Saturday, April 24, 2010

On the Origins of 'Istanbul'

Author’s note:
The following article is contradicted by a Wikipedia article on the subject: All who read my article should see that one as well. It seems well researched and makes sense, and it may very well be the more correct of the two. But I like my own arguments.
Warning: any comments on this subject that promote hatred or nationalism will be instantly rejected.

Why did Constantinople get the works?
Nobody knows but the Turks.

--1950s novelty tune

Actually, it's quite easy to figure out why the Turks changed Constantinople's official name in the 1930s. The old one was obsolete. No one had called the city by those five (actually six) syllables for centuries, at least not in ordinary speech. (In Greek newspapers, where they haven't yet recovered from 1453, it is still resolutely 'Konstantinopolis.') Stamboul, it was called, or Stambul in other spellings. The Turks heard the m as an n, which made a bit of difference in the spelling, and they added an i at the beginning: other than this, they were simply making official what had been common parlance for centuries. Still, there is confusion. Why Istanbul? It looks so different from Constantinople. Where did it come from? Even a proper English tome like the John Murray Guide to Turkey, 1853 edition, noted this question. One answer, they reported, derived from the city's Greek residents. It came, they said, from 'eis ton polis,' Greek for 'it is the city,' a reference to the exalted place which Constantinople has long held in the Greek imagination. In many places, including the Wikipedia article cited, this explanation for Istanbul's origin survives to this day.

In the Wikipedia article, the conclusion is only slightly expanded. Istanbul, the author says, comes not only from ‘eis ton polis,’ but from ‘stin polis,’ meaning ‘to the city,’ supposedly a common reference which became enshrined as its name. But this seems unsatisfactory to me. It raises other questions, which make it necessary to go back to the beginning and consider the whole phenomenon of cities and their nicknames.

One thing should be obvious: over time all long names get whittled down to one or two syllables. English-speakers, especially Americans, know this. A small example, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is simply 'Hoptown' to people to live down there. Elsewhere Philadelphia is Philly; Los Angles is LA; San Francisco (to outsiders, at least) is Frisco. The compression works in other ways too: New York is often 'Nyawk,' almost a monosyllable, to Manhattan doormen; Milwaukee is 'Mwaukee,' with a beginning consonant that is really a fused m and w; and New Orleans is 'Nawlins.' English-speakers abroad have done the same thing, with Kuala Lumpur becoming 'KL' and Dar-es-Salaam just plain 'Dar.' Somehow the lovely Italian word Livorno became 'Leghorn,' a really boring breed of chicken. Even Constantinople, we must remember, long and unwieldy as it is, is still an Anglicized abbreviation of the Greek Konstantinopolis.

The same thing has happened in Turkey. Turkish, like English, tends toward short words. (The long words one sees in Turkish prose are root words adorned with the suffixes that give the language its meaning.) And the old names are often pared down, like those in English. Pick up a map of Turkey and look. Nicaea is now Iznik; Hadrianopolis is Edirne; Phocaea is Foca; Sardis is Sart; Trebizond is Trabzon; Heraklion is Eregli; Caesarea is Kayseri; Sebastaeum is Sivas; Iconium is Konya. And then there is Niksar. This little town in Tokat province, originally called Neocaesarea, has shrunk from six syllables to two. [Remember that the modern English pronunciation of Caesar is quite different from the original Latin, which would more closely resemble the German 'kaiser' or the modern Turkish Kayseri; thus the k in Niksar.]

So, one might ask, if the Turks can get Niksar out of six-syllabled Neocaesarea, why can't we get Istanbul out of Konstantinopolis? (Well, there's that matter of the 'i' at the beginning, but we'll get to that later.) Still, skeptics must admit that kon-STAN-ti-no-POL-is (it actually sounds rather nice, spoken with an Greco-Italian swing) has the two requisite syllables in it to produce, with a bit of softening, the word Stamboul. In the 4th century, when Constantine so generously gave his name to Byzantium, which he had previously dubbed New Rome, it’s doubtful that the common people paid any attention. As official legends grew, however, about Constantine and his conversion to Christianity (In Hoc Signo Vinces, and all that), and with the increasing Christianization of the Roman Empire, the succeeding centuries would have seen the new name take hold. No name like this six-syllable monster, however, could have remained intact for very long. Remember, communications at that time were primarily oral. Only a minority could read and write. There were no mass media, no print, television, or Internet, to establish a word like Konstantinopolis and preserve it, the way words like Philadelphia are now kept intact by constant repetition in news datelines and over the air. Ordinary people, communicating with each other through speech, would have taken over very quickly from the emperor Constantine and his ego. The full name could have yielded, in succession, con-stant-polis, stant-polis, stan-poli, and stamboul; or, just as likely, it could have shortened itself to stamboul in a year or less. Or it could have become mixed up with the common expression, ‘stin poli,’ as the author of the Wikipedia article would have it. We simply don’t know.

But if Konstantinopolis contains the seed-syllables of Stamboul, -stan- and –pol-, and today’s Turkish cities show a consistent pattern of abbreviation from older names, why then are we attributing the origin of Istanbul to phrases like “it is the city” and “to the city”? It doesn’t convince me. I for one believe that Istanbul’s name is probably derived from Constantinople, pure and simple, the same theory that the Wikipedia author says is now “obsolete.”

But a problem remains: the ‘i’ at the beginning of Istanbul. It is out of place, an extra syllable, and there is no precedent for it in Konstantinopolis. But this is easily explained. The objection ignores a fact about the Turkish language: Turkish abhors consonant combinations (e.g., st-, sp-, sk-, kr-) at the beginning and end of words. For example, my own dictionary, the Langenscheidt New Standard Dictionary: Turkish (2006), contains no Turkish words beginning with sp- that are not foreign loan-words. Look at these: spam, spekulasyon (speculation), spekulatif (speculative), sperma (sperm), spesiyal (special), spiker (speaker), spiral (spiral), and several words derived from spor (sport, sports). This last is a very common word in today’s football-mad Turkey, being appended to the names of cities all over the country (Bursaspor, etc.) to name their clubs. And many Turks, try as they will, cannot quite manage a consonant combination that is alien to their native tongue. S-por, they pronounce it, as if an extra vowel had been slipped in, much like the English word support, and it is often spelled that way (sipor, with the Turkish dotless I). The same pattern extends to st- words (stad, standart, statuko [status quo], steysin [station], striptiz [guess!]), pr- words (pratik, prenses, prifiks [prix fixe], profesyonel), and kr- words (krem, kredi, krater, kritik).

When possible, Turkish-speakers try to get around these consonants. By adding an extra vowel at the beginning of some foreign loan-words, Turkish-speakers get a running start, as it were, to get into a word. Examples of this abound, beginning in the city of Istanbul itself. Directly across the Bosphorus, on the Asian shore of Istanbul, lies the former village of Scutari. (Please, do not pronounce it ‘scootery,’ as if the place abounded in Vespa dealers.) Scutari is where Florence Nightingale established her hospital during the Crimean War, but now it is called Uskudar, with the final i dropped and an extra vowel added at the beginning. The same thing happens in Macedonia, where Skopje is called Uskub by the Turks, and a Slav is Islav. In Europe the list goes on: Scotland (Iskocya); Sweden (Isvec); Switzerland (Isvicre); and Scandinavia (Iskandinav). In Turkey the city of Smyrna (Smirni) has become Izmir; the southwestern town of Sparta is now Isparta; and the Greek island of Kos, called Stanchio in Middle Ages, is called Istankoy. The pattern extends to Greek loan-words that are not place-names, like spasm (ispasmoz), spinach (ispanak), and sphinx (isfenks), as well.

One last thing. “Ockham’s razor,” the rule of thumb introduced in the Middle Ages by the logician William of Ockham, states that “entities should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary,” and thus, “the simplest solution is usually the best.” The simple fact is this: when cities are nicknamed, the components of those nicknames come from the city’s original name. This is the simplest way to look at the shortening of a city’s name. Thus, to me it makes no sense to come up with an alternate theory for the naming of a great city like Istanbul, when a simpler theory is readily found and logically defensible. So, Istanbul is derived from Konstantinopolis. Why not?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual thoroughly interesting and informative. Many thanks.


May 2, 2010 at 4:47 AM  
Blogger eileenrifkin said...

This article is a revelation into Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's poignant promotion of the false history of the Turkish language. The vain tenacity to change the name of Konstantinopolis and any other cities in Turkey with non-Turkish names is a prime example of Kemal's Sun Language Theory.

As a result of the Sun Language Theory and the ideology it presents, letters used in the Kurdish language are still illegal to use in Turkey.

(EU Turkish Progress Report 18-19)

Thank you for sharing : )

May 2, 2010 at 7:35 PM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Thanks for the comment, but the renaming of Constantinople has nothing to do with the Sun Language Theory. Ataturk's flirtation with that came AFTER the name change to Istanbul. And regarding the banning of certain letters used in writing Kurdish (W, X, Q), I believe that prohibition came into effect after the Coup of 1980 (but I may be wrong). It had nothing to do with the Sun Language Theory, which, as we all know, has become pretty much a joke.

May 2, 2010 at 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Jenny said...

Smart analysis.

August 17, 2010 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Thanks, J!

August 18, 2010 at 12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have to consider that, since the middle ages, well before turkic speaking populations reach Anatolia, 'Konstantinoupolis' was shortened by Greek speakers to 'Polis'(=City) in ordinary speech, dropping the initial 'KonSTANtinou'.
The word 'Stambul' derives from 'Istanbul' not the other way around.

January 2, 2011 at 6:57 AM  
Blogger Geek Chick said...

I love it! A wonderful article, and it explains so much to me. I wondered where some of the modern names came from, given the older and/or Greek names!

I support your theory, and I believe modern lignuistic theory does as well. I have just listened to a fabulous lecture series by John Whorter, wherein he explains all about consonant dropping and vowel shifting - which relate directly to the explanation you offer here.

I must say, however, you missed the obvious reference to the song by They Might be Giants ("Istanbul not Constantinople"). ; )

February 5, 2011 at 10:57 PM  
Blogger nomade said...

so glad to find someone who shares, with very good arguments, a view I have held for a long time. Italian (my language)has no difficulty in "feeling" that I'stanbul, when correctly pronounced as a Turkish word, is the same word as Co'stanti'nopolis (unfortunately, present-day Italians, ignoring history, tend to stress the FIRST syllable of foreign toponyms, like 'Iran, 'Irak, and, of course 'Istanbul). Thank you for your article, I hope someone will re-write the ridiculous Wikipedia explanation.

July 17, 2014 at 4:23 AM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Thanks to "nomade," and to the others who have commented. The more I read this, the more I think it holds up. This is especially the case with initial vowels, like i, in Turkish words. The "I" at the beginning of Istanbul is definitely there for reasons of modern Turkish pronunciation, not because of some ancient Greek etymology.

July 17, 2014 at 1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved your post! I've always wondered about this, and your explanation makes the most sense to me.

Simplification of language was one of the main goals in the 20s (literacy rate in the country was dismal, and likely even worse in the Turkish speaking population), and that the source of the new name coming from word that was "alive" rather than "dead" makes much more sense to me. Also, there were many better options/opportunities for a name, if making an ideological statement was indeed a priority.

Regarding adding "I" to the beginning of a word: Many in our family call my mom İrebi, even though her name is registered as Rebiye, which likely derives from the Arabic Rabīʿah. Similarly, I've heard the name Rıza pronounced Irıza as well. I don't know how widespread these are in the Turkish-speaking world, but at least where I come from, it seems to me that the addition of "I" before words is not limited to those that start with double consonants.

November 21, 2015 at 5:55 PM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your comments, which were quite interesting. Another Turkish example which I recently remembered: the word 'statistics' in English is 'istatistik' in Turkish. Again, Turkish speakers require an 'i' at the beginning of an 'st' word. A similar example: the ancient city of Sparta becomes 'Isparta' in Turkish.

November 25, 2015 at 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Gertjapoulis said...

Dear Gordon and others,
I am married into Greekness, although being Dutch.
The Greeks, even now, call Istanbul Konstantinoupolis (not -inopolis, the "ou" comes from the genitive of Konstantinos.
Even for the Greeks nowadays the name is too long. Everyone says "I Polis", with the i pronounced as "ee". This is very likely where the "I" at the start of Istanbul comes from. Greeks and Turks are linked in their languages through centuries of common history.
So, in fact the Greeks say "The City", and everyone knows that there is only one city, the Lost One. This is not sentimental, it shows the importance of The City for all Greeks.

January 8, 2016 at 4:01 AM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Gertjapoulis: Thank you for commenting. Please read the analysis above: "The "I" at the beginning of Istanbul is definitely there for reasons of modern Turkish pronunciation, not because of some ancient Greek etymology." Lots of examples are given: Sparta became Isparta; Scutari became Uskudar; Smirni became Izmir; Skopje became Uskub; Stanchio (Kos) became Istankoy; Stamboul became Istanbul. I stand by my analysis.

January 9, 2016 at 1:56 PM  

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