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HomeExpertsCrafting Identity: The Story of Surnames in the Turkish Republic

Crafting Identity: The Story of Surnames in the Turkish Republic

One of the revolutions in the social field during the early Republic period is the Surname Law. With this law enacted on June 21, 1934, it was decided that every family should have a surname. Sample lists for the surnames to be taken under the law were prepared, sometimes individuals chose a surname themselves, and sometimes registry officers gave surnames at their discretion.

Why was it needed? In Turkish society, every family traditionally had a name known as a “nickname” or “fame”. People were generally recognized in society in this way. Sometimes professions were indicated like “Imamoğulları (Imam’s sons), Kunduracılar (Shoemakers), Saraçoğulları (Sarach’s sons)” or a family’s characteristic was highlighted such as “Hacıoğulları (Pilgrim’s sons), Çolakoğlu (Son of the bald), Arıkoğlu (Son of the bee), Çobanoğlu (Shepherd’s son)…”. Families were usually distinguished from one another in their community in this way.

Ziya Gökalp writes that in Turks, initially the clan name (as in Yunus Emre) was used, followed by the family name indicating lineage, and sometimes “oğlu” (son of) was added to the family name (as in Kozanoğlu). In the Ottoman period, although the “oğlu” expression was used in villages, the urban population preferred to say “zade”. In the last period of the Ottoman Empire, the family name continued from the father’s name, but since the name changed with every father, it was not a healthy method.

According to Gökalp, what needed to be done was for every individual to adopt a family name, and those who did not choose one themselves should be given one by the government. Although such publications had an impact on the enactment of the Surname Law, it is not entirely possible to understand why it was waited until 1934.

The Population Registration Regulation dated 1881 contained the term “family name”, and records were made accordingly during population censuses. The regulation stated that “the population registry will contain the names and fame of men and women…”.

Despite the Civil Code being adopted in 1926 in Turkey, work on the Surname Law began before 1929, a commission was established for this purpose, and foreigners were also included among the commission members. Nevertheless, the bill was introduced to the parliament in 1934.

In the discussions about the law, it was desired that existing family names not be abandoned, especially surnames ending with “oğlu” similar to “yef, of” in Russians, “aki, idis” in Greeks could be adopted, and government records should use the family name first then the individual’s name. Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya mentioned that the expression “oğlu” would especially cause confusion in the army.

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While the articles of the law stating “Every Turk must carry a surname in addition to their given name” and “in speech, writing, and signing, the given name is used first, followed by the surname” were unanimously accepted, the article “Titles and ranks, tribal and foreign race and nation names, as well as names that are not in accordance with public decency or are disgusting and ridiculous cannot be used” led to debates.

The use of tribal names associated with certain places and families and why it was problematic were discussed, and Şükrü Kaya responded that “tribal life is a structure belonging to the Middle Ages” and especially “there are more than two hundred tribes in the East with thousands of members”. It is clear that one of the main objectives was to give Turkish surnames to Kurds.

Surnames such as “Arab, Circassian, Chechen, Georgian, Laz, Pomak, Tatar, Kızılbaş, Bektashi” were deemed inappropriate, and ethnic or religious affiliations were not allowed. This is undoubtedly part of the construction of the national state.

The Republican regime, which did not allow other ethnic names, deemed surnames that “start or end with Turkish” suitable for these groups. Especially families who came with the population exchange and some of whom did not even speak Turkish were thus made part of the Turkish nation. The law primarily targeted Kurds and Muslim groups that came with migrations (Circassian, Georgian, Pomak, Albanian…).

The Surname Law was accepted as Law No. 2525 on June 21, 1934. The law stated that besides the articles mentioned above, every adult is free to choose their surname, those without a surname or wishing to change theirs within two years can do so, and the law would come into effect six months later.

Shortly before the law came into effect, the Surname Regulation was issued (December 27, 1934, No. 4589). However, it is observed that the surname did not enter the public agenda in the period following the law’s acceptance.

During this time, President Mustafa Kemal, with the proposal of Prime Minister İsmet Paşa and friends, took the surname “Atatürk” with the law enacted. Three weeks later, another law was passed banning others from using this surname. Accordingly, Atatürk’s sister Makbule Hanım, although she took her husband’s surname “Boysan”, would take the surname “Atadan” after separating from her husband, not “Atatürk”.

During this period, many deputies requested surnames from Atatürk. Atatürk suggested various surnames both at the Çankaya table and in private meetings; he gave “İnönü” to İsmet Paşa, “Bayar” to Mahmut Celal Bey, “Aras” to Tevfik Rüştü Bey, “Okyar” to Ali Fethi Bey, “Gökçen” to his adopted daughter Sabiha for her piloting, and “Tanrıöver” to Hamdullah Suphi Bey, fitting his name.

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Meanwhile, interesting events occurred; Halide Edip and Dr. Adnan Bey, indicating that they were already well-known in their circles, refused to take a surname and, in response, took the surname “Adıvar” meaning “our fame is known”. Nihal Atsız also showed the same reaction, opposing the adoption of surnames to resemble Europeans and took the surname “Atsız” in protest.

Intrigues in Surnames With the commencement of the surname acquisition process, the press began publishing lists to assist with the surname issue. People’s Houses also stepped in at this stage and organized meetings. Naturally, the suggested surnames were “pure Turkish”.

Enver Behnan Şapolyo also published a book in 1935, providing a list of 3396 Turkish surnames. Şapolyo in his book stated, “Every Turkish child must put a Turkish name according to the principle that a Turk has a Turkish name. One who does not put a Turkish name is not a Turk” and “Let’s put names not from Arab, Persian, and Jewish names but from pure Turkish names, names used by our ancestors”. At the request of the Prime Ministry, the Presidency of Religious Affairs also stepped in for surnames and district muftis tried to assist the public.

Newspapers also published similar articles, emphasizing that surnames like “Hafız Hacı Tacettinoğlu or zade, Hacı Vaiz Bedrettinoğlu or zade” suited those of Arab descent, thus could not be a Turk’s surname” and the new surnames would constitute the sharpest aspect of the “nationalization of the Turkish society”.

The Surname Law also attracted the attention of the foreign press; Romanian and Russian media reported that everything old was being removed in Turkey, and Turks were taking names from old Turkish history, thus the last “remnants” of the old regime would be eradicated.

In a study about Araç district of Kastamonu, it is seen that sometimes Turkish equivalents of old family names were given, and sometimes other surnames were preferred. However, “oğlu or sons” was never used in family names (Kalemoğlu-Yazgaç, Mazlumoğlu-Onat, Ruşenoğlu-Parlakçı, etc.). Some family names were also Turkified (Sofuoğlu-Namazcı, Kethüdaoğlu-Bakıcı, Müezzinoğlu-Ünleyen, İmamoğlu-Tüzün, etc.).

A notable point regarding surnames is that the elite and wealthy families got the surnames they wanted, and even the prominent families of towns and villages took the name of the place as their surname. The public, however, seemed to be at the mercy of the registry officer. Emine Gürsoy Naskali’s book “Surname Stories” is full of such examples and is a perfect “my life is a novel” case (Istanbul, Doğan, 2013).

Surname Regulation

An important expectation at this stage is towards minorities. They were expected to prefer Turkish surnames instead of Armenian, Greek, or Ladino. For this, Tekinalp (Moiz Kohen) wrote articles in the Republic even suggesting minorities to Turkify their given names.

Article 7 of the Population Registration Regulation stated, “Foreign race and nation names cannot be used as surnames”. Regarding this, the Ministry of Interior indicated that since minorities already had surnames, it was not mandatory for them to take Turkish surnames, nor was it necessary to remove Armenian and Greek suffixes like “yan, dis, aki” and replace them with “oğlu”. Therefore, it was announced that only those minorities who wished could take purely Turkish surnames.

Although there was no legal obligation, it is understood that the administrative cadre, within the framework of the nationalization process, wanted them to take Turkish names as well. Not only Tekinalp, for example, the Izmir press wrote that Jewish surnames unrelated to Turkish culture should also be Turkified.

Some minorities took Turkish surnames, mostly to avoid drawing attention. In practice, while minorities living in Istanbul kept their surnames, those in the provinces were sometimes forced to change their surnames to Turkish. According to Rıfat Bali, the largest group among minorities that took Turkish surnames were Jews.

From an article by Prime Minister Celal Bayar in 1938, it is understood that many citizens had not yet taken surnames. This situation is a clear indication of the public’s indifference to the issue, despite the efforts of the administrative elite.

Another important legal regulation complementing the Surname Law was the removal of titles and honorifics such as “Efendi, bey, beyefendi, hanım, hanımefendi, paşa, hazretleri, hoca, ağa, hoca, hafız, molla” (November 26, 1934). This regulation is also explained with the aim of “creating a classless, privilege-less society”. Of course, banning titles like “hacı, hafız, hoca, molla” is also related to erasing religious concepts from social life. The fact that this law is still in effect today is an irony in itself.

In the process of taking surnames, it is seen that “intellectuals and officials, who were the most important supporters of the revolution”, took the lead. For instance, Besim Atalay’s book “Turkish Names” was utilized. This book includes suggestions for surnames such as “Alabay, Alakuş, Alataş, Altuntaş, Atila, Aymaz, Bartu, Batu, Börü, Gökçe, Gökbörü, Güç, Ertem, Esenboğa, Kurt, Kutamış, Kutlu, Ögedey, Ölmez, Şemin, Soku, Tokmak, Türk”.

One of the significant problems was the carelessness and negligence of registry officers. As a result, ridiculous surnames that humiliated individuals in society were recorded. An important reason for this was officers giving surnames based on attitudes and behaviors (such as “smiling, quarrelsome, docile”) and sometimes based on profession (to those who do poultry farming, Kanat (Wing), to bakers, Çıtır (Crispy)).

Giving surnames containing “Türk” especially to ethnic groups that are not Turkish, primarily Kurds, can also be explained within the nationalization process. Indeed, surnames such as “Türk, Öztürk, Türkoğlu, Cantürk, Şentürk, Türkyılmaz, Ölmeztürk, Türkdoğan, Göktürk, Çeliktürk…” are very common among Kurds.

Interpreting Surnames

The careless implementation of the Surname Law has brought along many criticisms. For example, Fındıkoğlu made criticisms and suggestions in 1943, just ten years after the law, stating that those who “take names from new words and adjectives” should find their family names from their genealogy and abandon their fabricated surnames. Those who cannot find, do not know, or do not want to use their old historical names should add “oğlu” to the names they have taken.

Indeed, it is mentioned that in the initial application of the law, surnames containing “zade and oğlu” were not accepted, and the aim was to break the influence of powerful families from previous periods.

The biggest reaction to the law was against the issuance of “fabricated and non-Turkified” surnames. This situation quickly led to requests for changes in surnames. Another criticism is the use of “man, men suffixes” like Germans in surnames.

It is understood that the public was not very eager to use surnames. Prime Minister İnönü even wrote to ministries two years after the law, stating that surnames were not used in correspondence and demanding the necessary sensitivity be shown. Even after ninety years since the surname law in Turkey, it has remained a figure used only in official correspondence by necessity, and even in elite circles, the names are followed by “bey, hanım”, which are normally prohibited, continuing to say “Ali Bey, Ayşe Hanım”.

There is no evidence that the surnames given by the Surname Law contain a code. Surnames were given within the framework of the new regime’s Turkification policies. Eight years after the law, the Wealth Tax was enacted, coding taxpayers as “M” for Muslims, “G” for Non-Muslims, and “D” for Dönmeler (Converts, Sabbateans) who were considered Muslims in the population exchange from Greece to Turkey, and lists were made accordingly.

The state has always been successful in surveillance in all times and environments, so whether surnames are in Turkish or another language did not matter. Even Tekinalp, despite his support for Turkification and Kemalism, was one of those exiled to the Demirkapı Camp because he could not pay his Wealth Tax.

As of 2010-2011 data, the most common surnames in Turkey are “Yılmaz, Kaya, Demir, Yıldız, Yıldırım, Öztürk, Aydın, Özdemir, Arslan, Doğan, Kılıç, Çetin, Kara, Koç, Kurt, Özkan, Şimşek”. It is very clear that these surnames have no connection with family names from the Ottoman period. In this aspect, it can be said that the law achieved its goal and played a significant role in breaking ties with the past.

On the other hand, it is certain that the Republican regime has also been very successful in surveillance within the framework of the legacy inherited from the Ottoman Empire. The state tradition, which recorded those who later became Muslims during the Ottoman period with the father’s name “Abdullah” and the mother’s name “Havva”, has certainly found a formula for this in the Republican regime, even if not through surnames.

Sources: Fındıkoğlu, Z. F. (1943), “Ziya Gökalp and Our Family Names”, Türk Yurdu, Istanbul, separate print from Issue 5-6; Ertan, T. F. (2000), “A Dimension of the Republican Identity Debate: The Surname Law”, Kebikeç, Issue 10, pp.255-272; Aslan, D. A. (2006), “The Role of the Surname Law in the Construction of National Identity in Modern Turkey”, CTAD, Issue 3, pp. 155-172; Akman, E. (2015), “A Linguistic Examination on Forms Taken by Ottoman Population Registers with the Surname Law”, World Language Turkish Symposium, Elazığ;

https://t24.com.tr/news/academic-meltem-turkoz-explains-the-history-of-surnames-in-turkey-being-turkish-is-part-of-a-concern-about-origins,1148023 (February 5, 2024).

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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