To the untrained eye, the Turkish language (what with all of its unfamiliar diacritical marks) can seem somewhat intimidating. Just because Turkish uses the same alphabet as a lot of other languages doesn’t mean that Turkish pronunciation is a straightforward ordeal for non-native speakers. That dotless “ı” you’re looking at doesn’t have very much in common with the English “i” — it’s pronounced further back in the mouth. Try it out for yourself and see.
One saving grace that can help demystify the difficulty of Turkish pronunciation for you though? Each letter corresponds to exactly one sound — no hidden rules and exceptions to memorize like you would if you were learning English as a second language (How many different sounds can the English “a” make? Too many.).
Another factor that might help it all go down smooth: Turkish pronunciation has this thing called vowel harmony where words will either feature front vowels (spoken in the front of the mouth) or back vowels (spoken in the back of the mouth). This helps the vowels sound more natural together.
Anyway, these things will make more sense once you see how they work in practice. Let’s dissect a few Turkish words that are particularly tricky to say out loud. Click the play buttons to hear how they’re pronounced by a native speaker.
Teachable Moments In Turkish Pronunciation
1. kâğıt (paper)
This word features a handful of sounds that can easily trip you up, including the ı we mentioned above — this is a sound that simply doesn’t exist in a lot of languages. First, the letter â isn’t even super common in Turkish; it appears in certain Arabic and Farsi loanwords, and it functionally softens the previous letter or prolongs the vowel. So here, it’s not a “ka” sound, but a “kya” sound. Then there’s the ğ, which sounds more like a “y.” In this context, it also lengthens the preceding vowel. The ı, as mentioned above, is pronounced further back in the mouth and sounds similar to the English “e” in “the.”
2. ayçiçeği çekirdeği (sunflower seed)
Note that in this instance, we’re faced with a different kind of i — one that looks just like the English i. This one is pronounced with an “ee” sound. But wait! That’s a lot of “ç” — yet don’t assume it sounds like a “ts” sound just because you’ve heard it pronounced that way in other languages. The Turkish ç sounds like the “ch” in “chair.” The ğ, when followed by an i, sounds like “yee.”
3. sığır eti (beef)
Okay, by now you should be somewhat more familiar with the sounds in this word. But there’s that ğ again. Note that in this case, it sits between two vowels, so it’s functionally silent. It sounds more like “sı-ır” than “sıyır.”
4. soğuk içecek (soft drink)
Once more with the ğ. It’s between two vowels again, so soğuk sounds like “so-ook.” You should be able to figure out içeçek by now too, but with one additional pointer: the letter “c” without the cedilla (ç) is pronounced like the English “j.” Put all together, it sounds like “ee-ché-jack.”
5. güneş gözlüğü (sunglasses)
The ü here is kind of tricky. To pronounce this sound, make an “ee” sound, but tightly round your lips as you do so. The letter ş is basically just like the English “sh” sound. Altogether, güneş sounds kind of like “gew-nesh.” For the “ö” sound in the second word, tightly round your lips while producing the “o” sound. Once again, the last ğ is silent.
6. görüşürüz (see you)
Here’s another opportunity to practice your “ü”s and “ö”s. Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t get it right away, because these are tricky! Once you get the hang of the vowel sounds, putting it all together results in something that sounds like “gö-rü-shü-rüz.” It’ll make more sense if you just listen to it.
7. Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramadıklarımızdan mısınız? (Are you one of those whom we tried and could not succeed in making them resemble the citizens of Afyonkarahisar?)
Okay, this is just a fun bonus word, but see if you can try — just for fun. It might help to know that Turkish is an agglutinating language, which means words essentially stick to each other as endings are added to indicate tense, case, and more. As a result, words can get rather long and messy, but it’s just a matter of tackling them one sound at a time. Here’s one of the most famous ones circulating around the internet. Will you give it a shot?