Turkey, Türkiye, and Chinese characters

Turkish flag

Victor Mair’s recent post at Language Log on Transcription vs. transliteration vs. translation in cartography brought to mind last year’s Turkey/Türkiye situation, which I meant to write about at the time but never did. Briefly, the Turkish government basically said, “We’d like the world to stop calling the country ‘Turkey’ and use ‘Türkiye’ instead.” (As far as I know, the government didn’t call for a revision of “Turkish.”)

A lot of countries agreed to go along with the switch. Last month the United States officially jumped on board as well — sort of. The U.S. State Department’s web page on this currently states, “The official conventional long-form and short-form names remain “Republic of Turkey” and “Turkey”, respectively. “Republic of Türkiye” should be used in formal and diplomatic contexts. The conventional names may be used in place of or alongside “Türkiye” in appropriate instances, including U.S. government cartographic products, as it is more widely understood by the American public.”

But, this being a site that focuses mainly on matters related to Mandarin, I’m more interested in what China and Taiwan did.

It turns out that both China and Taiwan agreed to adopt the form “Türkiye.” In practice, though, that relates mainly to those governments issuing releases in English. But what about the Mandarin name of the country, which has been “Tǚ’ěrqí” (written “土耳其” in Chinese characters).

As Yin Binyong, who was the main force in the orthography of Hanyu Pinyin, noted in “Transliteration of Foreign Place Names and Personal Names“:

A small number of foreign names are translated into Putonghua according to meaning, or a combination of meaning and pronunciation; the great majority are transliterated, i.e. translated according to pronunciation.

(Following Mair, though, we should read “transcription” for “transliteration.” The language of the original publication was English, which is why the quote appears as such.)

“Tǚ’ěrqí” belongs to the third category; it is just a phonetic approximation of “Turkey.” (For those unfamiliar with Pinyin or Mandarin, Tu’erqi is pronounced very roughly like “to” + “her” (minus the h sound) + the “chee” in cheese.) Among Mandarin’s 410 or so syllable sounds (not counting tones), there is nothing much like key. But the ye in Türkiye would not be a problem for Mandarin speakers.

If the governments of China and Taiwan really wanted to show their respect for the change from Turkey to Türkiye, they could come up with new Mandarin names that would do a better job of matching the pronunciation of Türkiye than Tu’erqi. But they haven’t. Tu’erqi/土耳其 remains, and this is unlikely to change. Note, for example, how the Xinhua article listed below calls “Türkiye” not the name but the foreign-language name (waiwen) of Tu’erqi.

Of course, how much respect the government of Taiwan owes the government of Turkey — er, Türkiye, which has become somewhat cozy with the PRC, might be worth considering as well. But that’s heading off-topic.

Further reading:

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