An Introduction To The Turkish Language

We look at the Turkish language’s similarity to other Turkic languages, the reforms that modernized it in the 20th century and its unique grammar.
Turkish language represented by a photo of the city of Istanbul with lots of birds in the sky

Speak Turkish and you’re in good company. Over 83 million people speak it, mainly in Türkiye (Turkey), but also in Almanya (Germany), Yunanistan (Greece), İngiltere (England) and Amerika (the United States). If you’re not familiar with the language, though, we’ve put together this quick guide on its history, as well as some helpful hints for speaking it today.

The Turkic Languages

Turks and Azeris watch a lot of each other’s televizyon programları nowadays, so less and less hand gesturing is needed. The other Türk dilleri (Turkic languages) fan east from İstanbul to Çin (China), and north to Sibirya (Siberia). They include Özbekçe, Kazakça, Uygurca, Türkmence, Tatarca, Kırgızca, Sahaca and many smaller languages. They are a relatively closely related bunch, but claims of Turkish speakers being understood in Kyzyl and Yakutsk should be taken with a pinch of salt: The only way waving your hands around helps east of Hazar Denizi (the Caspian Sea), is if they happen to contain iyi bir sözlük (a good dictionary).

The controversial Altaic hypothesis groups Turkish with Moğolca (Mongolian), Korece (Korean) and Japonca (Japanese), having them all originate in the Altay Dağları (Altai Mountains) where China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia meet.

Inscriptions in an alphabet reminiscent of Nordic runes (the similarity comes from the practicalities of etching into stone rather than any historical connection) tell us there were indeed Turks in the Orhun Vadisi (Orkhon Valley) in Mongolia in the 8th century, but most linguists now reject the validity of Altaic as a language family. The best answer you’ll get for a Turkic homeland is Orta Asya’da bir yerlerde (somewhere in Central Asia).

20th Century Language Reforms

When it comes to modern Turkish, one name should be written thus: Atatürk! Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was first president of the Cumhuriyet (republic), and from 1926, he embarked on a series of devrimler (reforms) that changed every facet of Turkish life, bringing it ever closer to Avrupa (Europe). The şapka devrimi (hat revolution) banned the fes (fez) and in 1934, Turks were compelled to choose surnames. Families chose names like Öztürk (Pure Turk), Demirel (Iron Fist) and Yıldırım (Lightning). Kemal was granted his surname, meaning “Father of Turks,” by the Turkish parliament.

Language was not excluded from Atatürk’s reforms. Under the Osmanlı İmparatorluğu (Ottoman Empire), Turkish had been written in the Arap alfabesi (Arabic alphabet). The switchover to the Latin alphabet was achieved in mere months, with Atatürk himself going so far as to take karatahta ve tebeşir (blackboard and chalk) to remote villages.

The new alphabet included the special letters ç and ş, representing the “ch” in chips and the “sh” in ships respectively, while C was pressed into service as the “j” sound in jam. Ğ is known as yumuşak ge (soft g), and it is so soft, it is barely pronounced at all, often just lengthening the vowel that comes before it. If you go to Toros Dağları (The Taurus Mountains), make sure you pronounce it daaa-la-ruh. Ü and ö sound pretty much as they do in German, while the letter i was split into two. İi — dotted in both capital and lower case — sounds like “ee” and is found in İstanbul. By contrast, the nature of Iı, as found in rakı (Turkey’s fiery aniseed brandy), is darker and harder to pin down. Ask a native speaker and you’ll get a sound something like an “ugh” or maybe even an “eugh.”

Atatürk also oversaw the removal of centuries of lexical borrowings from Arabic and Farsça (Persian). In its heyday, loanwords accounted for up to 88 percent of the vocabulary of imperial Lisân-ı Osmânî (Ottoman Turkish). Replacement words were taken from the kaba Türkçe (raw Turkish) of the rural population, unearthed from Old Turkish, drafted in from other Turkic languages, borrowed from French, or in some cases simply made up on the spot — as in the case of okul (school).

Sometimes, the people stubbornly refused to accept the changes recommended by Türk Dil Kurumu (The Turkish Language Association). Turks still say kitap (book) like the Arabs do. The “new” word betik had to wait for the arrival of computer science to find its place in the dictionary as “script.” Incomplete though they might have been, Atatürk’s reforms were irreversible and progressive. The changes to the modern language have been so extensive that Atatürk’s epic 36-hour 1927 speech Nutuk has been translated into modern Turkish three times — in 1963, 1986 and 1995.

Turkish Grammar

Modern Turkish grammar is best described as “sticky” (or “agglutinating,” if you’re a linguist) — as most information comes in the form of endings stuck onto words. Arkadaşlarımla (with my friends) consists of arkadaş+lar+ım+la (literally: friend-s-my-with), while yaramazlaştırılamayabilenlerdenmişsiniz means “you seem to be one of those people who is incapable of being naughty.” It is also, admittedly, something of an artificial beast of a tekerleme (tongue twister) designed to scare dil bilimciler (linguists). Ünlü uyumu (vowel harmony) changes the shape of most endings to match the root word. “With my friend” is arkadaş+ım+la, while “with my manager” is müdür+üm+le and “with my brother” is kardeş+im+le.

Don’t be daunted, however. Turkish words seem long and complex, but when you know how they’re formed, you’ll find it a regular and logical language!

Handy Phrases

  • Merhaba! (Hello!)
  • Memnum oldum. (Pleased to meet you.)
  • Teşekkür ederim. (Thank you.)
  • Güle güle! (“Goodbye!” from the one who stays)
  • Hoşça kal! (“Goodbye!” from the one who leaves)
  • Adam başına bir kilo baklava çok mu fazla? (Is a kilo of baklava per person too much?)
  • Gerçekten kibarlıktan değil — daha fazla yersem ölebilirim. (No, really, I’m not being polite — if I eat any more I might die.)
  • Yağlı güreş için nerede kaydolabilirim? (Where do I sign up for the oil wrestling?)
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