Should we decolonise Constantinople?
The Hagia Sofia is now the 'Ayosofa' — a term used by the Ottoman Empire
Without wishing to sound like Grandpa Simpson, I just about remember ‘Peking’ and ‘Bombay’ before they became Beijing and Mumbai.
This retreat from exonyms, the habit of giving something a different name to how the people there themselves call it, was an earlier attempt to decolonise our language, and so was originally only applied to non-European lands, victims of empire; you’d look rather silly if you talked of Beograd or München, but you’d look parochial or unsavoury if you still used Bombay.
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Likewise, Burma has been phased out in favour of Myanmar, even though both have the same etymological origins; for various reasons the regime prefers the latter, but Burma is simply an English rendition of the Portuguese word for the country.
Again, we’re following suit out of politeness and guilt, but English speakers have lots of strange names for countries; our word for Hellas comes from the ancient Roman name Graikoi. Likewise the English name for the Deutsch is a Latin term for the people we used to call ‘the Saxons overseas’, while confusingly we applied their own name to their neighbours, the Netherlanders. We call Suomi after just one tribe found in that region.
Yet the retreat from exonyms has finally crossed the Bosporus into Europe, with The Guardian today running a piece about something called the ‘Ayasofya’.
This is the Erdogan-favoured term for what English speakers have long called the Hagia Sophia, yet if the whole point of altering the language was to decolonise it, then surely applying an Ottoman term to a former Greek Orthodox cathedral makes little sense. The Turks, after all, had a pretty big empire.
Unless the whole thing was about using language to denote status, of course, as so much in politics is really.
Pronouncing things as the locals do is obviously high-status, suggesting you travel a lot, and are sensitive to foreign cultures. In other words, you aren’t a gammon. The degree to which Radio 4 over-pronounces foreign words is sometimes actually irritating; the name of the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy being especially painful to hear.
Brits abroad embarrassed about our poor language skills and well-deserved national reputation as vomiting morons are often over-cautious about it. When I went to Sicily a couple of years ago I found myself saying ‘Sira-cusa’, even though this ancient and great city has long been so renowned among English speakers that it’s reasonable for us to use our own exonym. (As with the city in New York, which was named after the great polis).
But even here the times are changing, I notice, and the Guardian has begun to use Siracusa rather than Syracuse, although it’s not consistent as yet. Siracusa sounds more high-status, and so does ‘Ayasofya’, but it makes no logical sense from an anti-colonialist perspective. If you really wanted to decolonise the language, you’d surely stop using the term ‘Istanbul’, itself a legacy of Ottoman imperialism and adopted by the Turkish Republic, and call the city by its former name?
Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night
Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way
So, Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’
Beautiful! My lovely old slightly alzheimery Aunt sang that to me the other day in her lusty and totally unwoke way.
Ayia Sofya was the way the Greeks called the church. Hagia Sophia is the English way. Surely the Greeks have more rights to the name.
I am not sure the current political power in Turkey cares about what the Greeks think currently.
Sorry Don, that’s not quite right.
The closest rendition to how an Hellenas, or Greek, would render this in English would be Hagia Sophia in my view, literally meaning Holy Wisdom.
Only in ancient Greek. The initial h (spiritus asper) disappeared from the language well before the church was built (probably before Christ) and the gamma became a semivowel before e or i a little later. Whether you represent Ï† as ph or f is a matter of taste. So while ‘Hagia Sophia’ is a reasonable transliteration of á¼‰Î³Î¯Î± Î£Î¿Ï†Î¯Î±, Ayia Sofia is a better guide to how it’s been pronounced since it was built.
No, not since they were comprehensively thrashed by Mustafa Kemal Pasha in the Greco-Turkish War, 1919-20.
True. Kemal, or Ataturk, and his predecessors did slaughter or exile Greeks, Armenians, Jews and any other offending populations.
Not sure if ‘thrashed’ is appropriate.
As to the history of that war, which lasted until 1922, it’s very well captured in the book ‘Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-22’ by british ex-diplomat michael llewellyn smith.
Perhaps, would you prefer, comprehensively defeated?
It’s one of the hypocrisies of the present age that it’s virtually impossible to point out that Eastern Europe was long the victim of Turkish colonialism.
In that case I’ll join you in your hypocrisy and ask how many others understand how the Balkans became “Balkanised”. Though I won’t go as far as to mention 12th September 1683 as that would certify me as some sort of racist.
It did take an inordinately long time to eject them after Vienna.
Not an outstanding moment in European history.
Even the wretched Lloyd George let them off (again) in 1922.
Despite the fact the place is littered with Mosques.
If we’re going to peel back the layers of colonialism on the Bosporos, perhaps go all the way back and call it Byzantion.
The name Lygos for the city, which likely corresponds to an earlier Thracian settlement, is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History.
Ed, thanks for posting this interesting article. It is actually a matter of great sensitivity to so many people.
If I may also venture the view that Syracuse and Siracusa are both derived from the ancient Greek Î£Ï…ÏÎ±ÎºÎ¿Ï…ÏƒÎ±Î¹, they both sound equally acceptable to me as a phonetic rendition in English
I know that the greek upsilon often becomes “y” in English (actually the letters “u”, “v”, “w” and “y” all come from it), but if we are going to go back to ancient pronunciations, shouldn’t we use “Surakusai”?
Ayasofya is just the contemporary Turkish pronunciation and spelling of Haghia Sophia.
Also a correction: the name Constantinople – or ‘Konstantiniya’ – was officially used until the end of the Ottoman Empire, as can be seen on all the coins minted by Ottoman sultans.
Constantinople was only named Istanbul – after the Turkish quarter of Stamboul (the majority of the city’s population still being Greek at that point) – following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
Then logically, you should refer to The Guardian as The Grauniad, or possibly The Ncioehicno;beif;34.
If you really want to confuse The Guardian, say that India wants to go back to it’s pre-British name. This will raise support. Then point out that it was called Hindustan, and sit back…
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