First Impressions Of The Turkish Language

In my recent look into the Complete World Traveler language list, many people were surprised to see Turkish make the list. But the influences of the Ottoman Empire have left their marks from south-eastern Europe, through the Middle East, and across all of Central Asia, even going well into Mongolia and northern China, where Uyghur (a Turkic language) is common language.

While I do have some Turkish friends, and a passionate love affair with Turkish food, it was my recent visit to Uzbekistan that truly sparked my interest in Turkish. The Uzbek language is, of course, a Turkic language, and similar enough that a fluent Turkish speaker could understand Uzbek... and Uyghur, and pretty much all of them.

Characteristics of Turkish

The first feature one notices about a language is its alphabet, and the Turkish alphabet is a Latin alphabet with 29 letters, mostly the same as English, and borrowing a few vowels from German. Apparently this is a relatively recent development, though, as Turkish languages used an alphabet like that of Arabic-script, but changed to the Latin alphabet only about a century ago. It's not at all hard to learn as long as you remember that c is pronounced like a hard j, and that ı is different from i.

Grammatically, it's completely fascinating to me. Word endings denote not only verb conjugation and noun declension, but also possession, and even the forms of "to be". Yeah, that's right, there's no verb "to be"... it is expressed by adjusting the ending of the word that is the object of "being". Wow.

That's a lot to swallow already, and there's plenty of other interesting twists, so it's really nice to learn that there is no noun gender to worry about. There is, however, a concept that is brand new to me: vowel harmony. With vowel harmony, the vowel used in a particular ending is chosen based on the vowel(s) preceding it in the word. It sounds pretty difficult at first, but I imagine that it would quickly become second-nature, since the whole point is to make things sound nice, and it's easy to know when something doesn't sound nice!

The next detail that stands out to me is that Turkish word order is Subject-Object-Verb, which I am surprised to learn is the preferred word order of 75% of the world's languages. Apparently, the remaining 25% must be the Latin languages, Germanic languages, and Slavic languages, because prior to my exposure to Turkish I had never heard of such a thing.

To add to the interesting new word order, Turkish puts prepositions after the words to which they refer. That means they're not really prepositions at all, but post-positions. If that's unclear, think of saying "in the house" as "the house in"... only it would actually be "house in", because Turkic languages do not use articles.

So putting it all together (and I hope I get this right!), instead of saying "he is inside of my house", the construction in Turkish would be something more like "he house-my inside-is." Of course that does nothing to reflect the noun declension through six cases, or the fact that the negative particle can actually be inserted into the middle of the word it negates!

My impressions

My first impression is utter fascination. I love the idea of unfolding this mysterious collection of grammatical features, which is so completely foreign to me. On first examination, it looks incredibly strange, and therefore difficult.

But I already learned about different word order with German, and that became second nature for me in no time. And I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on noun declension thanks to Russian. So I guess what I'm saying is, yes, it's sure to be hard, but certainly not impossible. I've already done it all before.

On curiosity alone, I can feel Turkish climbing higher as a candidate for next year's language. Not only do I love a challenge, but I am particularly fond of any language which is capabable of making other languages easier. Knowing that Turkish can open up all of the Silk Road countries of Central Asia makes it very desirable and useful for me. And knowing I can use it whenever I go to a Turkish restaurant — that's just a bonus. 🙂

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  • Isn't it learning too many languages at the same time just confusing ? Is that a short introduction or an announcement of another language learning goal?

  • This is just a short exploration... a curious introduction to the language. I agree with you-- it is far too difficult to attempt to learn more than one language at the same time.

  • Nice introduction to Turkish, thanks! It has certainly piqued my interest, and I can honestly say I've had no interest until now, despite having travelled for a few days to Istanbul in the past (very much recommended by the way).
    I've been studying Japanese for a few years, and that has the same order, subject-object-verb; as does Korean I think, but 75% is still a surprisingly high amount.
    It's amazing how quickly you get used to the SOV order though -- I even find myself missing its usefulness in English sometimes -- and I guess once you're used to it in one language, it probably becomes easier in others. So I look forward to hearing about how you get on in your Turkish endeavour next year!

  • This doesn't necessarily mean that Turkish will be my choice for next year... though it certainly does improve the chances!
    Thanks for the comments.

  • I like it when you do "language profiles" of languages that interest you. I think it should happen more often :)

  • If I do it too often, I'll run out of languages that interest me! :)
    Thanks, I'm glad you like the content. Any suggestions? Requests?

  • Nice post. I enjoy knowing things like this about languages, without necessarily knowing the language itself. I think I remembering reading that something like 75% of the world's languages are also tonal, which came as a similar surprise to your discovery that 75% have SOV word order. Thanks!

  • Well , I tried it once ...learning Esperanto when I was studying Russian ..and partly it worked. But Esperanto does not count, does it?

  • Thanks!

  • Esperanto was constructed to be easy to learn, and for that reason it's probably not a good example, but I can say from my own experience that the week I spent learning Esperanto was a week that I did not spend learning any Italian. Since my focus has been back on Italian, I've all but put Esperanto out of mind.

  • Requests? Hmmm... maybe an overview of a language that's vastly different from any of the ones you've ever mentioned. Welsh, perhaps, or, one of more interest to me, Basque. I would also love to hear your opinions of Greek.

  • Funny... I'm actually planning to do Greek soon!
    I'll try to keep Welsh and Basque in mind for the future. Thanks!

  • Hi :) Glad to see your interested to Korean, as I am turkish and speak it fluently
    It certainly isnt an easy language, but it can't be impossible, right?
    I'll leave you with a tounge twister that I've always enjoyed
    siz cekoslavakyalastirdiklarimizdanmisiniz yoksa cekoslavakyalastirmadiklarimizdanmisiniz?
    [sorry dont have a turk keyboard]
    lit: are you one of those that we chekoslavakian or are you not one that we made chekoslavakianhaaha im not kidding. however thats about as hard as it gets.

  • in turkish** sorry

  • here it is spelled correctly, sorry
    Siz çekoslovakyalılaştırabildiklerimizden misiniz, yoksa çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdan mısınız?
    Was it possible for us to czechoslovakize you or was it not possible for us to czechoslovakize you?

  • Funny!Russian has some ridiculous long words, too. But I think German takes the cake!

  • Salam!Good post and introduction to a very underestimated language that doesn't quite get the attention it should in the West. One thing though, Pashto belongs to the Indo-European Language Family, not the Turkic Family. So although there is shared vocabulary between Turkic languages and Pashto (probably as a result of cultural diffusion and centuries of proximity), the Turkic languages and Pashto are neither related nor mutually intelligible.

  • Good call. I've updated the text. Thanks!

  • Sorry for commenting on such an old post, but I wanted to point out some inaccuracies. First, most of the Turkic languages have nothing to do with the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Ottomans are perhaps the youngest of the powerful Turkic civilizations to emerge, and they never controlled Central Asia or the Uyghur lands. They are just better known because they persisted well into the 20th century and because they interacted with the West the most. Having grown up in Kazakhstan I saw that, even though other Turkic-speaking nations do feel an affinity with Turkey, they are sometimes annoyed at how some Turks see themselves as the most senior Turkic nation. I am not sure why the Ottoman Turks ended up being known simply as "Turks", but the fact that they often fail to make a distinction between "Turkish" and "Turkic" is another source of annoyance (I do not know if they even have separate words for these concepts; Kazakhs do, and they hate when their language is called a "Turkish language", or worse, a "Turkish dialect").
    Another thing: while it is true that most Turkic languages form a sort of dialect continuum and are somewhat mutually intelligible, there are a few exceptions, like Khalaj in Iran and Chuvash in European Russia that retain a lot of archaic features, or some languages in Eastern Siberia (Yakut, Tuvan, etc.) that evolved quite differently from the others. And even among the more "mainline" Turkic languages there are major differences in vocabulary caused by contact with other languages (Russian in Central Asia, Mandarin in Xinjiang, Romanian in the Gagauz region of Moldova, etc.)
    But aside from that, a great intro to Turkish, a language often overlooked in the West in favour of either more familiar or more "exotic" languages.

  • Good luck to you if you ever decide to explore the Turkish language.
    Just an example to one of the characteristics you mentioned in your article:"Ev" means "home/house"
    "Evim" means "my house", "evin" means "your house"
    "Evimde" means "in my house", "evinde" means "in your house"
    "Evimdeyim" means "I am in my house", "Evindesin" "You are in your house"
    and goes on like this...

  • Wow, that sounds pretty easy. And efficient!

  • By learning Turkey Turkish you will be able to speak Azerbaijan Turkish too :)

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