesson summary

But first let’s introduce this lesson. I’m Jeff, and you are listening to Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. This is lesson number 467 of Plain English, and that means JR has uploaded the full lesson content to PlainEnglish.com/467.

The answer to the trivia question: The biggest city is Istanbul, but the capital is Ankara. If you said the country is Turkey…you’re wrong—at least according to the president of that country, who is engineering an official name change. It’s now called Türkiye. And that’s what we’ll talk about in the first half of today’s lesson. In the second half, I’ll show you how to use the phrase “turn the tables.” And we have a song of the week.

Irked Turks: Becoming ‘Türkiye’ in English

The corner of the Earth that English speakers today call Turkey was the site of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It was also home to one of the most powerful. The Ottoman Empire ruled from the 1300s until the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It was based in Constantinople, what is today called Istanbul.

The modern-day country of Turkey was founded as a republic in 1923 and its name comes from the ethnic group that has lived there, a group we in English call the Turks. The origin of the word dates back to the Middle Ages.

But they don’t speak English in Turkey—at least, most don’t speak it natively. They, understandably, speak Turkish. And they don’t call their country “Turkey,” they call it “Türkiye.”

At the time of the country’s founding, the country was given an English translation that would be similar to the local pronunciation, but also easy for English speakers to say and spell. As you can tell, Türkiye is not easy to pronounce for an English speaker; I had to practice it several times and I’m still probably not getting it right. What’s more , Türkiye is spelled with an umlat, the two dots above the “u,” which is not a letter English speakers have on their keyboards.

To spell it correctly, most English speakers need to dive deep into nested menus of special characters. This isn’t too hard today, but it was a bigger problem in the days of typewriters. English speakers going back centuries referred to this area—including the Ottoman Empire—as some variation of Turkey.

So there are a lot of reasons why “Turkey” just works better as an English translation. And there’s nothing wrong with an English translation of a place name: you don’t hear Italy insisting that we say Italia or Germany complaining that we don’t say Deutschland.

There is, however, one big problem with the name Turkey that doesn’t exist for Morocco, Spain, Poland, or other translated country names. “Turkey” means something else in English. A turkey is an animal. And the turkey is not, shall we say, a prestigious animal. It’s neither smart nor beautiful nor endangered, nor even native to the country we’re talking about. The similarity in pronunciation is just a coincidence.

If you Google “turkey”, you’ll see information about Turkey the country mixed in with information about an ugly bird, an even uglier bird called a turkey vulture, and something uglier still , a fungus called “turkey tail.” You might also find recipes for, say, roast turkey, turkey sandwiches, turkey meatballs, turkey bacon, turkey burgers—the list goes on.

This irks Turkey’s president. He has a name that English speakers also struggle to pronounce. He’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and he decided to re-brand the country internationally from Turkey to Türkiye, spelled as they spell it in their own language. The country’s tourism office changed all its English-language materials to reflect the new name. The new name is all over government TV and online media. It’s also used in official documents. You’ll see Türkiye on English-language videos on Turkish Airlines.

The official reason for the name change is to ask the rest of the world to respect the name that they, the Turks, give to their own country. They also don’t think their country name should be confused with an animal or a recipe—a reasonable desire. Tourism is important, too. English-speaking travelers may not be specifically dissuaded by the name Turkey, but you can’t deny that Türkiye holds greater appeal.

There is a bit of politics involved, too. Some locals think that Erdoğan is doing this to stir up nationalist pride, to boost his popularity with people who want him to assert their Turkish identity. Turkish speakers struggle with English pronunciation, so Erdoğan is turning the tables . Now Turks can delight in watching English-speakers garble a word in Turkish for a change. Erdoğan’s more internationalist opponents think this is pointless grandstanding, and a scheme to boost his support among nationalist supporters.

The name change won’t just be a branding exercise. Turkey—as it is still officially called in English—will apply for a name change with the United Nations.

More respectful pronunciation

Politics aside, I think I support the change. Again—politics aside. Today, we live in a globalized world. We’re more used to pronouncing words that are a little difficult to say. We can look up a pronunciation on YouTube. And as for the spelling, I can type an umlat with one extra keystroke.

There’s also a bit of a global movement to align the English pronunciation to be closer to what local people want to be called. You may have heard me talk about Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Kyiv is close to what they say in Ukrainian. But I grew up calling that city “Kiev,” which more aligns with the Russian pronunciation of that word.

Many cities in India changed their names from their British colonial names back to what they were more traditionally called. That’s why we have Mumbai and not Bombay, Kolkata and not Calcutta, and so on .

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Expression: Turn the tables