A Guide to Turkish - 10 facts about the Turkish language

Useful facts about the Turkish language

Translation in Turkish

Check the Turkish-only version

1. Where is Turkish spoken?

Turkish is the official language in Turkey with a population of over 72 million and also in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkish is spoken by small groups of ethnic Turks in Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and some other regions of Eastern Europe. Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and France also have large Turkish immigrant communities, the most populous Turkish community being in Germany. In Azerbaijan and in some ex-Soviet republics Turkish is spoken too.

2. What you already know about Turkish

Turkish had many linguistic influences from neighbouring countries as well as from European languages throughout its history.

Ottoman Turkish experienced a great influx of Persian and Arabic words. There are also many loanwords of French origin in the Turkish language. Most words for fashion, many medical, political and ideological terms and most financial words are imported from French or pronounced the French way, eg.
 enflasyon, inflation,
 döviz, currency,
 finansman, financing,
 resesyon, recession,
 kriz, crisis,
 bono, bond,
There also many Greek words in Turkish.

English brought mainly words related to new technologies, such as
 çekup, check up,
 kampüs, campus,
 dizayn, design,
 kokpit, cockpit,
 reyting, rating,
 brifing, briefing,
 site, data, hacker, mortgage, shop, fast food, star, miting, meeting.

Several Turkish words made it into English as well, such as
kiosk from  köşk, open pavillon,
agha or aga, from  ağa, chief,
kayak,  kayık, and food words such as
doner kebab,  döner kebap,
shish kebab,  şiş kebap, and
yogurt,  yoğurt.

3. How hard is it to learn?

Since 1928, Turkish has been written in 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.

The absence of feminine or masculine forms of nouns and adjectives in Turkish also makes life easier for learners. But just like in French, you has two forms, the informal  sen and formal  siz. The verbs – which always come at the end of sentences - require suffixes according to the level of formality you choose when speaking.

Suffixes in Turkish may well cause difficulty at first, but once you’ve got your head around the logic of conjugations, you’ll see that it’s not impossible to figure out all verbal conjugations.
Git(mek), to go, in present tense appears as -yor:
 Ben gidiyorum, I am going: gid-i-yor is the present tense and -um is the first person singular personalisation suffix which determines who is doing the action.
Git(mek) in past tense appears as ti:
 Ben gittim, I went, : -ti is the past tense and -m is the first person singular personalisation.
Git(mek), in future appears as cek, depending on the vowels:
 Ben gideceğim, I will go: gidecek(ğ)* is the future tense of to go and -im is the first person singular personalisation suffix.

4. The most difficult words and 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. Know any good Turkish jokes?

Most Turkish jokes seem to evolve around one main character, Temel, his wife Fatma and his friend Dursun. Temel is meant to be a typical guy from the Black Sea coastal region and there are hundreds of jokes about this trio and the various adventures they encounter, 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. If I learn Turkish, will it help me with any other languages?

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

7. What not to say and do

There are some words which look identical but actually sound quite different so you have to guess the correct pronunciation from the context.

 Hâlâ means still or yet and  hala means aunt (father’s sister– there are two words for aunts in Turkish, as there are two different uncles, maternal and paternal.)

 Kar means snow while  kâr means profit.
Suffixes to the same word can make it more complicated.
 Karın can mean of the snow or stomach or even your wife!

If you are a keen organic food consumer and want to make sure that there are no added preservatives in canned or jarred food, be careful not use the usual exportation of the word.
Prezervatif means condom in Turkish (a French import) and for additives you must use the word  katkı maddesi.

8. Famous quotations

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

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

 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.
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.

9. First publication

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 honour of the prince Kul Tigin and his brother Emperor Bilge Khan and were found in the Orkhon river valley in Mongolia in the 19th century.

10. How to be polite and show respect

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 you even with people they’ve never met before.

Turkish is the language of 1000 titles! Addressing people by their names on initial introduction is considered impolite, especially if they appear to be from the older generation. It might amuse you to be addressed as
 Emma teyze, aunty Emma, or  Peter amca, uncle Peter, by young children, as it’s very rude even for youngsters to use only a first name. Younger adults are addressed as
 abi / ağabey, elder brother, or  abla, elder sister, by people seemingly younger than them.

Always use hanım after a woman’s name and bey after a man’s, i.e.  Ayşe hanım / Zeynep hanım or  Mehmet bey / Ali bey. It means Mr and Mrs but follows the name rather than precedes it. If you don’t know the name of a person you need to address, using
 hanımefendi, madam, or  beyefendi, sir, is a good way to play it safe!

Turkish key phrases

Turkish key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Turkish alphabet

The Turkish alphabet

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