It’s the kind of thing that one would have thought needs to be more or less entirely devoid of ambiguity. But the Turkish language does its users no favours when it comes to setting down in law the age at which various actions become permissible.
The immediate context here is a bit of background reading I have been doing on changes to the legal age for marriage in Turkey. What is clear is that revisions to the Civil Code, approved in late 2001, raised the marriage age and standardised it for both men and women. What is less clear, to me at any rate, is what the age restriction now is.
This is largely down to the peculiarly figurative turn of phrase that the Turkish language relies on in this area. Clearly, not being a fluent speaker of the language doesn’t help me here. Equally clearly, however, even fluent speakers seem to diverge in their interpretations of Turkey’s age-related legal provisions.
If anyone reading this can settle the question definitively, the addition of a comment below would be much appreciated. In the meantime, let me sketch out the contours of the ambiguity that seems to exist here.
The relevant provision of Turkey’s revised Civil Code, article 124, runs as follows: “Erkek veya kadın onyedi yaşını doldurmadıkça evlenemez.” The key word here is “doldurmadıkça,” from the verb “to fill,” which gives us a clumsy translation along the lines of: “Without filling the age of seventeen, neither man nor woman may marry.”
On the face of it, this looks like it might be straightforward. If you “fill” seventeen years—that is, reach your seventeenth birthday—you can marry. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Here the idiomatic differences between Turkish and English start complicating matters for the Anglophone observer.
In English, to say “I am seventeen” is also to say “I am in my eighteenth year.” In Turkish, by contrast, the words one uses to say “I am seventeen” are “onyedi yaşındayım,” which literally mean “I am in the age of seventeen.” If we apply this logic to the excerpt above from the Civil Code, the meaning of its “onyedi yaşını” starts to slip. Is marriage permissible when seventeen years have been filled (ie, once one reaches one’s seventeenth birthday) or when the Turkish “age of seventeen” has been filled (which would be at one’s eighteenth birthday)?
For the moment, I remain tentatively of the view that the first understanding (ie, seventeenth birthday) is probably the correct one. For one thing, the same turn of phrase is used in the provisions (constitutional and legislative alike) that stipulate the age at which individuals acquire the right to vote, and there doesn’t appear to be any ambiguity surrounding its use there. Article 67 of the constitution gives the right to vote to “every Turk who fills the age of eighteen.” I’m not aware of ever having heard anyone suggest that voting is only allowed in Turkey after reaching one’s nineteenth birthday rather than one’s eighteenth. By analogy, marriage should therefore be permissible from the seventeenth birthday. And, indeed, this is what is stated clearly in at least one government-produced English-language text, which outlines various equality-related provisions. For what it’s worth, it is also the position adopted by UNICEF in this discussion of child marriage in Turkey.
The fact that these various bits of evidence all point towards the seventeenth-birthday interpretation doesn’t mean that the linguistic ambiguity I’ve been alluding to is just angels-on-pinheads stuff. Nor is this solely the confusion of the monoglot foreigner. A range of Turkish sources, including official ones, also point to the eighteenth-birthday interpretation.
As it happens, the question of Turkey’s legal marriage age crops up in this morning’s Today’s Zaman, where it is discussed by one of the paper’s columnists. According to Berk Çektir, the current legal position is as follows: “Thus, the man and woman should have ‘completed the age of 17,’ meaning they should be 18 years old.” Mr Çektir is not an isolated example. A publication on Turkey’s EU-focused reforms produced in cooperation with the prime minister’s office clearly states (in Turkish, on page 18) that article 124 of the Civil Code means that marriage is permissible from the eighteenth birthday. Similarly, the website of Turkey’s Consulate General in London states (in English) that: “Normal marriage age under Turkish law is 18.”
(Incidentally, the website of the US embassy in Ankara adds a new slant to the confusion by claiming that: “Children under the age of 19 old [sic] must obtain permission from parents or custodians before they can marry.”)
Uncertainty as to the precise meaning of the doldurmak/filling idiom appears also to stretch into the legal field. On this legal forum, there’s a longish exchange (in Turkish) which tries to resolve the question (albeit in different context from the marriage one I’ve been dealing with). The forum participants come down on the side of what for our purposes is the seventeenth-birthday interpretation. But the fact that this is something that lawyers need to check with each other is indicative of how oddly unintuitive the formulation used to stipulate age requirements in Turkey’s laws is.