As of December 2021, the country formerly known as Turkey has changed its official spelling to the more culturally appropriate “Türkiye.” Though the difference is seemingly small, it has large implications and is far from unprecedented.
Why Türkiye? Why Now?
Türkiye is not new to name changes, partially because the region has a history wrought in turf wars and regime changes. The country has been under the rule of several empires, such as the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, throughout history – largely due to its prime location connecting Europe and Asia. Its unique location and complex history contributes to a diverse blend of cultures, as well as many different languages. Often, city names used locally simply weren’t made official or otherwise recognized by the outside world until action was taken by the government.
For example, the capital city of the former Ottoman Empire, İstanbul, was known as Constantinople – a name remnant of the Byzantine Empire. After Türkiye gained independence in 1923, the capital was moved to Ankara. A few years later, in 1930, Constantinople was officially renamed İstanbul, which is what locals had already called it for years.
In a similar pattern, Turks (or rather, Türkler) have held the name “Türkiye” since their independence in 1923. The name means “land of the Turks”, which was translated as Turkey in English. The Western name was the only officially recognized name, and would be for almost a century. The British Empire, and therefore the English language, dominated the globe due to its colonial stronghold and military power. Allied powers including England, France, Greece, and Italy occupied the Ottoman Empire, concluding the Empire’s involvement in World War I. The Empire was officially disbanded with the occupation as the Allies demilitarized the war-torn nation, who then had to deal with economic crisis and massive loss of life. The emergence of a new nation, Türkiye, ended this occupation of several Western powers.
Now, in order to showcase its unique identity and not just reflect Western influences, the nation has shed its anglicized name in favor of its native tongue. Besides the obvious change in appearance, Türkiye is pronounced differently. The new letter, “ü“ creates a similar sound to the former “u” but is slightly more stretched. Furthermore, there is now an additional syllable at the end, adding a soft “e,” sounding like “yeh.” To properly address the country, you must speak its name like a native.
Renaming the World
Many countries have been changing their names in favor of local dialects. For some, renaming the country officially means overthrowing the language of past colonizers, showcasing independent cultural identity, or newly established modes of government.
A country changing their name is not as uncommon as one might think, as at least one country has updated its name almost every year throughout the past century. Türkiye is just one of the latest in a long strand of nations redefining themselves.
Another example of a recently renamed nation is eSwatini. Previously known as Swaziland, King Mswati III declared the country the Kingdom of eSwatini in 2018, which marked 50 years of independence from British colonization. Its previous name, Swaziland, meant “land of the Swazis” in English and was often confused with Switzerland. eSwatini also means “land of the Swazis” but uses the local language instead of that of the nation’s former colonizers. By changing names, eSwatini breaks away from the language of its past oppressors and emphasizes its own cultural identity separate from colonization.
Establishing a National Brand
Nation-branding has become a booming trend as countries and their cities seek to entice tourists with their own distinct culture and landmarks. However, this change can be an expensive choice. It costs millions of dollars to switch a nation’s name, considering how everything within the country that uses its name – such as flags, currency, official documents, and other items – have to be relabeled.
Thankfully Türkiye has already been labeling most of their products “Made in Türkiye” for years, with currency to match. The country’s decision to rename themselves on the international stage is mostly for external recognition.
Some see Türkiye’s name change as inconsequential, and doubt it will stick. The name change has been compared to that of Czechia (Česko in Czech) which is still better known as the Czech Republic worldwide. Both Türkiye and Czechia’s name changes are motivated by marketing to some degree, but Czechia is seen as a more convenient choice, since it is a shorter name. Another key difference is that the people of Czechia, even former Prime Ministers, prefer the name “Czech Republic” and don’t care for the shortened name due to the confusion it causes English speakers, the possibility of being confused with Chechnya, and its failure to encompass all of the country’s unique regional cultures. On the other hand, Türkiye is the name of the people.
Respecting Your Hosts
As travelers, it is important to think about and show respect for how a country wants to be seen, and not limit one’s perspective to that of their home. Language is an important aspect of showing respect to cultural differences and an enthusiasm to learn and take part. Although Türkiye may seem like a small change to make, that’s all the more reason it should be an easy adjustment. It’s one syllable, and, after all, travel is all about experiencing something new.
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Want to learn more?
These Countries Changed Their Names. Here’s How it Worked Out – National Geographic
Turkish Culture — Cultural Atlas
The Most Interesting and Funny Turkish Traditions – ReDefiners World Languages