Fishing with Turks

I recently witnessed an exchange on 臉書 between two people I know which included this variation on a saying well-known to Anglos*:


“don’t teach me to fish, give me a fish”

I had never before this moment had occasion to wonder how Turks expressed the idea of “fishing”. Having recently consulted the almighty dictionaries, it seems that in most of the larger Turkic varieties there are three common choices:

  1. Turkey: balık tutmak, Azerbaijan: balıq tutmaq, Turkmenistan: balyk tutmak, Uzbekistan: baliq tutmoq, Chinese Türkistan: بېلىق تۇتماق (bëliq tutmaq). All of these are just fish followed by the verb “to (take) hold (of)”.
  2. Azerbaijan: axtarmaq, Chinese Türkistan: ئاختۇرماق (axturmaq). The same word is in use elsewhere without fish-related meanings; Turkey: aktarmak (“to transpose/transfer/transmit”), Uzbekistan: axtarmoq (“to search for”), Kazakhstan: ақтару (aqtarw, “to search/rummage”).
  3. Turkey: balık avlamak, Uzbekistan: baliq ovlamoq, Kazakhstan: балық аулау (balıq awlaw), all of which carry the meaning “to hunt fish”.

I was sad to see that he had not chosen the third and obviously best option, and will endeavour to use this and only this henceforth.

Some of you may have noticed that the Uyghur word for “fish” uses a low front vowel, which is typical for Uyghurs, who often replace low vowels with “ë” in the first syllable and “i” later in the word. But in this case it is important that they do so, as Uyghurs still use an old Turkic word “بالىق” (baliq) for “city”. Although this word has an archaic flavour compared to the more “modern” flavour of the Persian “شەھەر” (şeher), variations of which are in use by the overwhelming majority of Turks as their standard word for “city”, reflecting the longer sedentary history of the Aryans as compared to the Turks’ traditionally nomadic lifestyle. Kazakhs and Uzbeks also use the Arabic word for “castle” to mean “city”.

Also while reading all about fishing among Çağatay speakers, I came across a charming word in Uzbek: “qisqichbaqa”, which to Uyghurs is “قىسقۇچپاقا” (qisquçpaqa), which seems to have come from the root used in Turkey for “frog”, “turtle” and “tortoise”, which is still used on its own by most Central Asian Turks to mean “frog”**. The root’s use for “turtle” in Turkey and “lobster” in Central Asia shows that it has a long history of being used as a root for all water-dwelling, cold-blooded animals with legs. I would like to call on the rest of the Turks to begin referring to lobsters as “kıskaçbağa”, “қысқашбақа” (qısqaşbaqa), or whatever pronunciation/spelling of “pincer-frog” is appropriate for your speech.

*This link identifies the saying as a “Chinese proverb”. 俊呈 was able to find a Classical Chinese version of the proverb (授人以魚不如授人以漁), as well as a modern version (給他魚吃不如教他釣魚). No obvious source for either, so it’s still possible that both versions are translations from a Western colonial source (who likely took it from somewhere in the Mediterranean) at different dates.

**”Beq” is used by Kurds to refer to “frog”, clearly a Turkic borrowing.