Language Pulsations: Turkish loanwords

Photos for Blog 21

Despite centuries of contact between the Ottoman Empire and the West, there are surprisingly few purely Turkish loanwords in English. Why would this be? It turns out that most of the words that came to us from Ottoman lands–kiosk, pilaf, sofa, sherbet, vizier, seraglio, tulip …–were were themselves borrowed into Turkish from Persian and Arabic by Turks. This is mainly because the literary and political tongue of the Ottoman Empire was Osmanlıca, which was essentially Turkic grammar, with Persian vocabulary, written in Arabic script. The story of Arabic and Persian loanwords would be a different story–there could be several posts just covering the dozens of Arabic loanwords in English.

But in the meantime, here are three the words in English I’m aware of that are unequivocally Turkish.

Yogurt is from the Turkish yoğurt, related to the Turkish verb yoğunlaşmak “to condense” and the adjective yoğun “intense.” Yogurt was invented 4000 years ago by Central Asian nomadic trans-pastoralists, probably Turkic, who discovered that milk is more long-lasting, digestible, and nutritious when bacteria was added to it.

Many cultures probably independently discovered this food technology over the millenia, but yogurt is uniquely important in the Turkish diet–in Ottoman days, it was a staple like bread, and today it is a sauce, side dish, or beverage in almost every meal. Yogurt folk histories abound. A co-worker of mine claimed that his ancestor brought yogurt to Poland in powdered form and thereby single-handedly introduced the food to the Western world. Another friend shared a different theory, that Europeans first met the food during the siege of Vienna, where Ottoman armies were consuming it (suspiciously similar to the croissant origination theory).

According to the Ottoman History Podcast–a more reliable source–yogurt as a food source was unknown in the West until the early 20th century. At this time, the Ottoman Empire was splintering and former Ottoman citizens were scattering across the globe. In 1919, the Dannon company was started in Barcelona by a former Ottoman-Jewish doctor, while fleeing Armenians brought yogurt to the US to sell to fellow Armenians as well as to Syrians, Jews, Greeks, and other communities who had emigrated from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Although each community had different names for this very ancient food, the one shared term for it was the Turkish one, so this was how it was marketed. Hence, the world now knows this amazing dairy product by its Turkish name.

“The Mongol hordes are coming! Run for your lives!” While “horde” in English can mean a large group of anything, we often use word in relation to “barbarian” conquerors on horseback. This makes sense, since the word originally came from the Turkic/Mongolic word ordu meaning “camp,” “tent,” or “royal court,” or in modern Turkish, “army.”

From the times of Genghis Khan to the present day, Central Asian nomadic-pastoral peoples have organized themselves in “hordes,” fiercely hierarchical and patriarchal groups often commanded by a strong emperor or leader. Genghis Khan’s sons presided over the Blue Horde, White Horde, and Golden Horde, and there are still hordes in parts of modern-day Kazakhstan. “Horde” probably came to English via Polish, as terrified Slavic peoples constantly feared the wrath of nomadic warriors.

Odalisque is the French form of Turkish odalık, composed of oda “room” and -lık, a suffix expressing the function of a thing. An odalık was a chambermaid, maidservant, or female slave. In the Ottoman harem, the odalık was the lowest-ranking servant and she never offered her services to the sultan. Europeans, however, did not understand the intricacies of the Ottoman court stratification, and simply understood an odalık as a harem concubine. Orientalist interest in these “odalisques” peaked in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as can be seen in famous paintings by Matisse, Renoir, and Ingres.

Turquoise, turkey
Actually, neither “turquoise” nor “turkey” are derived from a Turkish word per se, but both have the word “turk” in them because they refer to Turkey. As I’ve explained in length before, the bird known as “turkey” was introduced to Europe via trading through Ottoman-Turkish domains. Similarly, Venetian traders originally discovered and traded for the jewel turquoise in Turkish lands, so the greenish-blue stone gained the name in French pierre turquoise “Turkish stone,” and a color word was subsequently coined based on the color of the jewel.


2 thoughts on “Language Pulsations: Turkish loanwords

  1. rotziundbaerchen August 20, 2014 / 10:03 am

    Your post is not only educational, but also easy and fun to read, so thank you =)


    • C. Puls August 20, 2014 / 3:09 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it! Cheers, Cass.


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