This article was first published in The New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News on 3.3.23. The feature photo and the ones at the bottom show the author on a visit to Turkey (as it then was) in 2002.
You may have noticed that ABC presenters have taken to saying ‘Turkiye’ instead of ‘Turkey’ when referring to the country that, along with Syria, recently suffered one of the worst earthquakes, in terms of loss of life, in modern history.
Why the sudden change?
It started in May last year when the country we’d always known as Turkey asked the United Nations to refer to it by its Turkish-language name: Türkiye.
Apparently President Erdogan didn’t like the fact that the English name for his country was also the name of a poultry bird often seen in the Anglo world as a somewhat comical creature. Think how we use ‘turkey’ as a synonym for a failure or a dud.
Tiger Webb is spokesman for the ABC’s internal language committee, and writes entertainingly and informatively on this and other language matters. He spoke to a lecturer in Turkish studies at the ANU who told him Erdogan hoped that ‘Türkiye’ would gain ‘more respect for the country and give pride to its citizens.’
Anyway, the UN agreed to Turkey’s request, and it wasn’t long before our foreign affairs department and the US State Department followed suit.
A month later, the ABC committee was asked to advise whether content makers should use the new name. Tiger Webb said the committee had mixed views on the subject. Most agreed audiences wouldn’t be familiar with Türkiye, but that didn’t seem a good enough reason to reject Turkey’s request.
What they suggested was a bit of a compromise: that the new spelling be used wherever possible.
I said ‘content makers’ rather than ‘presenters’ because ABC employees these days are expected to do a lot of writing and web production as well as talking, and the committee’s edict only related to the new spelling.
They don’t seem to have said anything about the pronunciation, which has resulted in a lack of consistency such that no two on-air presenters say ‘Turkiye’ alike. Some say TURK-ee-ya, some turk-EE-ya, while others are saying ‘turk-ee-YAY’, as in the latest re-branding of the artist formerly known as Kanye West but now calling himself ‘Ye’ or ‘Yeezus’.
So how should ‘Turkiye’ be pronounced? Tiger’s language expert explained that Turkish has three distinctive vowels that don’t exist in English and are hard for English speakers to identify or reproduce. The ‘ur’ bit in ‘Türkiye’ is one of them. The nearest approximation of it is ‘TOUR-kee-ye’, with a slight rolling of the ‘r’. You do hear some presenters making an effort to get this right.
The change happened nearly a year ago but we are only hearing it now because, as Tiger explains, ‘like all the best guidance, it was immediately ignored’, and more importantly it wasn’t until the disastrous earthquakes that ABC reporters had to pay close attention to Turkish affairs.
Tiger reports that many ABC employees don’t like having to use the new name, and says many listeners and viewers are unhappy with it too. Commercial media outlets are still saying ‘Turkey’. Funnily enough, so is the Turkish ambassador, according to Tiger’s spies in the Melbourne newsroom.
The argument against the change goes like this: we don’t refer to Germany as Deutschland, or China as Zhongguo, or Japan as Nihon, so why should Turkey get special treatment?
Well, for one thing, they haven’t asked us to change.
And for another, we did go along with Ukraine’s campaign to get western media to drop the definite article in front of its name. We had been saying THE Ukraine for decades. As I described in an earlier column, ‘Ukraina’ means ‘borderlands’ in Russian, and for obvious reasons they didn’t want to be referred to as a mere borderland of Russia. They asked foreign governments and media to stop using it, and they did.
Czechia is another case in point. Detached from neighbouring Slovakia after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became The Czech Republic. Dreary and clumsy. Czechia is much better, and everybody was happy to go along with it.
Incidentally, the name of Tiger’s Turkish language expert from the ANU is Dr Barcu Cevik-Compiegne. The Turkish foreign minister who formally asked the UN for the change from Turkey to Turkiye is Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The name of the Turkish President – Recep Tayyip Erdogan – was hard enough already. Just as well we said ‘yes’ to the name change otherwise there’d have been an argy-bargy and ‘Turkiye’ would have been the least of the ABC’s pronunciation worries.