Articles on Turkish language

Written by  Ahmet Toprak in late 1980s





                     By Ahmet Toprak
                    Hard is the Journey
               Gold vessels of fine wines,
                   thousands a gallon,
                Jade dishes of rare meats,
                 costing more thousands,
                I lay my chopsticks down,
                  no more can banquet,
               And draw my sword and stare
                    wildly around me:
                Ice bars my way to cross
                    the Yellow River,
              Snows from dark skies to climb
                 the T'ai-hang Mountains!
                 At peace I drop a hook
                     into a brooklet,
                  At once I'm in a boat
                  but sailing sunward...
                  (Hard is the Journey,
                   Hard is the Journey,
                    So many turnings,
                   And now where am I?)
              So when a breeze breaks waves,
                  bringing fair weather,
                I set a cloud for sails,
                  cross the blue oceans!
This poem, likening the life to a journey, is by poet Li Po.  Li Po lived
from 701 to 762. Along with his contemporary Tu Fu, Li is considered by
Chinese to be one of their greatest poets.
Although embraced by Chinese and has actually immensely contributed to
their literary treasures, Li Po was Turkish.  He was born in what is now
Soviet Union-Afghanistan border area.
500 years later, the same geographic region produced another great poet and
philosopher: Mevlana Celalettin Rumi. Like Li, Mevlana also emigrated
from his birth place when he was a child, but went West and settled in
Konya, what is now central Turkey.
Both Li and Mevlana mainly used a language other than their mother tongue
Turkish in their poems. However, both also had a few occasional poems in
Turkish. Unfortunately, none of Li's poems in Turkish survive today.
(For more about Li Po's poetry, refer to  Li Po and Tu Fu  by Arthur Cooper,
Penguin Classics, 1973.)
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By Ahmet Toprak
Some of the plants and animals of the new world Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492 gradually made their way to Europe and then to the Ottoman Empire. It is interesting to note how the Turks named them.
The bird that the English named "turkey" was called "hindi" by the Turks. English confused the bird of the Americas with another bird that they were getting via the African territories of the Ottomans. This African bird--nowadays called the "guinea fowl"--was then known as the "turkey cock".
The Turkish word probably originates from the misconception that the newly discovered continent was India: "Hindi" means "indian" in Farsi and Arabic languages.
I have heard another name for turkey in Anatolian Turkish:"culuk" (pronounced "joulouk"). This is an onomatopoeic word (that is, it is formed by imitating the sound of the animal).

Other dialects of Turkish have yet other words for this animal: The Tatar Turks call it "kürke" (probably another onomatopoeic word), Azeri Turks "bugalamun" (from "chameleon"="ground lion" in Greek?)
One final note on turkey, the Spanish speaking nations call the bird yet with another country's name: "peru"!
The names of the New World's prolific plants "potato" and "tomato" entered the Istanbul Turkish with a slight modification: "patates" and "domates". Both of these words are of American Indian origin. Azeri and Tatar Turks, like French, call the potato "ground apple": "yer alma" in Azeri Turkish and "cir" (pronounced "jir") "alma" in Tatar Turkish. Yet "yer elma", in Istanbul Turkish is the "Jerusalem artichoke! "

Turks did not adopt the word "tobacco"--another American Indian word. They derived a new and appropriate word for it from the Turkish word "tüt" (to give off smoke): "tütün".

(Many thanks to Saliha Minai and Aziz Abad with the Tatar and Azeri Turkish.)
Addendum: 26 Jan 2001, Ms. Aysegul Acar informed us that the word for Turkey is "dinde" from "d'Inde" in French...
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 By A. Toprak
The Turkish word "kiraz " and its English equivalent, "cherry", are from the same root. Ancient Greeks named the cherry fruit after the region where it was grown in abundance. This region is none other than the modern Turkish province of Giresun (ancient name "Gerassus"). The word in Greek was "kerasos" which became "kiraz "in Turkish. Romans borrowed the same word and changed it into "cerasus" to pronounce it properly with a "k" sound. In medieval Latin, the word became "ceresia". English borrowed it through Norman French as "cheri. "

Gypsies were once thought to have originated from Egypt.  Modern anthropologists say that they are actually from India. Nevertheless, the misconception about Gypsy roots stuck with them. The word "gypsy" is an altered form of the word "egypt".
You will find the same parallel in Turkish: There are two words for gypsy in Turkish. "Kipti" is the one that is considered "proper" but old fashioned. Ottomans borrowed this word from Arabic. The word "kipti" means "of the Copts" in Arabic which also comes from the word "egypt". Copts are the Christian minority in Egypt who still use a language derived from ancient Egyptian in their religious ceremonies.  Through the 19th and 20th centuries Egyptologists made extensive use of their language to decipher the meanings of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The other word Turkish has for gypsies is "çingene." Although sometimes considered less flattering, one hears "çingene" more nowadays. This word has a completely different root: It comes from the Farsi word "cheng", the name of a musical instrument similar to the harp. The rest of the word ("-iyan") is made up of two suffixes from Arabic. The first, "-i, "makes it the "cheng" player, so it is like the English suffix  "-ist "in "harpist". "-yan "makes the word plural and the word means, "cheng players" (harpists) or "dancers" (dancing to the accompaniment of "cheng"). In 19th century Ottoman language it started to mean "women dancers. "

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By A. Toprak
The English language, like many other languages of Europe, use the word "magnet" for a piece of substance that attracts iron, nickel and its compounds. The phenomenon is called "magnetism" and it is one that physics is just getting to decipher.
Even before it was understood, mankind used magnetism in many useful ways in electric motors to radios. The word for magnet is "miknatis" in Turkish. It is borrowed from either Arabic or Farsi but further down the road it shares the same root as the word "magnet": Both words come from the name of an Aegean province of Turkey: "Manisa". Ancient name for this province was "Magnesia".
The same province also gave its name to another important substance, in this case a metal of the 20th century: "Magnesium".
A small town in the Nevsehir province of Turkey is rich in borax deposits. This town is called simply "Bor". The word "borax", and other related words like "borium", "boric" and "boron " are borrowed from Latin. Latin however borrowed them from Arabic. The Arabic origin is "buraq" which in term was borrowed from the Persian "burah". I am not sure how the Turkish town got the name.
"Marmara", the name of a beautiful Turkish sea has also a relative in the English language. The word "marble" is related to the word "marmara" and also to its Turkish equivalent "mermer". Incidentally, the Island of Marmara in the Marmara Sea, has marble quarries mined since ancient times.) Then there is the town of Marmaris...
All of these words were borrowed from the ancient Anatolian languages through Greek. The root is thought to be "ma" which expresses shining, and can be found in many other languages.  For example, ancient Babylonians called their sun-god "Marduk". The Roman god of war was called "Mars", and hence the planet. I think the farsi word for moon, "mah", has the same root. ("Mah" is borrowed by Turkish in many phrases, most notably as "mah-i tab", "moon light", now spelled as "mehtap".)
Here are a few other words that have roots in the geographic names of Turkey: "Cherry", as I wrote several articles ago, and its Turkish equivalent "kiraz" both come from "Giresun".  Casaba melons are named after "Kasaba " (old name for Turgutlu, Manisa) in Turkey, says Webster's. (This needs further investigation, because "kasaba" means "town" in Turkish...)
(Thanks for Dr. M. Hubey of NJI for his melon tip...)
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By A. Toprak
As other languages, Turkish also borrowed extensively from languages that Turks have come into contact with. Ottomans took the borrowing to its extremes. Thus the official Ottoman language was almost 90% Arabic and Farsi with a few sprinkling of Turkish words. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Turks started showing more interest in their own roots, including their own language. They revived many words of Turkish origin, considered vulgar and replaced by Arabic or Farsi equivalents by Ottomans. Turkish still contains many words from other languages. A recent sampling I conducted indicates most of the foreign words are from Arabic. Arabic is followed by Farsi, Greek and French.
Ancient Turks, who lived in Central Asia, borrowed words from a different group of neighbors. Among these neighbors Chinese were the most influential, followed by nations speaking various languages derived from Sanskrit. As you may expect, some Chinese words borrowed centuries ago can still be found in modern Turkish. For example, the Turkish word for lionaslan  or  arslan , is thought to be part Chinese. In the old Turkish  ars  meant a weasellan  or  lung  meant and still does mean dragon in Chinese. (Look up your phone book and you will see many Chinese last names as  lung !) So the ancient Turks named the king of the animal world  weasel  dragon , after noticing that the fur colors of the two animal were similar.
There are two more Turkish words that are similar in ending to  aslanKaplan  (tiger) and  sIrtlan  (hyena). I am not absolutely sure of the origins--at least of the first syllables--but I will attempt at an explanation. In modern Turkish  kap  means  grab , so perhaps the ancient Turks wanted to call the big cat  grabbing dragon . As for the  hyena , the laughter like sounds it utters may shed some light. There are several words in modern Turkish for different types of laughing:  Gülgülümse  and  sIrIt . The last word may give us a clue as to what  sIrtlan  means:  Laughing dragon ?
The last Chinese dragon connection is to the word  yIlan   (snake): This is simply  lung  itself. The y and I are sounds added to make it easier for pronunciation, as in  istasyon   (station) or  istim  (steam).

I cannot help but notice the similarity between  lan  or  lung   and the English word  lion . The English word comes from the Greek  leon . Could they all have a common root?
(I would like to express my thanks to Binh Phung, Frank Koehler, Anwar Yusuf, and Minai family for assisting me with Chinese, Uygur and Tatar  languages.)
Next newsletter: What does some Turkish cats have in common with tigers? Of tulips and turbans, yogurt and pistachios...
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By A. Toprak
I love cats. I grew up in a farm in Turkey where I always had a cat-- sometimes more than one. The first one I can remember was named  "Top" meaning  "ball" . Then I had a  "Top-2".  Another one I remember was a fierce fighter. I named him  "Efe    Boncuk" -- "Brave Bead" . He was the second strongest cat after  "Biyikli"  ( Moustachio ).
We name cats in Turkey, sometimes with unusual names as I did when I was a  kid. Sometimes we use "generic" names: If a cat has yellow fur, it may be named  "sarman", probably from the word for yellow-- "sari" . The generic name for a "tabby"--a striped cat, usually with brown fur--is  "tekir" . (Incidentally, the word  "tabby"  comes from the Arabic  "attabi".)  I discovered that this word is related to the English word  "tiger". Both are thought to be of Iranian origin, probably borrowed through a series of intermediary languages.
The word  cat  in Turkish-- "kedi" --is also related to its English counterpart. The English word comes from the Latin  "cattus" . The Turkish word is borrowed from the Greek  "gata".  The Greek word is in turn related to the Latin and other European words for cat.
English has a rich collection of words borrowed from the languages of the Middle East. From  "alchemy"  to  "zenith" , Arabic is in the forefront of these languages with scores of words.  Words from Turkish are less frequent. Among these  "yogurt"  is now a household word.  "Yogurt"  in Turkish is derived from the obscure word  "yog". I can best illustrate the meaning of  "yog"   by giving a few other words that are related or derived from it:  Yogusmak  (to condense),  yogurmak  (to knead),  yogun   (dense). So, the ancient Turks called the dairy product they discovered simply "condensate".
Turkish also lent some words borrowed from other languages to English. Among these  "tulip"  is a prominent example. As with the flower, the word came from the Ottoman Empire.  Europeans carrying the beautiful flower back to their lands thought that it resembled a turban and named it as such. The word  "turban", originally was pronounced as  "tulban"  which is from the Turkish  "tülbent"  (a type of cheese cloth).  "Tülbent"   was the material wound around a cap to make the turban. The word itself is thought to have a Farsi root. One source attributes the first syllable to the French city of Tulle where a similar fabric originated.
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By A. Toprak

In my last article I wrote about how some Turkish location names have been used in naming fruits to metals. The names of some Turkish towns and cities themselves have interesting meanings and roots.

In 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror captured Istanbul, Turks called the metropolis  Kostantiniye  and the Europeans  Constantinople , both meaning "City of Constantine". (The name Constantine comes from Latin and means a person firm in his beliefs or purpose.) Turks afterwards noticed that the Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire were referring to  Kostantiniye  as simply  Stanpoli,  meaning "to city". So, Turks started using this phrase starting around 16th century. Since the Turkish linguistic syntax does not allow for a  st- sound, gradually an  i-  was added. I also heard a legend about the name of this beautiful city. This legend claims that it is from the phrase  Islam bol , meaning "plenty of Islam". I think the first is more plausible.

Both  Istanbul  and  Constantinople  contain the Greek word for city,  polis , much like Minneapolis and  Indianapolis do. There are other Turkish localities that contain this word as well. Most of the time this word is transformed to  bolu to fit the Turkish vernacular. The charming city of  Bolu  is the most prominent example. Then there are  Gelibolu  ( Ship City) and  Safranbolu  ( Saffron  City ). I  also came across  Hayrabolu  and  Inebolu whose meanings I could not find.

One interesting word used for some Turkish localities is  viran  or its Turkishized version  ören . This Farsi word means  ruins . Thus the name of my father's village,  Çiftlikören , translates as  "ruined farm" . Then there is Viransehir ("ruined city"). The idea behind such names goes back in history to the times when people tried to ward off invaders by claiming that the locality is nothing but ruins and thus there is nothing to plunder...

A friend from my military service days, Bekir Ünüvar, is here to learn English. He is from Kayseri, a central Anatolian city, known--among other things--for its shrewd business people. They say in Turkey that if a family from Kayseri has a kid with normal intelligence, he is made an apprentice to a merchant. If the kid is not on the bright side, he is encouraged to continue with his education, since "schooling is necessary only for the dumb"! (Bekir has a college degree, but he still claims that he is very smart...) The name of Bekir's home town is originally Latin. When Romans captured the area they called it  Caesarea , "Caesar's City". Romans pronounced the letter  c  as  k , and the original pronunciation was very close to the modern Turkish version. By the way, Webster's dictionary says that the word  "caesar"  itself means "the hairy one." So the best translation for  Kayseri  is  The Hairy One's City !

(This article is for lovers of words and their origins. If you have any interesting etymological discoveries call A. Toprak.)
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By A. Toprak

  If you go to a grocery store these days, you are sure to run into delicacies and food from all over the world--some even locally made or produced. In fact, some Americans say that the American food is steak and potatoes plus the rest of the World cuisine!

  In our local grocery store, from Korea you'll sea the zesty kimchis. Mexico is represented with tacos and burritos in the frozen food section. Scores of pizzas are present usually packaged in Italian red and green. Kikkamon soy sauce and tempura mixes are available for your Japanese dishes, frankfurters for folks with a German taste. For dessert, yogurt and casaba melon-- originally from Turkey--are available.

  Eastern Europe is represented with piroshkis from Russia, kielbasa sausages from Poland, pastramis from Romania and gulash from Hungary. But are these actually from eastern Europe? Let's investigate...

  Russians and Poles ("pieragi" in Polish) borrowed the piroshki from the Kazan Turks. The origin of the word piroshki is borek. The Turks of Anatolia and Rumeli have hundreds of variations of this savory pastry. Depending on the dialect the word is pronounced borek, burek, bura, etc. For example my grandmother loved making "su burasi" for us. The root for borek is "bur-" (twist).

  The Polish sausage kielbasa is also based on a Turkish food: Kulbasti. "Kulbasti" literally means "pressed on the ashes", and my Turkish dictionary gives "grilled cutlet" as its translation. Poles probably got the word from the Turks of the Golden Horde.

  As for the Romanian pastrami, it comes from the Turkish pastirma. As I wrote in a previous article, pastirma means "pressed" meat. The root of the word is bas- which means to press or step.

  The Hungarian gulash has also a Turkish connection. It is said that Hungarians learned the gulash from the Ottoman armies and the akincis. These military forces would cook the "food" for the "subjects" in big "kazans" (cauldrons). The food then was simply called "kul ashi" (food for the subjects). The word kul--in some dialects it is pronounced gul--is of Turkic origin, but the word ash is borrowed into Turkish from Farsi and is related to the words that we can find in other Indo-European languages: The German word essen, the English word eat, the latin word esus are all from the same root.

  Eastern European languages did not limit their vocabulary borrowings from Turkish to food. The Yiddish word for the cap worn by Jewish men, "yarmulke", has also Turkish roots. The word was borrowed into Yiddish from Polish ("jarmulka" in Polish) which in turn borrowed it from Turkish "yagmurluk".

  The road between Turkish and the Eastern European languages was not at all one way: Turkish borrowed the words bavul (suitcase) and semaver (samovar, a utensil to brew tea) from Russian. The slavic word for worker (robot) is in Turkish, borrowed through Western languages...
(Many thanks to Minai Family, Jasek Tyminski and M. Hubey for hints and help with the Kazan Turkish, Russian and Polish languages. This article is for lovers of words and their origins. If you have any interesting etymological discoveries call A. Toprak.)

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