A brief history of surnames in Turkey

In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to force Turks to have a surname, which until then was not mandatory. Many people will bear the same names, which will lead to the democratization of nicknames.

“We must serve the citizens of our country at any cost”, announced in 1925 by Ismet Inenyu, the former prime minister, about his desire to create a united Turkish nation. After centuries during which the surname was not mandatory, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decides to introduce a law to “look like Europe and be more modern” and especially for “no more distinction between Armenians, Greeks, Muslims, Kurds…”, as explained by Selma Numanoglu, a French tourist guide in Turkey. This is what Ibrahim Tabet reminds us History of Turkey from Altai to Europea book in which he returns to Ismet İnênu’s speech to a British diplomat: “We are frankly nationalists […] and before the Turkish majority, other elements have no influence. […] We will destroy those who oppose Turkey.”
The purpose of giving everyone a surname was to create a nation, to unite the people living in Turkey, and to destroy the minorities that had formed in the country. The homogenization of Turkey thus takes place through the obligation to bear the surname, which Mustafa Kemal puts into effect with a new law passed on June 21, 1934.
Seren Yıldırım Yucebag, professor of history at the Neshet Ertas House of Culture (Atasehir, Istanbul), also mentions Mustafa Kemal’s wish “think about Turks as people, full citizens”and not as ordinary citizens or minorities.

Choosing a surname

Thus, Atatürk gives two years (until July 2, 1936, under penalty of fine) to all Turks to choose their new surname, which they will have to pass on to their women and children on pain of the state choosing for them.
For example, the House of the People of Ankara organizes a festival on December 7, 1934, during which Turks will be encouraged to adopt their surname.
This new law, of course, will make it possible to identify non-Turkish speakers who will be against the creation of a Turkish nation, and will also bring Turkey closer to the West, facilitate tax collection, facilitate administrative procedures… Surname can be chosen “according to the qualities of the family, the physical characteristics of the people or the place of origin”, according to Selma Numanoglu. The only statutory rule is that it is “it is forbidden to specify things too much or to put forward a special quality (for example, the one who went to Mecca “haci”, or even “hoca”, “ağa”, “paşa”, “bey”, “hanım”, titles that were used for from the time of the Ottoman Empire, or even names referring to another’s tribe/ethnicity, offensive/funny names…) to maintain equality between citizens”. By virtue of the law to be passed in November, 1934,* it is also “it is forbidden to use the name Atatürk” , – recalls Selma Numanoglu. According to her, “That’s why people will choose names that are easy to pronounce, short, but that will make the family proud.”

Atatürk’s identity card after the new law of 1934

Ceren Yıldırım Yücebağ adds that the names used can be “something of interest to the family, such as ‘wonderful’, ‘magical’ or place of origin”.
Thus, the first practice (which is the majority) is to keep his name and add “oğlu” (son) to continue the family. The second practice consists in shortening the name/nickname. But some also use this opportunity to choose a surname to “erase” the past…

The most common surnames in Turkey

– Yilmaz, which means fearless
– Kaya, which means rock, cliff

– Demir, which means iron
– Çelik, which means steel
– Şahin, which means falcon, eagle
– Yildiz, which means a star

(These names are also commonly chosen as first names)

Surnames (such as Erdoğan, meaning “one who was born a soldier”) were sometimes assigned without any connection, as many Turks paid little attention to the process. Thus, in 1937, two million people had not yet chosen a surname because, unaware of the use of a surname in the past, they believed that having one did not matter.
Faced with the obligation to bear a name, Turks chose simple names according to their wishes, which led to similarities in the choices of many families. This has therefore led to a significant use of nicknames…
Please note that since 2015 (Turkish Constitutional Court), women who marry can use both names or keep only their maiden name.


The same law gives Mustafa Kemal Pasha the name Atatürk

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