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Palindromes

Like other linguistic games and word plays palindromes attract my attention since I was a child. The column of Martin Gardner in the Scientific American has fascinated me with its material on this subject. Later when I had his books I was able to spend more time on it, collecting material about it and creating some of my own. Still later I wrote a book about word plays and linguistic games and devoted a whole chapter of some twenty pages to palindromes. (Üstün Alsaç, Anastas Mum Satsana, (Anastas Sell Candles), Yapı Kredi Yayınları, Doğan Kardeş Kitaplığı 40, İstanbul, 1992)

As far as I know, this is the first (and probably only) detailed treatise about palindromes in Turkish language. Even the title of my book was a palindrome, oldest known one in Turkish. It was the first and only palindromic book title, at least in this language. An article in a popular scientific periodical dealing more with palindromes in arts and sciences, mentioned my treatise by saying that linguistic palindromes also exist and gave some examples from my book. (Burhan Biner, “Yaşamın İçindeki Düzen… Palindromlar” (The order in life, palindromes), in: Bilim ve Teknik, issue 368, June 1998)

I think it would be interesting for palindrome fans to take a closer look at Turkish ones. Generally Western treatises on the subject ignore them, because they do not know about their existence. Since it is generally unknown that modern Turkey uses the Latin alphabet, which, by using single letters for words, is quite suitable for palindromes. Turkey has adopted Latin alphabet in 1928. Considering that the Western languages had the chance to experiment with such words since Roman times (SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS being one of the most famous examples), Turkish palindromists had relatively short time to search for such compositions. Before this date Arabic alphabet was in use, which is not suitable for detecting palindromes. The written words were not able to show such a property in a visual manner with the letters of this alphabet.

The reason for this is that the forms of letters change in Arabic alphabet according to their positions in a word; they have different shapes at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of words. This alphabet makes also little use of vowels, sometimes avoiding them totally, sometimes using various signs on consonants to indicate the differences between a’s, e’s, i’s, o’s and u’s. Apart from them there are other vowels in the Turkish alphabet, which have to be shown in written words. All these things made Arabic letters difficult to learn and use; this was overcome by adapting Latin alphabet, thanks to Atatürk’s reforms during the 1920’s and 1930’s to modernize Turkey.

Turkish palindromes were almost non-existent or undetected. The only one, the above-mentioned ANASTAS MUM SATSANA (Sell candle (or candles) Anastas; in the sense Anastas, why don’t you sell candles) is probably the oldest palindrome in Turkish language. It makes use of a personal name belonging to an ethnic minority group. It is highly probable that someone has noticed this name written in Latin alphabet, there were newspapers, magazines but also shop front labels written with this alphabet, and must have detected the palindrome and coined the phrase.

Of course there are many other palindromes in Turkish. In one of his articles Martin Gardner says that it is possible to construct hundreds of palindromic sentences in English. This made me think about this matter. And after some clumsy trials I was able to construct some Turkish ones. And in my book, after calling attention to the above mentioned remark of Martin Gardner, I said, if English is capable to do that, even thousands of sentences can be constructed in Turkish, which I still believe to be true. I included some 70 of such sentences I constructed in my book, and some 60 constructed by Orhan Tarkan, a friend of mine, who was inspired by me and who has constructed some really astounding ones. Only the best palindromes, meaning sentences that are grammatically correct, make some sense and may even occur in a given situation, were included in the book.

I am not saying that it may be interesting to hear about Turkish palindromes or thousands of palindromes can be constructed in Turkish just out of blind national pride. Turkish language has some properties that make it somehow easy to construct palindromic phrases and sentences. First of all Turkish makes use of suffixes at the end of words to show its various conditions or states (like the accusative, dative, etc. as in German).

Let me show this by an example: ADANA is a city in Turkey. If you want to say “in Adana”, you make use of a suffix and say ADANA’DA. You have already converted a non-palindromic word into a palindromic one. Get the idea? You can easily construct meaningful palindromes in this language if you can handle the suffixes (and sometimes prefixes). Some of them will not be as simple (understand detectable) as ANASTAS MUM SATSANA, that is, they would not show themselves directly as palindromes.

Another property of Turkish is the question forms of words. If you would say BEN, it would mean I or me. The question form would be BEN Mİ? This is also a suffix, but the rule says that it should not be connected to the word. Some such question suffixes are palindromes themselves such as MUYUM or MİYİM. Also words like NEDEN or NİÇİN (both for why, for what reason) are palindromes. Such words, prefixes and suffixes and grammatical rules can also be of help in constructing palindromes in Turkish.

We prefer to write palindromes in capital letters, because the Latin alphabet also makes a formal differentiation such as upper and lower cases of letters, especially for proper names or at the beginnings of sentences. We also keep punctuation marks as they are in the normal reading direction, that is, from left to right, which may not necessarily be kept in reading from right to left, as it was the case for ADANA’DA. But this is a minor aesthetic deficiency, which is generally accepted in the palindromes of other languages too. The apostrophe would not occur if the word mentioned above if it was a common noun. ADA means island, on the island would look like ADADA.

Discovering and constructing palindromes in Turkish is not only a fascinating exercise in finding some kind of symmetry in words and sentences, it also shows the possibilities (and of course limitations) of this language. At a very early stage one is confronted for example with some letters, which rarely take place at the beginning of a word or in its first syllable, but may be more frequent in following syllables or at the end. Generally Turkish words do not begin with an H or L, and O is a rare occurrence in the first syllable.

Turkish alphabet has also some extra letters for specific sounds. The most problematic ones are Ş-ş, I-ı, and Ğ-ğ, because Western alphabet oriented computers do not recognize them. Ü-ü, Ö-ö and Ç-ç on the other hand are recognized because they also occur in German or French. Some letters present in other alphabets fail in Turkish alphabet like Q, X and W.

In my treatise I also discuss single-word palindromes in Turkish. There seems to be only one 1-word palindrome, which is O (third person singular pronoun, he, she, it or generally that). 2-word palindromes are impossible by definition. Consonants cannot be read without vowels and there are no two-letter words with only vowels. The range broadens with 3-letter words and there seems to be two categories, with one syllable like MUM and with two syllables like ADA. 4-letter words are also rare, İTTİ (s/he pushed) being an example.

Probably most palindromes occur in 5-letter words. These can have two or three syllables such as YATAY (horizontal) and ELELE (hand in hand, holding hands). With 6-letter words difficulties arise again. KÜLLÜK (ashtray) and KESSEK (if we would cut) being examples. 7-letter words are generally words with suffixes. İZİNİZİ (your track), UMUDUMU (my hope) are some examples for this category. 8-letter words again present a difficulty. ARAL’LARA (to Aral’s) may be an example. 9-letter palindromes are more numerous. In my treatise I am mentioning seventeen ones I have detected, some of which were also discovered by Orhan Tarkan. ASYA’DAYSA (if it is in Asia) and KESELESEK (if we would rub a person with a glove –as exercised in a Turkish bath-) being two examples.

10-letter palindromes are waiting to be discovered, the only example seems to be a family name, thus written together as a compound name: ÜÇKÜLLÜKÇÜ. And I was able to find only two 11-word palindromes in Turkish. First one is ŞUMNU’NUNMUŞ. Şumnu is a (formerly Turkish) village in Bulgaria. The word can be used in a sentence like “Bu peynir Şumnu’nunmuş” (this cheese (seems to be coming) from Şumnu). The second one is ETKİLİLİKTE (in the (same) effectiveness). If this is the limit, we do not know. Accepting a small aesthetic deficiency we can also count MİDYAT’TAYDIM (I was in Midyat –a village in Western Turkey) as a 12-word palindrome.

Then there are word pairs, which are palindromes that may not necessarily make a sense when they stand alone. YEŞİLLİ ŞEY (the thing with green) is one example. These were collected and some of them are mentioned in the book to remind the readers that they can be made part of a meaningful sentence. And of course there are also single names and surnames as palindromes, names and surnames, which form palindromes when put together. Some of them really exist as can be checked in books listing names like telephone catalogues. Füsun Erbulak mentions in her book called Delikır ile Kırmızı Başlıklı Seyirci a memory of her husband Altan Erbulak, the late cartoonist and theater player, a name, RIFAT TAFİR, who explained him that he has read his name from backwards and adapted it as his family name. First and second names can be shown only with their initials, which also give the possibility to construct some palindromes. Prefixes and suffixes can also be applied to proper names, which again broaden the range of possibilities.

In my book I am also devising a palindromic word game, which may be played with two or more persons. To begin with, a word is chosen and written down. The first player writes another word on either right or left hand side of this word and makes a dash to indicate full words, adding whatever letter or letters needed at both ends of the line in order to provide palindromacy of the line. The next player does the same, extending the chain. She or he has to find words that start with the leftover letters of the first player, which, sometimes, may not be very easy. This goes on until a made-up time runs out or a made-up number of full words are reached. Of course the game terminates when a player cannot find an appropriate word or when both players agree that they have to stop.

The sample game given in the book is consisting of Turkish words, but I see no reason why it could not be played in any other language. Here it is (lines are showing consecutive stages of the game and words and letters added by each player):

- KALEM -
– KALEM – ELA – K
– TA – KALEM – ELA – KAT -
– ÇANTA – KALEM – ELA – KAT – NAÇ -
– Zİ – ÇANTA – KALEM – ELA – KAT- NAÇİZ -
– MİZİ – ÇANTA – KALEM – ELA – KAT – NAÇİZ – İM
– MA – MİZİ – ÇANTA – KALEM – ELA – KAT – NAÇİZ – İMAM -
– ÇAMA – MİZİ – ÇANTA – KALEM – ELA – KAT – NAÇİZ – İMAM – AÇ

So, at the end there is a chain of words, which may not have a meaning when taken together but is palindrome as a whole. This game can be played with children not only to make them aware of palindromes in their language but also to build up their vocabulary. Building the longest chain (or the highest pyramid) may be a real challenge between teams and can be very exciting. Another example, also using KALEM (pencil) as the starting word may end like this:

MİKİ – BANKA – BAKKAL – US – KALEM – MEL – AK – SULAK – KABAK – NABİ – KİM

The following lists contain Turkish palindromes, which were found by me and Orhan Tarkan. With very few exceptions all of them were constructed before the publication date of my above mentioned book.

In whichever language they may be, palindromes are surprising and fun. I hope you will enjoy Turkish ones. Who knows, perhaps you may also find some of your own. But beware, occupation with palindromes may be habit forming or even addictive!..


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