Daily Archives: 3 December 2008

Wordcatcher Tales: The Hazelnut Coast Shibboleth

My history-professor brother, who digs up many sources containing observations about the varied roles of mercenaries and conscripts in militaries ancient and modern, sent me the following excerpt from Michael E. Meeker’s (1971) “The Black Sea Turks: Some Aspects of Their Ethnic and Cultural Background,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 2:318-345.

It is said that the Laz when conscripted [by the Turkish state] are automatically placed in the navy … because Anatolians associate Black Sea men with the sea, even though many of them have little or no experience as sailors or fishermen. The eastern Black Sea men, realizing that the period of service for the navy is three years, while that for the army is only two, naturally try to hide their origins, but the recruiting officer simply asks each man to pronounce the word ‘hazlenut.’ The vowel sounds of this word are inevitably distorted by the eastern Black Sea men, and the recruiting officer places each man in the army or navy according to his pronunciation. The accents of the Black Sea Turks are by no means uniform even in one given local, but most accents east of Samsun feature a distortion of the vowel harmony typical of Anatolian Turks. As one proceeds eastward along the coast the accents tend to become more unlike the Anatolian accents, until in the province of Rize even some Anatolian consonants are distorted or changed [different]. For example geldim becomes jeldum, and balik become paluk. These consonantal changes are more localized than [the vowel harmony changes], therefore the latter remains the best test for detecting eastern Black Sea origins.

There are two intriguing terms in this passage, one an ethnic label of miragelike reference, the other a shibboleth of chameleonlike pronunciation.

The Laz language is not at all related to Turkish. It is a South Caucasian language (related to Georgian and Mingrelian) with a lot more complex system of consonants than Turkish, but a much simpler vowel system, just (a, i, u, e, o). Laz is spoken in the far southeast corner of the Black Sea coast, where Turkey meets Georgia. (See Dumneazu‘s post this past summer about Laz ethnorock music.)

Nowadays, most Turks seem to consider the Laz people to be any inhabitants of the northeastern coast of Anatolia (old Pontus), whose Trabzon dialect of Turkish is called Lazca. This usage may go back many centuries, to an era when the ancestors of the current speakers of the “Lazca” dialect of Turkish actually spoke a “Lazca” language related to Georgian. (The Pontic Empire of the Trebizond was the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire to fall to the Ottomans—in 1461.) The Turkish-speaking “Laz” now prefer to call themselves Karadenizli (‘from the Black Sea’), and the men would rather spend two years in the army than three years in the navy (according to Meeker 1971). Even though they eat a lot of anchovies, they are rarely fisherfolk; instead, they are mostly farmers growing tea and maize.

And hazelnuts (Corylus avellana). Turkey produces about 75% of the world’s hazelnuts, and half of those come from Ordu Province, smack in the middle of old Pontus, the Hazelnut Coast.

The Turkish word for ‘hazelnut’ is fındık, with a dotless ı that sounds like an unrounded u (like Tokyo-standard Japanese u). The word fındık (or funduk or finduk or whatever other variants fail the shibboleth) appears to have entered Turkish via Arabic bunduq/funduq, which derives in turn from Greek φουντούκι (funduki), from Ancient Greek ποντικόν κάρυον ‘Pontic nut’ (at least according to this thread in Projet Babel, Des mots turcs d’origine grecque). Etymologically then, Turkish fındık = Pontic (i.e., Black Sea) [nut].

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