President Abdullah Gül's recent use of the old name of renamed district has reignited public debate over the names of things in Turkey, a subject sometimes closely intertwined with issues and conflicts involving cultural and ethnic identity. What's in a name?
Quite a bit it seems, with the president's recent usage of the original name Norşin to refer to Bitlis' Güroymak district during a visit, sparking heated discussions over place names in Turkey. Around 28,000 names of provinces, districts, villages, rivers and streams have been changed officially in recent times. Most of them, about 12,000, have been village names. While this phenomenon can be observed throughout the country, there is a large amount of places in the Black Sea and eastern and southeastern Anatolia regions that were renamed.
Place names in Turkey are granted for a variety of natural, social and culture factors. In particular, village names can be divided into two types: Turkish names and non-Turkish names. A significant number of villages in both categories have had their official names changed since 1940.
Again, most of the village name changes are in the eastern Black Sea and eastern and southeastern Anatolia regions. However, while the official names have changed, they do not all enjoy public acceptance, with middle-aged and elderly citizens in particular often refusing to refer to their hometowns by the new titles.
Around 28,000 provinces, districts, villages, rivers and streams have had their names officially changed since 1940, sometimes for loaded political or ethnic reasons and sometimes for expediency. But getting people to adopt the new names of their homes isn’t always easy
A 2000 publication by Fırat University faculty member Dr. Harun Tuncel on the Turkish villages whose names have been changed sheds light on the topic of the name changes that have been taking place for 50 years. In 1949, the Provincial Administration Law went into effect, which led to the 1957 establishment of a Name Changing Expert Commission to review the names of around 75,000 residential places in Turkey. The commission decided to change 28,000 of them. Between 1965 and 1970 and from 1975-76, the commission also evaluated the names of natural bodies such as lakes, changing nearly 2,000 names of such bodies. In 1982 the Interior Ministry published a report called “Our Villages,” which detailed all of the villages whose names had been changed by 1981 -- a figure it pegged at 11,931. Work in the ministry archives has shown the number of villages whose names have been changed since 1981 to number 280.
As in the Black Sea region, some of the village names in eastern and southeastern Turkey that have been changed are Turkish names. But the vast majority of names that have been altered in these regions were changed because they were of Armenian, Kurdish or Arabic origin. Tuncel's 2000 report noted that village residents had not yet fully adopted usage of the new official names.
Middle-aged and senior residents in particular eschewed using the new names of their hometowns, with children and youth using the new names, since they were more familiar with the new names. Because of the continued usage of the old names by an important segment of society in these villages, the old names have not yet been erased from the collective memory, Tuncel says.
Even though the government may change a name of an area, what is more important is the usage of a name by the public and in the home, Tuncel noted. “It certainly seems as if the usage of the old names will continue for some time to come. It's a reality that despite the fact that the new names are in Turkish and chosen for their harmony with the Turkish writing system, some of these will never be widely adopted by the regional public, and such places will continue for centuries to be referred to by their old names,” he said.
Turkish names were also changed by the commission. In some cases, this is due to the proximity with other villages, for example, with names similar enough to serve as cause for confusion. In other places, the names were simply so ludicrous that the commission felt it necessary to change them to avoid humiliation or embarrassment by residents or public officials. Examples Tuncel gives of such places that names were changed include Aptaldam (Idiot Roof), Deliler (The Maniacs), Kötüköy (Evil Village), Şeytanabat (the Land of Lucifer), Kıllı (Hairy), Komik (Comical) and Hırsızpınar (Thief Fountain).