Analysis, commentary and news regarding Turkey, Turkish foreign policy, and Turkish democracy.
Chapulcu (çapulcu) was a rather unimportant and unnoticed, even uninteresting word in Turkish until June 2nd, 2013. On that curious Sunday, however, Turkish PM, Erdoğan, used the word in such a way that now it became a phenomenon.
As hundreds of thousands of people were protesting across over 50 cities in Turkey, the PM claimed that the protestors were “couple of chapulcu.” Following his words, the internet filled with memes of being chapulcu. Now there is even a Wikipedia page about it.
While there is not an exact translation of the word, BBC used “looters.” Here, I will attempt at a breakdown at transliteration.
The root of the word is “çapul” (or “chapul” in its hybrid phonetics)—which can be a verb as well as a noun. In its verb form, it means to loot, plunder or to raid. In its noun form, similarly, it means bounty—or whatever you gain after you looted, plundered, or raided. When we add the suffix, -cu, therefore, the meaning changes and the root form is fixed as noun. Because, -cu, in Turkish, is a part of “construction suffixes”—and more specifically, in the subgenre of “noun from noun construction suffixes.” So, whenever we add the suffix –cu/ci/cü (according to pronunciation, but I won’t get into that) in Turkish, we generate a noun from another noun. These suffixes change the meaning of the noun root to signify a trade or job.
|Function||Root||-ci sufx.||Root||-cu sufx.|
You get the picture. If we are adding the –ci/cu/cü suffix, we are turning the root into a trade/profession noun. But, that also means, we are using the root as a noun—in other words, the root gets fixed as the noun. Now, if we look back at çapulcu (chapulcu) again;
We have to take the root, çapul, as noun, roughly meaning “bounty.” And çapulcu (chapulcu) becomes someone who makes a living from selling/trading that bounty. Now, you see the reason why a “looter,” “vandal” or a “raider” is not the best translation of the word. Because a “çapulcu” does not necessarily has to be involved in these acts, s/he simply needs to make a living from bounty.
This matters—a lot! The “semantic shift”—a fancy way of saying ‘change in the meaning’—the word is going through right now depends greatly on the fact that çapul is fixed as a noun instead of a verb. Let me explain:
People are owning the word and using it to mean as someone who resists, who defends her/his rights, who fights against injustice. But, the verb version of this meaning that came after the semantic shift does not follow the “standard grammar” rules of Turkish, precisely because the meaning has to be fixed as noun. The verb version is constructed in Turkish as “çapullamak” and in hybrid as “chapuling”—both words DO NOT exist in standard Turkish according to Turkish Language Institute (Türk Dil Kurumu). Again, this is because, the root, çapul, is a noun and a verb at the same time. So, to use it as a verb in its denotative meaning, “to raid” or “to loot,” a suffix is not needed—it already means that.
But, to make it a verb in its new meaning, “to resist” or “to stand up against injustice,” after the semantic shift, the root has to be constructed into a verb with new suffixes. In Turkish, the way you make a verb from a noun is to add one of those “construction suffixes,” more specifically, a “verb from noun” construction suffix. These happen to be –la/le suffixes.
So, çapul, fixed as noun, needs a –la to become a verb. We have “çapulla.” Çapulla in Turkish is the imperative form of a verb, also it is conjugated in third person singular—similar to “chapuling,” just like –ing conjugates a verb in English. To take the verb to its bare infinitive form, we need to add –mek/mak suffix. Now, we arrived at “çapullamak.” From “çapullamak”, we can conjugate our new verb.
|1st Person||2nd Person||3rd Person|
In English, of course, we don’t add suffixes to conjugate, rather, use to the verb to be.
|1st Person||2nd Person||3rd Person|
|Singular||I am chapuling||You are chapuling||s/he, it chapuling|
|Plural||We are chapuling||Y’all are chapuling||They are chapuling|
So, linguistically, that is how we do the semantic shift. We first fix the meaning in the noun, change the meaning in the noun, generate the new verb from the changed and fixed noun, conjugate and have fun!
But, as I said, the fact that the word is fixed at noun in its origin matters a great deal, and that is where the sociolinguistic construction of identity begins.
To make the transition easier, let me give an example you might be more familiar with: queer.
The word queer did not have a sexual connotation for several hundred years. “Originally” it meant weird and out of ordinary—today we use that meaning rarely. The adventure the word “queer” had from 1500s to 1990, it only had one meaning. Towards 1990, however, the word was being used as an insult referring to sexual behavior that does not agree with social norms. The word, however, began being used as an identity by the people who were supposed to be insulted. Yes, they were “different,” and yes, it was awesome to be different! So, the semantic shift happened after people owned the word, changed its meaning, and began “queer-ing” (see what I did there?). So much so that today not only we have queer theory, but queer further signifies a utopic future, an alternative reality, thanks to scholars such as Jose Esteban Munoz, Judith Halberstam, William Leap, Judith Butler, Jasbir Puar, and many other I don’t know and can’t remember off the top of my head.
Similarly, chapuling carries such utopic meanings because the word is used as noun, instead of a verb. And I will use the narrative of Robin Hood to make my point.
In a nutshell, Robin Hood leads a simple life. He “takes” from the rich and redistributes it to the poor. We might, at first, think that his story embodies the myth of a benevolent outlaw. But, it is more likely that benevolence was, just as violence, monopolized by the powers that be at the time when the myth originated. Robin Hood’s manners, as well as archery, therefore, was frowned upon by the state at the time. But, just because he was deemed outlaw and, thus, was delegitimized did not stop Robin Hood from seeking social justice.
This is exactly the case for “chapulers.” The resistance began on the last week of May, 2013, in a public park, called Gezi Parkı, in Taksim square—in the middle of Istanbul. Istanbul Municipality wanted to get rid of the green in the park and turn the historical army barracks in the park into a shopping mall (they say it was a small portion of the green and they were going to plant more trees after the construction).
Nevertheless, there was an occupy-style sit in protest in the park against this decision. On 30th of May, the police attacked the protestors with sticks and tear-gas, which erupted the whole thing into a country-wide protest involving millions.
Now, let us look closely and try to get a better read of the situation. Gezi Parkı is a public space. The state, not only claimed the public space, but wanted to turn it into a shopping mall—a small scale manifestation of commodity fetishism, neoliberal worship, and so on. This shopping mall would have, like all shopping malls do, private ownerships, compulsive security, coupled with a social pressure to spend money—and be good citizens.
By resisting this to happen, people collectively engaged in a Robin Hood act. They reclaimed the public space from the state, who was essentially hijacking the property, as well as from its pending neoliberal doom. Therefore, they took from the rich and the powerful and “redistributed” it to the public.
Of course, the whole protests spread over two thirds of Turkey with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, joining in became more than saving several trees. It became a country-wide Robin Hood act against all the rights and freedoms that the state took from the public as well. Now, the aim is to reclaim those rights from the powerful and, again, “redistribute” them to the public.
As such, Robin Hoods of Turkey make a utopic stance. Chapulling is; from what we have seen so far:
- to do mass yoga demonstrations as a means of protest
- leftists guarding religious people as they conduct their prayers
- being against racism, sexism, or any other discriminatory/foul language
- using food, music and poetry to unite people
- welcoming and offering hugs to groups of people who want to kill you
- being nonviolent
- to clean the streets after protests
- to care for the environment
- to care for human rights, freedoms, and social justice
Culmination of these and other similar behaviors make a utopic stance towards the kind of morality chapulers have and the kind of land they want to live in. The morality that emanates from these protests seems to be in contrast with the “blood and soil + neoliberalism” morality of the contemporary nation state. Their benevolence, compassion, nonviolence etc. are outlawed and delegitimized by the Turkish state.
I sincerely hope that current powers-that-be realize their mistakes and take steps in realizing the utopic social alternative chapulers present.
Until that day, everyday I am chapuling.
Note: A friend asked the question: “How is ‘çapul’ a verb in Turkish?” She has a point. Every verb in Turkish has a bare infinitive, in this case it has to be “çapullamak.” But, here is the problem: Turkish Language Institute has “çapul” both as a verb and as a noun, but does not have “çapullamak”. Weird.