Articles > Introduction to the Turkish language with the series Hot Skull

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

To bring an authentically alien feel to today’s science fiction television series, producers hire linguists to create constructed languages, aka. conlangs, with their own sounds, and sometimes even their own writing system, in addition to their grammar and vocabulary. The Turkish series Hot Skull, produced and released by Netflix in December 2022, does not resort to such methods.

This dystopia, which takes place in a future that we imagine to be close, takes place in Istanbul, Turkey. The posters on the walls, the graffiti and the slogans on the demonstrators’ banners are written in Turkish. For Turkish speakers, the world described is therefore very credible and contemporary, since it uses their own language. For non-Turkish speakers, on the other hand, the messages remain foreign, using letters they are not used to seeing, such as the cedilla s ş or the soft g ğ, which immerses them in a quirky and mysterious world.

I invite you here to dive into this world and discover some aspects of the Turkish language.

Sıcak Kafa

The series is called Sıcak Kafa in Turkish and its title has been translated Hot skull. It follows the tribulations of the linguist Murat Siyavuş, played by Osman Sonant, and Şule, played by Hazal Subaşı, in a world ravaged by a semantic virus that is transmitted through speech. Those afflicted, the jabberers, string together meaningless words in an incomprehensible and convulsive language, losing the ability to express themselves and, as it seems, to even think coherently. The state has been replaced by a dictatorial military structure that has divided the country into quarantine zones.

Sıcak Kafa, the book by Afşin Kum

One immediately thinks of a transposition of the Covid-19 epidemic, even though the series is adapted from the eponymous novel Sıcak Kafa by the Turkish author Afşin Kum published in 2016, still not available in English.

In Turkish, like in English, adjectives are placed before the noun to which they refer. The adjective sıcak means hot, and the word kafa, the head (there is otherwise no article in Turkish). Sıcak Kafa can therefore be translated as Hot Head, hence Hot Skull.

Salgınla Mücadele Kurumu

Salgınla Mücadele Kurumu (SMK) - Anti-Epidemic Institution (AEI)

The military structure that took control of the country is called Salgınla Mücadele Kurumu, whose name is shorten to its initials SMK.

Salgın means epidemic. The suffix -la indicates the directive case, i.e. the movement (here figurative) towards something: one fights the epidemic, one goes towards it to beat it.

Mücadele means fight, struggle, battle, and Kurumu, the institution. The straight translation therefore gives Institution to Fight the Epidemic, which the translators preferred to call Anti-Epidemic Institution, with the acronym AEI.


Yapamadım - I could’nt

The word Yapamadım is found on a piece of paper taped on a door in the basement of the house of the officer Anton Kadir Tarakçı, played by Sevket Çoruh.

The root of this word-phrase is the verb yapmak, to do, which root is yap. The infinitive in Turkish is noted by the suffix mak or mek, according to a rule named vowel harmony. Turkish vowels are grouped into back vowels (a, ı, o, u) and front vowels (e, i, ö, ü). The suffix marking the infinitive depends on the last vowel of the verbal root, here a.

Next is the negation suffix ma, also dependent on vowel harmony, and then the tense suffix di/dı, also dependent on it. This is the observed past tense, used to report on attested historical events, or past events in our lives. It is also a perfective past tense: the action has taken place, it has ended.

In this case, the verb is congruent in the first person singular, ben (I, in nominative case), indicated by the person suffix -m. In Turkish, there is no need to indicate the subject pronoun since it is already present in the person suffix, unless you want to insist on it.

In the end, Yapamadım means I could’nt, which could also be translated as I could’nt do otherwise, this sense of the verb can being carried by the verb to do in Turkish.

Önce kulaklıni

Önce kulaklıni - Firstly, the headset

This is the first injunction, the only effective barrier against the ARDS virus, that of wearing a headset so as not to hear any jabberer you may come across, and risk being contaminated.

Önce means firstly. As for the word kulaklıni, it comes from the word kulak (ear), which then gave kulaklık (earphones, headset).

Önce kulaklıni therefore means Firstly, the headset.

Karşindakinin “hasta” olduğunu düşünuyorsan hemen kulakliğini tak!

The first word in this sentence is Karşindakinin (the person in front), from karşinda, in front (of), and kişi (the person).

The grammatical structure of this sentence is complex. Indeed, what is expressed in English by means of subordinates is often rendered in Turkish by nominalized sentences, with a genitive subject and a possessive suffix, characterized by a case mark.

Here, we have the subordinate which breaks down as follows: [Karşindakin-in ol-duğ-un]-ü, or [Karşindakin-Genitive be-Nominative-3Sg]-Accusative. It can be translated as that you are in front of a “sick” person, the following word being hasta (sick).

The verb in the main proposition is düşünuyorsan. It is the verb to think (düşünmek in the infinitive), on which we place the suffix -yor- of the affirmative present continuous which indicates an action in progress.

The other words are hemen (quickly, urgently, without delay), kulakliğini (the headset) with the mark of the accusative (lık est became lıği), and that of the possessive of the second person plural (-ni(z)). Finally, we find the verb takmak (to wear) in the imperative.

Putting all these grammatical remarks together, we get the following sentence:
[the-person-in-face “sick” that-you-are if-you-think without-delay headset-your put-on!], that is, in the end If you think you are in front of a “sick” person, put on your headset immediately!

Kocaeli yi unut ma!

Kocaeli yi unut ma! - Don’t forget Kocaeli!

In this sentence, the verb is unutmak (to forget), which root and singular imperative is unut (forget). The addition of the negative particle ma modifies the verb: unut ma (do not forget).

Yi marks the accusative. Without this little word, the sentence would mean Kocaeli doesn’t forget, where Kocaeli would be the subject. Here, we must understand Don’t forget Kocaeli. The village of Kocaeli and what happened there is what we must remember.

Final words

The exercise of translating all these sentences that appear in the settings of this series is very interesting, since it plunges us right away into the complexity of the Turkish language. Turkish being an agglutinative language rich in suffixes, it expresses many nuances with just a few syllables, whereas English would often resort to periphrases.