Articles > Discovering the Turkish language

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

A true bridge between the East and the West, Turkey is rich of a culture at the crossroads of many civilizations. The beauty of its language, which seems at the same time close by its alphabet, and already distant by its sounds and its vocabulary, invites to its discovery.


The Turkish alphabet and its pronunciation are very similar to English, even if some letters are pronounced differently, like the c pronounced /dj/, the ğ (g with breve, called yumuşak ge, or soft g) pronounced a bit like /w/ without moving the lips and lengthening the previous vowel, the ı (dotless i), halfway between /i/ and /u/, and the ş (S-cedilla) pronounced /ch/.

Sunset over Istanbul
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An agglutinative language

Like all Altaic languages, Turkish is an agglutinative language, meaning that it adds suffixes to express grammatical features. From ev (house), we form evler (the houses), evlerim (my houses), evlerimde (in my houses), and for example evlerimdekiler (those who are in my houses).

And in order for words to flow naturally, to be easily pronounced, rules of vowel harmony were developed, as we will see now.

Bosphorus river
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The simple vowel harmony

Turkish vowels are grouped into two sets of vowels: a, ı, o and u on one side, and e, i, ö and ü on the other. The simple harmony indicates the suffix vowel used for plural, infinitive and cases according to the last vowel of the word.

Bazaar in Istanbul
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The formation of plurals follows the rule of simple vowel harmony. We have for instance çocuk / çocuklar (a child / the children), and kedi / kediler (a cat / the cats). Note that a plural noun is understood as defined (kediler, the cats), whereas an indefinite number is always singular (kedi, a cat / cats).

Moreover, when we count things in Turkish, we do not put the counted word in plural: iki limon (two lemons), üç çilek (three strawberries). I refer you to the page of Turkish numbers to learn how to count.

Mezze in Antalaya
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The complex vowel harmony

Complex harmony groups vowels in a two-dimensional, vowel-harmony system: front vowels (e, i, ö, ü) and back vowels (a, ı, o, u), rounded vowels (o, ö, u, ü) and unrounded vowels (a, e, ı, i).

Without going into details, it is used for example in the interrogative particles: Çocuk mu? (Is it a child?), Çocuklar mı? (Are they children?).

Turkish newspaper
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A case-based language with six cases

Turkish has six cases: nominative, accusative (the object of the action), genitive (possession), dative (for whom the action is performed), ablative (the origin of the action), and locative (the place of the action). Accusative and genitive follow the rules of complex harmony; dative, ablative and locative, those of simple harmony.

Eye of Fatima
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No grammatical gender

At last some simplification: Turkish has no grammatical gender. The pronoun o means at the same time he / her / it. After the two vowel harmonies and the declensions, it feels good. By the way, the use of subject personal pronouns is optional, since they are included in the conjugations.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia
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And while we’re on the subject, the conjugation is done in the form of suffixes. The verb to be goes even further since in the present tense, it is directly suffixed to the word it concerns: öğrenciyiz (we are students) is formed on öğrenci (student) and yiz ((we) are).

Tramway in Istiklal
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Word order

Turkish is a Subject-Object-Verb language, the most common order found in about 45% of languages (the Subject-Verb-Object order of English is found in only about 42% of languages).

My mother watches television is said Annem televizyon seyrediyor, or literally My mother television watches.

Street art in Istanbul
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Lexical borrowings

In the early 1930s, Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, launched a reform to replace the Arabic alphabet of the Ottoman Empire with an adapted Latin alphabet, the so-called Sign Revolution (Harf Devrimi). In the process, he had the vocabulary reformed to remove borrowings from Arabic and Persian. Illiteracy was considerably reduced, and many European words were introduced into the language.

We find words from French, representing about 5% of the vocabulary, such as kuaför (coiffeur, hairdresser), filozof (philosophe, philosopher), formül (formule, formula), enerji (énergie, energy), aküponktür (acupuncture, acupuncture), tuvalet (toilette, toilette), lojman (logement, lodging), konfor (confort, comfort), which gives konforlu (confortable, comfortable) and konforsuz (inconfortable, uncomfortable), dekolte (décolleté, cleavage), manto (woman’s coat, ), mobilet (mobylette, moped), otostop (auto-stop, hitchhiking), otostopçu (autostoppeur, hitchhiker), kapris (caprice, whim)…

Of course, there are still many words in Turkish of Arabic origin. There would be 6% of them. For example, we can mention, kitap (book, from كِتَاب, kitāb), gazel (gazelle, from غَزَل, ḡazal), sabun (soap, from صَابُون, ṣābūn), and sıfır (zero, empty, from صِفْر, ṣifr)…

Statue of Atatürk in Ankara
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To sum up (and go further)

As we have quickly seen, the Turkish language follows a SOV order, it has a vowel harmony, it is agglutinative by means of sufixes, and has no grammatical gender. All these characteristics are shared by the Turkic language family which includes about thirty languages covering a huge area from Eastern Europe to Western China and from Cyprus to Siberia.

Modern Turkish has about 80 million speakers, then there are Azerbaijani with 35 million speakers, Uzbek (25 millions), Kazakh (16 millions), Uyghur (15 millions), Tatar (8 millions), of which 500,000 speakers for Crimean Tatar, Turkmen (7 millions), Kyrgyz (4 millions), Bashkir (2 millions), Chuvash (2 millions), Yakut (500,000)…

In total, the Turkish languages count between 200 and 250 million speakers, some are written in the Latin alphabet, others in Cyrillic, but all with a relatively similar vocabulary. Learning Turkish allows you to touch a cultural and geographical immensity that goes far beyond Turkey, a true bridge between the East and the West.