No more Turkey: Why are some calling the country Turkiye now?

A friend collects snow domes, those blizzard bubbles stocked by souvenir shops. Years back, browsing her shelf, I found a dome with a strange name, a mystery destination with its own bridge and basilica. It looked romantic, even more in a snow flurry, but where the hell was Firenze?

Italy, I soon learnt. The capital of Tuscany, which Italians call Toscana, just as Firenze is their sneaky alias for Florence. Welcome to the world of exonym and endonym, where Germany doubles as Deutschland, or China as Zhōngguó (literally, the Middle Kingdom). To Swedes, we live in Australien (our exonym), and they in Sverige (their endonym for our Sweden).

At the international request of Turkish president Erdogan, Turkey is now Turkiye. Welcome to the world of exonym and endonym.Credit:AP

Nym means name of course, while exo- denotes outside, beyond the borders. By contrast, endo- is internal, the local label. Lately, via bulletins and articles, we’ve come to realise Turkey (the long-time exonym) has become Türkiye (the homegrown name), as requested by that nation’s government, a few months prior to February’s dire quake.

Back in December, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had lodged his bid with the UN: “Türkiye is the best expression of the Turkish people’s culture, civilisation and values.” Some media outlets have obliged, switching the exonym for Ankara’s own endonym. TRT, Türkiye’s public broadcaster, ascribed the succulent Christmas bird as one reason for the rebrand.

No nation wants to be edible. Second to that, turkey the bird equates to turkey the ninny: a double-whammy of allusions. Related barbs have goaded other races to reclaim their identities, including the Suomi, Inuit and Khoisan, respectively ditching Lapp (“border dweller”), Eskimo (“eater of raw meat”) and Hottentot (“stammerer”).

As for why the bird is called a turkey, it’s a messy business. In many ways, the fowl’s backstory distils the ticklish nature of exonyms. During the 1500s, the Brits first imported the turbo-chook via Asia Minor, notably Turkey, hence the name, despite the bird originally hailing from the Americas.

Traded for centuries, the turkey owns a pastiche of historic visas captured in the world’s dictionaries. In Portugal, the turkey is peru; in Greece, it’s French chicken; while in Türkiye the animal is dubbed hindi, the bird from India. Though none compares to Farsi’s inspired onomatopoeia of booghalamoon.

The upshot is clear. When multiple borders are involved, as typified by the turkey’s restless past, a single exonym option is preferable. Or one agreed tag, at least. Imagine matching the vocab of all ten Danube-adjacent nations, rechristening that river whenever it flowed into a new meridian, from Germany’s Donau to Ukraine’s Dunay, via Bratislava’s Dunaj and Bucharest’s Dunărea, with its own stray eyelash (or breve). The headwaters would never reach the mouth.

Speaking of Ukraine, having erased its definite article in 1991, the capital of Kyiv has also mutated our mental atlas. Pub chefs in solidarity should revise their chicken Kiev, just as the blackboard awaits chicken Chennai (bye-bye Madras) and Mumbai duck, which is a bloody fish anyway.

Menu tweaks are just one small step in embedding new exonyms. Another step is the TV autocue, where news anchors follow the phonetics: “toohr-KEE-ah”. National rebrands can be arduous, time-consuming, not to say pricey. Just ask King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch.

Five years ago, the king plumped for Eswatini over Swaziland, as his realm was too often confused with Switzerland (take heed, Australia and Austria). Since the rebadge, however, the nation has been flailing to keep up with currency, stamps, airlines, passports and internet domains. A blizzard of paperwork, much like a snow dome, but nobody said exported endonyms would be easy.

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