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Turkish Tea and Internet: The Invasion of New Media and the Shifting Sands of Culture

Veronika Tzankova, Graduate Candidate, and Thecla Schiphorst, Associate professor
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver


This paper discusses the effects of the “language of new media” on Turkish people’s cultural stance. In other words, it analyzes aspects of the process of westernization taking place in the territory of the Republic of Turkey, seen from the perspective of new media as a mediating dissemination of values between cultures. We investigate the cultural shift from the traditional Turkish lifestyle to its modernized version. We apply a lens of socio-cultural and linguistic theories and phenomena to the terrain of new media. In so doing, we explore an interpretive relationship linking person, multicultural reality, and electronic environment.

Protectionism of Turkish language and culture

From a geographical and historical point of view, Turkey occupies a most interesting location. Situated on two continents and the first Muslim country after the “Christian world” of Europe, this position has shaped Turkey’s cultural identity in a unique way. Turkey is at the cross-road between the East and the West, and in the center of the typhoon of contrasting political interests. Due to these reasons, Turkish people developed their own system to protect their culture – “a system of moral and epistemological rigor.”(1) However, as no state can survive in isolation, counting with the similar religious (and also to great extent ethical) values of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, Turkey opened itself more significantly towards the East and absorbed some of this area’s cultural specificities.

Culture and existential reality form a cyclic stream of interconnectedness where culture shapes lifestyles, and lifestyles manipulate cultural values. The challenges of that infinite interaction are of a special nature when adding language as the only tool that enables a semantic representation of reality.  Language, with its grammatical and lexical structures is born from, and satisfies, clearly identifiable needs; the needs formed by the culturally shaped reality.

In the case of Turkey, language, culture, and lifestyle construct an inseparable conglomeration of moral values, ethical standards, religious norms, and accumulated knowledge. Separating one element from the other is nearly impossible. Considering this situation, the protectionism of Turks from a cultural perspective includes both language and traditional values that remain in isolation from western influence and "foreignisms." These foreignisms are words accommodated from foreign languages that have difficulty becoming integrated into the Turkish language. Although the Turkish language has adopted words from Persian and Arabic, this is illustrated through morally and historically shared mutual cultural values. Words from Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon roots did not manage to "invade" the Turkish language. Internationally adopted words, such as “positive” or “negative”, that are recognized even in languages that do not belong to the Indo-European group, have their Turkish equivalents (olumlu – positive, olumsuz – negative). The protective nature of Turkish language is the result of a historic process in existence for hundreds of years, making the pervasion of foreignisms even harder. As Lewis suggests “…in a country where Latin and Greek were not taught…, the only rational course was to go to the pure language.”(2) In the context of his writing, he defines the idea that Turkish has been and remains a “pure language” because of the overlapping layers of historic and cultural processes that made the invasion of foreignisms almost impossible.

This situation began to change with the invasion of the language of new media into the terrain of preserved Turkish culture. As language shapes reality (3) , we see that the language of new media influences both the Turkish language and the semantic image of the day to day lives within Turkey.

New Media as mediating the dissemination of values

The promising development of new technologies has introduced new forms measured by the need for a new language with new terms. Historically, creators of new inventions named these objects or processes. The language of the country that imported them adopted these names or labels. Before the Internet era, the distribution of new products (or even the information about them) was a much slower process that to a great extent included their “physical” presentation to markets in different geographical locations. The slower tempo of distribution of new technology until the mid 90s allowed Turkey to remain faithful to its principles of cultural conservatism. Instead of adopting ready-to-use label names, it had the chance to create a neologism for each new “piece of technology”. A striking example of this phenomenon is the Turkish equivalent for the word “computer”. While most languages assimilated the term “computer”, in Turkish it is called “bilgisayar”, which literally means “a counter of knowledge” when translated into English. Despite the new technologies, prior to the invasion of the “internet culture” and new media in general, Turkish culture was still able to preserve its linguistic values and identity.

With the appearance of the Internet and its wide accessibility to the public in Turkey around 1997-1998, Lewis's definition of Turkish cultural purity began to change.  Internet culture first appeared in Turkey as an accompanying element of the “tea culture” that included sweet, long conversations in smoky, dusty “tea shops.” Little by little, conversations were replaced by the communicative act between the tea-drinker, the computer, and the internet data stream. Computers became a necessity for those places and as more of the tea-shops became equipped with computers and internet, the more the Turkish population became exposed to the values of internet culture. As a result, tea and internet cultures switched places and the tea culture became a satellite of the internet one.

Figure 1: A typical internet café in Turkey – the radical jump towards westernization.

The interesting phenomenon here is that this process appeared at such an attenuate and quickened pace that neologisms had barely time to appear and the combined integration of cultural uptake, meaning and experience, did not allow the invention of Turkish labels for the new elements accompanying internet culture. Thus, the original English names, the dominating language of new media, were introduced to the Turkish (with some small phonetic and grammatical modifications to make them match the structure of the Turkish language.) Terms such as internet, email, email hosting, interactive (in Turkish interactif), web, web site (web sitesi), click (klik), blog, flushed into the language and became part of a new, modernized version of Turkish culture.

New media, the theory of linguistic determinism, and the intensified process of modernization

Linguistic determinism suggests that reality is constructed, in large measure, by language; and that language forces us to think about the world in different and culturally-defined ways.(4) The interaction between new media and the Turkish language illustrates how an existing and historically protected language meets and absorbs the lexica of another cultural medium. New media vocabulary constructed new “conceptual construals.”(5) The invasion of new media into Turkish culture, with its specificities and distinctive digital culture, is establishing a new, homogenous cultural blend of traditional values and modern necessities. That blend has shifted the binomial opposition of “typical Turkish – the one that should be kept pure” and “the western elements in isolation”. This process is now reflected in both Turkish language and lifestyle, and intensifies the process of modernization. New media has become a platform for deliberating traditional norms, expressing issues that cannot be directly addressed in analog social environments. This has played upon stigmatized ethics, conceptions of “right” and “wrong” transmuting into roots of cultural values. The electronic environment provides different perspectives and world-views to the financially unstable aspect of a population that can barely leave the boundaries of the home country. From this perspective, new media has served as an ameliorative medicine, stirring great parts of the population out of the prevailing cultural ignorance.

The youth generation that has subsequently emerged from the popularization of new media demonstrates “westernized” distinctive tastes, perspectives and life-experiences. Expressing sexuality and sexual desires through new media platform is gaining popularity despite the taboos existing in analog environments. This ameliorative cultural shift serves as evidence of the transformative process taking place in traditional Turkish culture, the direct result of the invasion of new media.


New media, with its language and products, has enabled the detaching of traditional Turkish cultural values from the state of national preservation and allowed the mobilization of new perspectives through virtual space. This process has resulted in a dramatic re-assessment and re-examination of traditional norms and familiar concepts. The transnational nature of the electronic environment and its wide accessibility has served as the cultural platform enabling Turkish people to reconsider the significance of cultural stigmas, behaviours, or norms. Moreover, as no other medium before, new media has transfigured the conservative core of a deep and historical culture, shifting its geo-ideological identity. The electronic environment has played the role of mediator between historical, geographical, religious, cultural, and linguistic affinities.


1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (New York, NY: Vintage books, 1979)

2. Geoffrey Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform A Catastrophic Success,(New York, NY: Oxford University Press,1999)

3. Gabor Gyori, “Semantic Change as Linguistic Interpretation of the World.” In Evidence for Linguistic Relativity, edited by Susanne Niemeier, Rene Dirven (Amsterdam, NL: John Benjamins Publishing Company,2000)

4. W. Martin Davies, “Cognitive contours: recent work on cross-cultural psychology and its relevance for education”, Studies in Philosophy and Education, Volume 26, Number 1 / January, 2007 (Springer Netherlands, 2007)

5. See (3)