You Say Meydan, I Say Майдан
I was recently taking a little vacation in Istanbul between research stops in Europe (Prague and Kyiv). To my surprise when exiting a metro station I saw a sign for “Taksim Meydanı” in Turkish (obviously) for the famous and extremely vibrant square in Istanbul. Given my powers of intuition and analysis, I suspected that this word “meydan” was the same word as the Ukrainian “майдан” (or “maidan” transliterated) in Ukrainian (the whole “square” idea gave it away), which also means square (they pay me the big bucks for this type of things, trust me) since they appeared to sound related upon pronunciation.
The most obvious and famous of “maidans” in Ukraine is, of course, the Майдан Незалежності (or Maidan Nezalechnosti) – meaning “Independence Square,” which is noted as ground zero of Kyiv – right of off Khreschatyk Street. The Maidan sometimes registers with Westerners since it was the site of the incredible protests of the Ukrainian presidential election in 2004 (and yes, the guy they protested is now in charge…don’t ask). Students of the Ukrainian language learn this word “maidan”, first, because the maidan can easily serve as a topic of discussion in lessons due to the protests (“Що трапилося на Майдані?”), and second, because of the major difference with Russian, which has the word ploshchad’ instead (more below).
So how and when did two seemingly disparate languages, Turkish and Ukrainian, tango to make such a tantalizing lingual connection? First, I checked the ole’ reliable Etymologichnyi Slovnyk Ukrains’koi Movy, Tom Tretii (Kyiv, 1989) to confirm the eptymology of the word in Ukrainian (see picture), and alas it is from the Turkish word, meyden, which can mean a “a place to duel” or “free and open space” or an “arena or stage (арена)”. So if this came from Turkish, what is the currency of meydan in Turkish? Wikipedia (which is never wrong) tells us that meydan refers to a “urban public park or open space. The word is often associated with the Ottoman Empire, and refers to a public area in which discussions take place and speeches are made. The word and concept is current in the Republic of Turkey.” So in short, it goes back to the Ottoman Empire (and I didn’t feel like doing any more research in a language I know nothing about) :).
And the physical nexus? For starters, Ukrainian is a language that borrows heavily from a number of languages (it’s ok, Ukraine, lots of languages do it), namely Russian and Polish, since both are their, at times, domineering neighbors, which speakers of these languages will notice, but it also borrows from Turkish on occasion. Why? Well, that’s where history comes in: Turks and Ukrainians (depending on how you define that) have had interaction for centuries, mainly in the region of Crimea – home to Crimean Tartars (an ethnic group with Turkish and European origins) and a former khanate (or protectorate) of the Ottoman Empire from 1441 to 1783. It was surely during this period that many of these Turkish words entered the Ukrainian lexicon.
Maidan is just the tip of the iceberg, some other notable borrowed words are borsuk (badger), buran (snowstorm), kutas (tassel), hamanets’ (wallet) and one of my favorite words to say, kavun (watermelon). For more on this theme, check out a great site by Roman Zakharii.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a related topic for all you Ukrainian language fans out there: there is also the debate about the difference between майдан and площа or ploshcha (also means something close to square and is closer to the Russian word, at least etymologically, площадь, like in красная площадь or red square). Apparently, ploshcha is more related to a space or geometry and refers more to open or undeveloped space, whereas maidan refers to a livable space in a town or city. Despite this apparent distinction in Ukrainian, you can still see signs like площа Міцкевича or Mitskevich square (using the ploshcha). This Ukrainian is not happy about it. I’m just happy learning languages is still so fun after all these years.