Sunday, April 27, 2008

Talking Turkey

According to National Geographic, Nov. 07, the people of Israel eat more turkeys per capita than any other country.

Hungary, a place and people that I cherish, comes in No. 5. Odd, because I never remember eating it over there. Pork, fish, venison and chicken a-plenty, lovingly lathered in lard, but not turkey.

In fact, I had to look up the Hungarian word for turkey, not remembering it at all.


Usually, a word borrowed from another language is somewhat recognizable in its new linguistic home. Hamburgesa, komputador, beisbol, futbol, come to mind. And people do tend to be lazy and borrow when encountering a new phenomenon. Europeans borrowed raccoon, moose, squirrel, chocolate, etc. from the natives when they encountered these things in the New World.

"Pulyka" obviously has no kinship to "turkey." It's not borrowed. That's unusual, especially since the turkey bird is another American original, not native to the Old World. In other words, it would have been a perfect candidate for word-borrowing. And such borrowing would have been recent, since Europeans have only been on this continent 500 years or so.

"Turkey" was apparently what Old Worlders sometimes called the guinea fowl, since that tasty bird was often shipped through that country on its way to the dinner plates of Europe.

So when the Europeans saw a similar creature here in America, turkey is what they called it. Later, they called a certain hairy prairie beast a buffalo, though it's actually a bison. That's the other side of linguistic borrowing. If you don't take a word from the natives, you can always put together a label for the phenomena from your own memory bank.

Thus, the Greeks called a big, grey beast of Africa a water-horse -- hippo-potamus. American Indians called alcohol fire-water. The Dutch settlers in Africa called one of their new neighbors "aardvark" -- earth pig.

That mystery is resolved. "Pulyka" remains.


Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Interesting discourse. I have learnt a lot. What is the reason behind your strong affinity for and knowledge of Hungary?

the walking man said...

Fascinating explanation on origins of words. Thank You ECD.

Pulyka-maybe this word is a turkey among traceable words.



eastcoastdweller said...

Lone Grey: Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question at this time -- it would reveal more about me than I feel comfortable doing.

I need to visit your blog and see how you are doing these days. I know you were in a rough spell recently.

Mark: Perhaps it is, LOL. There's just usually a reason why someone opens their mouth and assigns a certain combination of letters to a newly observed phenomenon.

For instance, chocolate is supposedly an Aztec word that means "hot drink." Nobody just decided on a whim that c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e sounded like a good label for the stuff.

Sometime in the last 500 years, some Hungarian trend-setter decided that pulyka was an appropriate title for the strange, gobbly bird from America that Americans call turkey.

Incidentally, I asked a friend from El Salvador how to say turkey in Spanish, and he uttered a word that also sounded completely different from turkey. Such a weird word that I can't even remember it to write down here.

For such a stupid, ugly-looking, albeit tasty bird, turkeys have inspired a multitude of monikers.

Foster Communications said...

Now that's talking turkey!!
I love learning where words come from. I find is fascinating, actually.

leslie said...

Latin word, *pullus*, meaning young fowl.

eastcoastdweller said...


Hungarian isn't a Romance language, but it could have borrowed that Latin word just as it did most of its Christian liturgical terminology. Puspok, (pronounced poosh-pok) for example is episcopos (bishop) reshaped on a Hungarian tongue. (Bishop, in fact, is the English version of the same thing).

And good Hungarian Catholics go to mise (pronounced mish-ay), whereas their English brethren and Sisters go to Mass.

-ka in Hungarian is a dimunitive or affectionate suffix, so pullus+ka could be a combination word.

Who knows?

eastcoastdweller said...

According to this site,,

pulyka appears to be a direct borrowing from Bulgarian, a neighbor to Hungary but with a completely different culture and language family (Slavic).

So the buck is passed, to Bulgaria. Where did THEy come up with the word?

Janice Thomson said...

Informative post ECD. I enjoy learning the origins of words.
Funny how a country's word is 'borrowed' yet the culture is not accepted by some when those people move into the neighborhood...

eastcoastdweller said...

Janice: That is ironic yet true.
Never were Native American faces more prevalent in the US -- on coinage, on commercial products, etc., than during the 19th century, when real Native Americans were being driven to the brink of extinction here.

(Please don't assume, people, by my above comment or others that I have made, that I am an America-basher. I love my country and I strongly believe that it has accomplished very important things in the history of the world.

I don't believe any nation's hands are clean when it comes to racism or other evils. I just have to talk about what I know. Obviously, I am more familiar with what has happened in the U.S. than what has happened in Scotland or Japan.)

eastcoastdweller said...

I should note as well, that epi-skopos is actually not a Latin word, it's Greek. Greek and Latin both contributed to the vocabulary of the early Christian church.

Epi=over, skopos=seer. Overseer.

Trisia said...

Ah, you brought nice memories to mind with this post, Ecd.

In Romanian, "curcan" ("turkey") is slang for policemen. Many years ago I asked a Hungarian lady to tell me how to say turkey in her native language and if they used this slangy meaning (I was such a mischievous child). She said no (natch) and told me the word, that I remembered as something pronounced like "puykoh" - no "l."

Bravo for your linguistic studies, mysterious as they may be.

eastcoastdweller said...

Trisia: Beautiful as it is, Hungarian (magyarul) is somewhat challenging to learn. You remembered that pronounciation of pulyka quite well -- the "l" is silent before "y" in a combination like that.

"s" is pronounced "sh" unless there's a "z" after it. "Cs" is pronounced "ch."

Etc., etc.

And "lany" (Girl) is pronounced lahn, not lan-ney. The "y" is there, but barely. It's really only heard when you pluralize the word, lanyok, lahn-yok.

The hardest thing for a non-native is to tell the differences between the slightly different gradations in the vowels ("a" from "`a" and "o" with two short umlauts from "o" with two long umlauts, for example).

Hungarian is an orphan in the world of languages. It's not a Romance language like Romanian; or a Slavic language like Russian or anything Indo-European at all.

The theory is, that the Magyars emigrated from somewhere near the mysterious Caucasus region now in Russia more than a thousand years ago and that their relatives left behind were later obliterated by the Mongols.

One branch of their tribe settled in Finland, and so experts can detect linguistic similarities, although Finnish sounds nothing like Hungarian.

Molly said...

My grandmother [in Ireland} used to talk of "pullets". I think she was referring to young chickens.....