How did past people speak in their daily lives? Because historical documentation of spoken language is often thin, this question has fascinated and frustrated generations of linguists. Nowhere could this be truer than in Turkey, where radical sociolinguistic transformations since the end of the Ottoman period have largely erased the traces of what was a highly oral and multilingual Ottoman culture.
In Ottoman History Podcast Episode #135, Nicholas Kontovas takes us inside the social world that created one Turkish slang variety known as Lubunca. This jargon is mainly used among Turkey’s LGBTQ communities today. It takes its name from the word lubunya, which refers to queer men and trans women. While Lubunca has only recently been named, Kontovas explains that its history is much longer. Through an analysis of the Lubunca lexicon, he argues for continuities with slang used among male sex workers in Istanbul during the late Ottoman and early Republican period.
Unsurprisingly, Turkish is the language most heavily represented in the lexicon; however, many other languages once commonly spoken in Istanbul, namely Romani or gypsy, are also present within Lubunca’s rich and imaginative vocabulary. As Kontovas argues, this suggests origins in a time when Istanbul was a much more linguistically diverse place. If this is the case, Lubunca may be a rare glimpse into the linguistic world of late Ottoman Istanbul’s underground. Yet it would have hardly been an exception in that world. As Kontovas explains, specialized jargon and certain forms of code would have been common to most urban communities that tend to coalesce around a specific profession or activity, such as guilds.
In recent years, general knowledge of Lubunca has become more widespread, with the internet and occasional mentions in mainstream media, such as film or literature, introducing this jargon to the broader public as Turkey’s LGBTQ communities gain increasing visibility. Conscious use of certain Lubunca words or phrases may be seen as an assertion of identity or solidarity with these communities. This somewhat ironically may portend an end for Lubunca at some point in the future, as a decline in marginalization eliminates the social space that gives rise to such a jargon. Kontovas refers to the example of Polari, an analogous slang variety used in Britain, which began to fall out of use during the 1960s.
Whether its popularization expands or extinguishes this linguistic phenomenon, Lubunca will continue to change. As Kontovas notes, the predominance of wordplay and constant relabeling of different classes of individuals or acts mean that the language is in a constant state of transformation. Many of the words in the Lubunca lexicon appear to have been changed so thoroughly and repeatedly that their linguistic origins are murky, and new ones are always being formed.
Nicholas Kontovas is a graduate student in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University.
Chris Gratien is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University researching the social environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East.
Lydia Harrington is a graduate student at the University of Washington.
Listen to Episode 135 of the Ottoman History Podcast, “Lubunca and the History of Istanbul Slang,” featuring Nicholas Kontovas.