Translation musings: Where are turkeys from?

May 4, 2016 | Language, Miscellaneous

Well, that’s an interesting question – linguistically! In 16th-century England, when turkeys were introduced to Europe, they were (incorrectly) thought to belong to the group of guineafowls, some of which came from Turkey. Hence the name, turkey!


gobble gobble

However, others did not quite agree with this theory. In many languages the bird is actually called “the Indian chicken” as many assumed it came from the Indian subcontinent. The reason for this might be that some of the imported turkeys reached Europe with the help of Indian traders. The French call it “la dinde”, the Russian refer to it as “индейка” [indeyka] and the Turkish (ha!) also call this bird by a name that references India, “hindi”.

In some languages even the city where these birds supposedly came from is identified. In Dutch, it is “kalkoen”, in Finnish it is called “kalkkuna” and the Icelandic word is “kalkúnn”. These all stem from the name of Calicut, a city in India.

Some speculated that turkeys came from France, so for example in Gaelic languages turkeys are called “French chicken” or “French cockerel”: “cearc fhrancach” in Irish Gaelic or “kellagh frangagh” in Manx.

It’s still not everything! Many believed the bird was from Peru. (Including the Portuguese, the Croatian and the Pakistani.) The people of Vietnam just call it the “Western chicken”, i.e. “gà tây”, in Breton it’s a chicken from Spain (“yar-Spagn”) and in Malay it’s a Dutch one (“ayam belanda”).

The truth is that turkeys are from America.

P.S.: If you want to know the full story, there are languages in which the name for this bird does not have anything to do with countries or places. Notable mentions are the Japanese “seven-faced bird” (七面鳥 – “shichimenchou”), “fire chicken” (火鸡 – “huoji”) in Mandarin Chinese and “sky chicken” (வான்கோழி – “vaan kozhi”) in Tamil.


source of image: Gargi Bhuyan