Friday, 12 July 2013

How often do you speak Turkish without realizing it?

Today I answer some of the most pressing questions in life, although they may not have even crossed your mind until now:

Have Turks stolen your name?
 Where is the world’s city of moustaches? 
 Why is opening a tuna can in Turkey not as straight forward as it seems?

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Familiar English given names crop up all over the place in everyday Turkish. ‘Ben’ is a rather egotistical ‘I’, ‘Anne’ epitomises ‘mother’, and ‘Adam’ encapsulates ‘man,’ while the quizzical ‘Kim’ doesn’t even know ‘who’ she is! 

Even my husband’s Turkish name means something in English. The unusual dual nature of my husband’s name only really hit me a few weeks after we first met. I happened to tell him a joke which I’d just heard,

‘Can a match box? No but a tin can!’

He stared at me with a blank expression on his face and I began to explain knowing that this would instantly undermine any humour. It suddenly hit me that the punchline of the joke revolved around the double meaning of his own name - Can

Can’ has a beautiful meaning in Turkish – 'soul' or 'life' - whereas in English it’s more like a multipurpose penknife. It’s a modal verb, several nouns, and if you double the word it even becomes an energetic dance wrapped in a frilly skirt.

While I was looking into this topic, a friend told me that her favourite false friend was "Tuna Can" which means "Spirit of the Danube" in Turkish. I researched it and found several hotels called ‘tuna can hotel’ which naturally led me to think of tourists packed into their rooms like sardines. It turns out ‘Tuna’ is in fact a fairly common first name for males. Turkish names have always made me chuckle, not only is ‘Tuba’ in the top 50 girls’ name but I also made the discovery that my husband’s family has members called Cenkis (as in Ghengis Khan) and Atila (of ‘the hun’ fame)! 

There’s a wealth of words in Turkish which look like English words. To show you, here’s a quick fire round of English prepositions and pronouns which crop up in Turkish. ‘On’ means ten, ‘at’ means horse, ‘an’ means ‘moment,’ ‘her’ means ‘every’ and ‘it’ is a rather crude way of saying ‘dog.’ So you see, you’re using and even swearing in Turkish with almost every English phrase you utter! 

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Once you move onto English nouns, you find yourself in an even more confusing jumble of false friends! The peaceful sound of the ‘harp’ is actually the drum of ‘war.’ The dreaded ‘sag’ associated with old age has the much more sprightly meaning of being ‘alive.’ When a Turk repeats ‘bile’ over and over, they’re not revealing a national obsession with digestion but simply saying ‘already.’ If a Turk points to a pile of money and says ‘bin,’ he’s not asking you to throw it away, he’s merely clarifying that it’s worth a ‘thousand.’ 

Residents of Norwich will be pleased to know that ‘kent’ is used as the metonym for ‘city’ in many Turkic languages. This puts a whole new slant on the name of Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent – the city of moustaches! This hipster-attracting interpretation is far more entertaining than its actual etymology meaning ‘city of stone.’ 

And finally, to end on a romantic note, there are no questions or doubt surrounding the word ‘ask’ (aşk) in Turkish. It refers to ‘love’ but not just any old love. It refers to a profound love – the love of God (divine love) or for a special someone (romantic love). It’s so specific that it’s saved for special or formal white-tie occasions. This is where it trumps English ‘love’ which tends to fall down under the weight of its own overuse. I mean, how many times do I exclaim, ‘I LOVE nutella!’ each week? Of course, you could argue that a love of Nutella is indeed profound but that’s for another post perhaps... 

If you’re interested in False Friends, check out morbid cakes and deceptive ciaos in Italian vs English And for those with Nutella addiction, feast your eyes on Bologna's Chocolate Festival

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Does your name have a meaning in another language?
Are there any fun false friends between the languages that you speak?


  1. Google need a like button for posts. :)

  2. The flaw here, though, is that Can in Turkish is pronounced Jaan, which somehow defeats the object of the article!


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