A Guide to Turkish – 10 facts about the Turkish language

1. Where is Turkish spoken?

Turkish is the official language of Turkey, spoken by a population of over 72 million. Turkish is also spoken by small ethnic Turkish groups in Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and some other regions of Eastern Europe. Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and France also have large Turkish-speaking immigrant communities. Turkish dialects are also spoken in Azerbaijan and some ex-Soviet countries.

2. Loanwords in Turkish

Throughout history, Turkish has had many linguistic influences from neighboring countries, as well as from European countries.

During the Ottoman period, Turkish experienced a great influx of Persian and Arabic words. Modern Turkish also contains many words of French origin. Most words related to fashion or finance, as well as many medical, political and ideological terms are French loanwords. For example:

 Enflasyon      Inflation

 Döviz             Currency

 Finansman    Financing

 Resesyon      Recession

 Kriz                Crisis

Loanwords from English are mainly related to new technologies, such as:

 Çekup            Check-up

 Kampüs         Campus

 Dizayn           Design

 Kokpit            Cockpit

 Reyting          Rating

 Brifing           Briefing

Several Turkish words made it into English as well, such as kayak, baklava, shish- kebab, and yogurt.

3. Turkish Basics

Since 1928, Turkish has been written using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, which is almost phonetic. Loanwords are adjusted to the Turkish spelling. For example:

Media becomes Medya,

Television becomes Televizyon,

Restaurant becomes Restoran and

Hotel becomes Otel.

Turkish does not have feminine or masculine nouns, which makes life easier for learners. Just like in French, however, “you” has two forms: the informal “sen” and formal “siz”.

Turkish verbs – which always come at the end of sentences – require suffixes according to the information you wish to convey. For example:

Gidiyorum      I am going

Gitmek is the verb in this sentence, meaning “to go.” The suffix for the present continuous tense, “-yor,” is added to indicate the action is ongoing. Finally, the suffix for the first person singular, “-m,” is added to indicate that “I” am the one performing the action. Altogether, with adjustments for vowel and consonant harmony, the verb becomes “gidiyorum,” which means, “I am going.”

Gittim              I went

“-ti” is the past tense suffix, and “-m” is the first person singular suffix. Combined, the verb becomes “gittim,” which means, “I went.”

Gideceğim      I will go

“-ecek” is the future tense suffix, and “-m” is the first person singular suffix. Combined, with adjustments for vowel and consonant harmony, the verb becomes “gideceğim,” which means, “I will go.”

4. Turkish Tongue Twisters

 Şu köşe yaz köşesi, şu köşe kış köşesi, ortadaki soğuk su şişesi.

That corner is the summer corner, that one the winter corner and in the middle is the bottle of cold water.

 Bir berber bir berbere gel berber beraber Berberistan’da bir berber dükkanı açalım demiş.

A barber told another barber “come barber, let’s start up a joint barbershop in Barberistan”.

5. Turkish Jokes

Most Turkish jokes seem to revolve around one main character, Temel, his wife, Fatma, and his friend, Dursun. Temel is a typical guy from the Black Sea coastal region. There are hundreds of jokes about this trio and their various adventures, ranging from political to sexual antics. Here’s an example of Temel’s humorous wisdom:

 İdam cezasına çarptırılan Temel’e son dileğini sorarlar.

“Beni oğlumun yanıbaşına gömün” der.

“Ama oğlun hala hayatta!” derler.

Temel de, “Önemli değil, beklerim.” diye cevap verir.

They ask Temel, who is condemned to death, for his last wish.

“Please bury me next to my son,” he says.

“But your son is alive!” they say.

Temel replies, “No problem, I can wait”.

6. Turkish Language Family

Turkish is understood in many Central Asian countries. It is a member of the Western subgroup of the Oghuz languages, which also includes Gagauz and Azeri. The Oghuz languages form the Southwestern subgroup of the Turkic languages, a language family made up of about 30 living languages, spoken across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia. Some linguists believe Turkic languages are part of the larger Altaic language family, which also includes Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean and Japonic languages.

7. Tricky Turkish Words

There are some Turkish words that look identical, but are pronounced differently and have different meanings, which must be determined based on the context.

Hâlâ                Still/Yet

Hala                Paternal Aunt

Kar                  Snow

Kâr                  Profit

Adding suffixes can make it even more complicated. For example, “karın” can mean “of the snow,” “stomach,” or “your wife.”

8. Turkish Authors

The 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Orhan Pamuk (born 1952), is the most famous Turkish author of our time. He is widely read in the English-speaking world and his works have been translated into over 50 languages.

“Kâğıdın, kalemin, mürekkebin kokusunu sevdiğim için yazıyorum. Edebiyata, roman sanatına her şeyden çok inandığım için yazıyorum. Bir alışkanlık ve tutku olduğu için yazıyorum.”

“I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion.”

Elif Şafak (born 1971) is another a well-known Turkish writer. Many of her books have been written in or translated into English.

“Kim gerçek yabancı – bir ülkede yaşayıp başka bir yere ait olduğunu bilen mi, yoksa kendi ülkesinde yabancı hayatı sürüp, ait olacak başka bir yeri de olmayan mı?”

“Who is the real stranger — the one who lives in a foreign land and knows he belongs elsewhere, or the one who lives the life of a foreigner in her native land and has no place else to belong?”

Nazım Hikmet (1902-1963) is the best-known Turkish poet. His poems have been translated into English and many other languages, but the emotions, depth and power of his language are best experienced in Turkish.

“Yaşamak şakaya gelmez,

büyük bir ciddiyetle yaşayacaksın

bir sincap gibi mesela,

yani, yaşamanın dışında ve ötesinde hiçbir şey beklemeden,

yani bütün işin gücün yaşamak olacak.”

“Living is no laughing matter

you must live with great seriousness

like a squirrel, for example

I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,

I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

9. Early Turkish Writing

The earliest examples of Turkish writing are the two monumental Orkhon inscriptions, which are written in Orkhon script, or “Turkic runes.” Dating back to 735 AD, they were erected in honor of the prince Kul Tigin and his brother Emperor Bilge Khan. They were found in the Orkhon river valley in Mongolia in the 19th century.

10. How to address people in Turkish

Just like in French, you should address people you’ve just met with the formal you,

“siz,” until invited to use the informal, “sen.” But you will find that shopkeepers, children and occasionally older people use the informal, even with people they’ve never met before.

In Turkey, addressing people by their names when you first meet them is considered impolite, especially if they appear to be from the older generation. Young children might address you as Emma Teyze (Aunty Emma), or Peter Amca (Uncle Peter), as it’s very rude even for children to use only a first name.

Here are some other titles and honorifics:

Abi/Ağabey               Elder Brother

Abla                            Elder Sister

Beyefendi                   Sir

Hanımefendi              Ma’am