Ever since I moved to Turkey I have read intermittent but persistent stories in the paper and on the Internet about various government groups and political parties changing the names of villages, parks, etc. from one language or another into Turkish. (I have, however, noted that this practice hasn’t yet been applied to some places like Konya [Greek Iconion then Latin Iconium], Kayseri [the Roman Caesarea], Cappadocia [Persian or Hittite] or even Ankara [Greek and Latin]). I have wondered at the great deal of time and money involved in first the search for these places, then the study to determine if their names are Turkish or not, then changing the name and finally changing all the maps, sign-posts, school registration information, hospital names, mailing addresses (do the streets change, too?) and, of course, the letterheads; you can’t be a municipality without a letterhead.
Two of the things I most relate to about Turkey are the melting-pot similarities of cultures and languages that exist here and in my other country, the United States. The English language as spoken in any country is a hodge-podge of Latin, German, French, Greek, the Scandinavian languages and many others. In America, English takes on its own flavor, largely because of the variety of languages spoken by the European peoples who came to the New World (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Latvian, Polish, Russian, etc.); the diverse native peoples who were already there; the tragic transportation of African slaves by the early colonists; the influx of Russian and European Jews who spoke Yiddish; Asians from China, Japan and, more recently, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, South Korea; Persians, Greeks and Israelis, etc. Obviously, the languages came with the people, and the linguistic melting-pot process continues.
There were people here when the Turks came to Anatolia, too, and more have come since from different places with different languages. The people who write for this page, myself included, sometimes forget that expats aren’t all Americans and northern Europeans. All the Russians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Syrians, Albanians, Romanians, Sudanese and the rest bring their own language cultures with them, and it has to rub off on the lingua franca. It is really hard to measure this, but from my own experience I know it has to be true. Just a little example:
When I was in Australia in 1976, one of our hosts suggested that we should all eat on the “paysheeo.” I had no idea what a “paysheeo” was, but it turned out to be a “patio.” Americans, of course, pronounce the “a” very flatly and use a soft “t” and the Aussie was using a long “a” and rhyming the word with “ratio.” The funny thing is, of course, that in the original Spanish, “patio” is pronounced altogether differently from either of these and should be considered the correct pronunciation, I would think. Of course, many Spanish words come in turn from Arabic due to Spain’s centuries’ long occupation by North African Muslims, so who knows; it just goes on and on and around and around.
So when I read the articles about changing place names to Turkish names, I decided to do a little research on the country of my birth, of which I have seen quite a bit, and whose history I have studied for years, so I knew what I was looking for. I had a vague idea of suggesting to Mr. Obama that the US establish some sort of commission to study non-American place names; a lot of people could get jobs that way and help the economy. The problem both before and after my research remains, though: What is an “American” name?
Let’s start with state names. After all, we are the United States, for better or worse (mostly better). As it turns out, and in spite of there being quite a little competition out there as to what state name originated with whom, it can be (almost) safely said that fully 27 of the 50 states are either Native American words or at least as interpreted by non-native speakers -- 27! I knew there were a lot, but more than half! They start from Alaska in the far northwest and extend to the Mexican border, and go all across the country, although there are not many in the far northeast. Next in terms of numbers comes my “other” category with 12: seven named for English kings and a queen, two for places in England, one for a colony named after a color, one for a South Pacific kingdom and one for an English religious leader. Names of French and Spanish origin come in with six and five, respectively, although Spanish edges out French when you count in the Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico, both commonwealths of the US (We can talk about Guam and American Samoa some other time.) Clearly, then, if majority rules, place names in the United States, at least state names, should all be Native American. As much as the states fight for their sovereignty, that should employ many civil servants for many years.
Looking at Southeast US
Or should we use that state name percentage as a guide for other names? The government could apply a formula based on the same for counties, cities, towns and unincorporated municipalities we would call “villages” in Turkey. Boy -- that would be a LOT more work because even though Spanish comes in as pretty minor league when it comes to state names, nearly the entire southwest, including Texas, would have to be renamed. Cape Canaveral in Florida (one of the Spanish-named states) was originally Cabo Cañaveral, a Spanish name from Spanish colonial rule days, but aside from the state and the cape, there are few place names in Florida of Spanish extraction; maybe a re-named Cabo could fill the quota for Spanish in Florida; the million or so Cuban Americans there would be happy. But Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California and parts of many other western states would have to be almost completely re-named, if we used the quota system -- California (another Spanish state name) alone would require its own sub-commission of name re-namers. San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Monica, Sacramento (one of only two Spanish-named state capitols); Lomita, San Pedro, La Cañada, Escondido; Carmel, Santa Barbara, Alcatraz (which sounds Arabic to me); the list is endless. In addition, nationwide there are no fewer than 67 counties with Spanish names, mostly in the southwest but also in Florida, Colorado, Louisiana and Mississippi (a Native American name).
The French-language percentage, I suppose, could be greatly augmented by the no fewer than nine state capitols named in that language, compared with only six states. In Arkansas (Native American), the state capitol of Little Rock was originally “La Petite Roche” but is not included in the above-mentioned nine state capitols. Should our committee count that as French or English or other (think Iconion-Iconium-Konya)? And how about “Baie Verte” (Green Bay), Wisconsin (Native American) and “Grandes Fouches” (Grand Forks), Michigan? (Fortunately for the Spanish Place names sub-committee, most Spanish place names appear not to have been changed.)
Finally, there has to be a sub-committee devoted to that fun-loving language attitude by R. L. Stevenson and quoted by Mr. Mencken: It must list and analyze such place names as Finger, Tennessee; Fluffy Lands, Florida; Truth or Consequences, Pie Town, Jackass Flats and Chloride, all in New Mexico; Cut and Shoot, Fairy, Gun Barrel City, Point Blank, Scissors and Tarzan, all in Texas; Dutch John, Mexican Hat and Jerusalem, Utah; Mosquitoville, Vermont; Hairy Head Pond, Virginia; Fifty-Six and Hog Jaw, Arkansas; Chicken, Alaska; and Dog House Junction, Rough and Ready, Zzyzx and Azusa (“A to Z in the USA”), all in California. (Actually, for my money, these ARE real American names, no matter what language they are in, but what do I know; I am very glad, however, that I hail from Trabuco Canyon.)
If we could just figure out a business plan, think of all the trickle-down benefits of re-naming places: Mailing lists would no longer be of value, so new ones would have to be built up by the junk-mail industry; UPS, the FBI and the US Postal Service would have to hire trainers to train employees on the new ZIP codes and addresses; websites would have to be re-built; mainly, the stationary and printing industry would have a huge shot in the arm -- all those address books and, especially, letterhead stationary for all those newly “relocated” businesses and government agencies!
Well, I must thank those people who want to change the names of Turkey’s places for stimulating me to think about how place names relate to national identity. I have decided that not only will it not work, it is totally impossible, in design and execution, to make anyone at all happy, even if it did provide a lot of jobs; after all, the people on the committee might live in places whose name had to be changed, and then even they wouldn’t be happy. I guess I will not be writing that letter to Mr. Obama after all; instead, I am going to take a couple of aspirin.
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.