Tag Archives: Turkey

The secret language of Turkey’s LGBT community

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

Read this post from Dalia Mortada. Or listen to the podcast above.

Sevval Kilic is a couple of inches shy of six feet. Her hair, various shades of light brown, rests at the middle of her back, and her eyes, outlined by long lashes, look like perfectly drawn almonds.

She has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it’s infectious. She looks much younger than her 40 years, and she likes to reminisce about the good old days when she made good money.

“In my day,” she reminisces, “I was shopping. I was shopping as hell…my shoes, just my shoes…” she trails off, giggling. That was in the 1990s, when Sevval lived in a neighborhood notorious for its unregistered brothels. She was 19 when she moved in.

Today, the quiet lane in central Istanbul looks much like it did in the 90s. But the sounds that fill the street are completely different.

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

A lady washing her windows on the third floor takes a break to chat with a neighbor hollering hello from the street. It’s not, as it once was, packed with guys taking their pick of sexual adventures for the night. No catcalls descend from the windows like they did a couple of decades ago, like the kind of catcall Sevval used to attract clients: “Psh psh, psh psh — this is the way,” Sevval explains, “or sfoot sfoot.” Just a small, subtle sound to catch a guy’s attention.

In Turkey, prostitution is legal with a license, and state-run brothels have an intense registration process. But Sevval and her colleagues were not eligible: The state did not, and still does not, accept transitioning women or gay men. Sevval had not completed her transition to becoming a woman when she signed up for her brothel.

In fact, she arrived with just her boy clothes. One of the more experienced women took her under her wing. “She took care of me like real mom. She washed me, she fed me, she dressed me, she taught me everything about working, about secrecy,” she says. Secrecy included using a secret slang, or as linguists call it, an argot, called Lubunca.

Lubunca is how Sevval and her colleagues talked to each other about their work in front of clients or the cops. It uses Turkish sentences and grammar, but certain words are replaced. The words Sevval used were related to her work. There are terms for hair and make-up, sex positions and different types of clients. “Let’s say there’s a rich customer and the girl in the front apartment yells, ‘It’s a hundred dollar customer!’ That’s bir but baari, Sevval explains.

Bir is the Turkish word for “one” and but means thigh or rump, like a large cut of meat. Bari is like saying “at least.” These are all Turkish words, but the way they’re strung together means you wouldn’t understand unless you knew Lubunca.

Other words in the slang come from different languages. “Some of the core elements of Lubunca come from other minority languages that haven’t been spoken very much for quite some time,” Nicholas Kontovas explains. Kontovas is a socio-historical linguist who has studied the origins of Lubunca. He explains that most of the words come from Romani — the language of ethnic Roma, or gypsies, who live in Turkey. There are words from Greek, Kurdish and Bulgarian, too. Kontovas explains that people from these communities have, to a greater or lesser extent, been outcasts in Turkish society, so they tend to live in the same city neighborhoods. That’s how Lubunca picked up its foreign feel.

Kontovas says the words from Lubunca are intimately tied to these neighborhoods and to meeting spots within those neighborhoods. The Turkish word for an Ottoman style bathhouse, for example, is hamam. In Lubunca, it’s tato which comes from the Romani word for warm. “The fact that there’s a word for hamam is pretty telling, the queer slang varieties that were used beforehand, at least what is recorded, were predominantly used in hamams,” which is where male sex work took place during the Ottoman empire, Kontovas says.

Of course, Lubunca has evolved. The terms for sex organs and positions get pretty creative — and are not appropriate for publishing. Terms for flirting are pretty crafty, too. “Badem alikmak, which is also to eye up. Badem, meaning almond, obviously in reference to shape of the eye,” Kontovas describes. “There’s another thing that’s great which is badem sekeri, which is ‘almond candy,’ which is eye candy,” he adds.

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

It is quite similar to Polari — the British gay argot that made it into the mainstream in the 1960s, back when being gay was still criminal in the UK. An example of Polari would be: “Bona to vada your dolly old eek.” That means “Nice to see your pretty face.”

Eventually, after homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, the argot dropped out of fashion. Kontovas says, “The use of Polari started to decline so much so people had to go and record it and go into archives and look into recordings and ask older members of the community.”

As more people use Lubunca, it’s possible that it too could fade away like Polari, but that seems unlikely. Like Polari, Lubunca exists because it needs to: Not only is gay and trans sex work likely to stay illegal, but Lubunca’s use has grown in recent years. More members of the LGBT community — especially gay men — have adopted the argot. Sometimes they use it to show off — to declare they are part of the gay community while still keeping it a secret in public. And being trans or a sex worker can even be looked down upon within the LGBT community.

Turgay Bayindir, for example, came out as gay in college, but he knew nothing about the community. He heard his new friends using Lubunca for fun, but he did not get it. “At first I was uncomfortable, especially because it was associated with trans-women who are sex workers,” Turgay recalls, saying he considered it demeaning. But he got over his bias after he actually learned more about Lubunca and why certain people need to use it.

The word “lubunya” is how gay men and trans women often describe themselves — and it has crept into Turgay’s vocabulary. He says it might not be such a bad thing if the secret language becomes a little less secret. “I think in general exposure would be good and also it would make the lubunya community less scary to the public when they start learning about it,” he says.

Still, because certain words have become so mainstream, they are no longer used in the sex work community. Sevval, who left sex work to become an activist after her gender reassignment surgery, says she doesn’t recognize a lot of the words anymore. “Girls invented some new words — even I don’t understand them. In 2015, girls speak something else,” she says. “It evolves.”

Perhaps society will evolve too, so that Lubunca can be used for fun and not just because it is necessary.


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Turkey offers to end a ban on Kurdish-associated letters of the alphabet

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based reporter Dalia Mortada

Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population – around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.

Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet – X, W and Q – because they are associated with the Kurdish language.

The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.

Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.

“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”

One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.

There are also plenty of Kurdish language instructional videos on YouTube.

Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.

But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.

Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.

But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.

Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.

Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.

Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.

Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.

“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.


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Gezi Park’s Linguistic Legacy: Words, Chants and Song Lyrics

T shirt, Taksim Square, Istanbul  (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

T shirt, Taksim Square, Istanbul (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based Big Show contributor Dalia Mortada

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called protesters çapulcular (pronounced cha-pul-ju-lar), he wasn’t paying them a compliment. The term translates roughly to “looters”, “marauders” or “bums”.

“For him çapulcular was an insult,” community organizer, Ezgi Bakcay, explains. “However, for the protesters, similar to the way some threw back the gas canisters at police, we threw this word back at him.” Although people all over Turkey have been protesting for different reasons in the past two weeks, they came together under this term.

To make sure people around the world knew how to use it one protester made a tutorial video. He starts by teaching viewers the simple present tense, “I chapul everyday…he chapuls everyday.” He moves onto the present continuous tense, “I have been chapulling for six days.” To protect him from teargas while “chapulling”, the instructor dons a surgical mask and some swimming goggles.

Tent labelled ‘Çapulistan’, Gezi Park, Istanbul (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Turks now have been using the English -ing form, “chapulling”. It means “a resistance to force, or to demand ones rights.” Some protesters wear t-shirts with “chapuller”, or the Turkish form “çapulcu” , scribbled across them. Others labeled their tents at Gezi Park things like, “No. 1 chapul street”. With this word it seems like a wave of creativity and humor was unleashed amongst the protesters.

A choir from the Bosphorous University took a traditional Turkish song and outfitted it with some new lyrics. They sing of gas masks and protests. They sing that the teargas is sweeter than honey.

Community activist Ezgi says protesters used ironic humour every chance they got. Graffiti scribbled across walls and sidewalks as well as signs played with Turkish words and Erdogan’s name.

Instead of writing “Recep Tayyip Erdogan”, protesters played with the prime minister’s name. “Cop” means baton, “tazyik” means pressurized water, and “gaz” refers to teargas (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

One night, a group of football fans even commandeered an earth digger and charged it at one of the police’s “public intervention vehicles”, or TOMA for short. They called it the POMA, for “police intervention vehicle.” To add insult to injury, protesters later painted it pink to soften its look. “The earth digger was lying here like a killed beast,” Ezgi says, “as if a captured enemy.”

The humor was also present in the chants and songs protesters created. Ezgi gave the example of a group of women came up with a slogan that said “Dear Tayyip [Erdogan], thanks to you we will look great this summer, because pressurized water is good for our cellulite!”

Women in an Istanbul apartment, making noise in support of the protests (Dalia Mortada)

In Taksim Square guys chanted, “Let’s see you use that pepper spray. Take off your helmets, drop your batons and let’s see who’s the real man” Meanwhile, feminists warned Erdogan to “run away, because the women are coming.”

Not everyone could make it out to the street to have their say, so they did so from home. Every night at 9pm for the past two weeks, neighborhoods throughout Istanbul have erupted with the clanking of wooden spoons against pots and pans, silverware against plates.

It’s not the first time pots and pans have been used to express discontent in Turkey or abroad. But this time, the sound has inspired musicians.

Kardes Turkuler, or Songs of Fraternity, are a well known ensemble. This song they just released has become a sort of anthem for the protests. “Enough with the headstrong decrees and commands,” they sing, “We’re really fed up!”

Music has played a major role in the Gezi Park protests. Throughout the park, many played instruments, from beating their drums to blowing into bagpipes. Others danced to the music and chanted. Some created new songs based on the protests, and while others sang traditional ones that passersby joined in on.

Many of the protesters say they want to hang onto this spirit of humor and creativity especially now that their argument with the government seems to be entering a more complicated phase.



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A New Beginning for the Kurdish Language in Turkey?

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Note from Patrick: Here’s a guest post from Turkey-based reporter Matthew Brunwasser.

Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for doing this.

Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.

The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently. Today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.

“Our people are excited,” says Tanriverdi. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”

Professor Tanriverdi says that 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.

Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says that Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure that he will have a job when he graduates.

“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu says. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”

But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades – but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means that the government policy is not serious.

“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” says Kurt. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”

After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.

“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” says Tursun. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.'”

But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.

But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.

“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth says. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”

Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says that none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.

“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” says Collinsworth.

The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead. As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

[Patrick adds: Also included in the podcast is a report on Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language teacher Medya Ormek, who is all of 13 years old.

Also, here’s a previous pod on the letters Q, W and X: they appear in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in the Turkish one.]



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From Cicero to Lynne Truss with Robert Lane Greene

As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids,  done with proper research.

Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.

Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists:  Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”);  Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”).  Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.

This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).

Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.”  She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.

Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.

Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.

Listen to the podcast here, or below via iTunes.


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A language speed-dater gets serious, and a cross-dressing, cross-linguistic singer

A language-learning marathon is over, as the author of a blog called 37 Languages decides which language to learn for real. The first time I talked to Keith Brooks he’d speed-dated 13 languages: he read up on each one,  learned a few phrases, and posted a summary and a points-based evaluation on his blog. Of the original 37, six got a call back: Swedish, Albanian, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Croatian. On these second dates, Keith tried to immerse himself in the language for at least a week, again documenting his observations online.   Now, he’s chosen the language we wants to live with. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s in the podcast, and by the time you read this, it may be on the 37 Languages site.

Next up is the story of a new film that documents a year in the life of an elementary school in Turkey. The kids speak only Kurdish, their teacher only Turkish. After a year, the teacher can speak three words of Kurdish. This is set against a backdrop of official supression of the Kurdish language, that the Turkish government is only now addressing. It has recently relaxed regulations so that it’s now possible to broadcast and publish in Kurdish. There’s huge opposition in Turkey to even these changes.

Finally, we profile one of Ukraine’s most beloved performers: the cross-dressing Verka Serduchka. Serduchka is the alter ego of Andriy Danylko. Serduchka is a bossy, Soviet-era train conductor turned trashy singer.  She represented Ukraine at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, and ended up in second place.  Danylko uses Serduchka to satirize Ukrainian life– and especially Ukranian-Russian relations. As part of that Serduchka uses a dialect called Surzhyk that had been viewed as a uneducated hybrid of Russian and Ukraine. But Serduchka has re-popularized Surzhyk, so that young Ukrainians now use it in a knowing, ironic way.  To get a sense of Serduchka talking, singing and dancing with her creator Andriy Danylko, check out this video.



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Hebrew’s revival, Turkey’s banned letters, Malaysia’s Allah crisis, and Q

Hebrew is the most successful attempt ever at language revival (though some argue that the evolution of Modern Hebrew is closer to language invention than revival).  Drawing on an ancient language has its drawbacks. The original had perhaps only a few thousand words, some of which — cherub, concubine — aren’t hugely useful these days.  And then there are the tens of thousands of words that didn’t exist in Biblical Hebrew. Not just technical words either. No word for icecream. Or skateboard. That’s where the Academy of Hebrew Language comes in. In last week’s podcast, Daniel Estrin reported on how the Academy helped come up with Hebrew names for  Uranus and Neptune.
Picture: Daniel Estrin

This week, Daniel tells us about how the Academy works, and what Israelis think of its work. The story was prompted by the Israeli cabinet’s decision to establish a Hebrew National Day on 21st of the Hebrew month of Tevet (in 2010, it was January 7). That’s the birth date of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew. (All this originally came to us via Tablet Magazine and its podcast Vox Tablet, where you can hear a slightly different version of Daniel’s report.)

Also, Malaysians have rioted and attacked churches after a court ruled that a Catholic newspaper can continue to use the word Allah. The government had banned its use, but an a court sided with the newspaper. Now the government is appealing to Malaysia’s highest court.

Then, two reports on letters in the Latin alphabet. In Sweden, parents have won the right to name their newborn Q. Just Q.  It’s not the most charming of names, but it’s not the least either. A previous controversy was over a baby girl named Metallica. Our second letter-related story comes from Turkey, where using the Kurdish-associated letters Q, W or X could land you in jail. There’s a nice Onion skit on the subject of letter additions to the English alphabet here.

Finally, a two-nations-divided-by-one-language examination of the word grit. These days, it’s the mot du jour in Britain because supplies are low. Not that Brits suddenly lack grit of the courageous determination variety. (That figurative take on the word is just about the only way it’s used here in the United States.) No, Brit grit is what Americans call salt, meaning that salt/dirt mix that is spread over icy roads. Britain, of course, is not  prepared for the kind of extreme wintry conditions that have been wreaking havoc on the nation this past month. So, there’s not enough grit.  Like in the British summertime when it doesn’t rain for a few weeks, there suddenly isn’t enough water.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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