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?