Turkey is home to some of the earliest advanced civilizations in human history, with highly developed cities, some of which date back to more than 10 thousand years. But for the majority of this time, this land that’s now called Turkey was not inhabited by Turkish people at all.
Turks hit the road from Central Asia and eventually settled in the Anatolian basin in around the 11th century, mixing with the peoples of Anatolia. The region then began to transform from a predominately Greek Christian one to a Turkish Muslim society.
And here’s the interesting part: besides the mighty military force that enabled them to take over the region, they also had brought with them another precious tool which may be just as powerful, if not more: they came with their own unique language.
So unique that Turkish language is not actually a part of the Indo-European language family – but more on that later…
Turkish, being an Altaic language, has grammar and vocabulary that is very different from Indo-European languages. Learning Dutch for a Brit or learning Italian for a Romanian is much easier than them learning Turkish. On the other hand, there are similar languages to Turkish such as Mongolian or Kazakh.
According to Ethnologue, a database of world languages, as of 2021, there are approximately 83 million native Turkish speakers worldwide. Turkish is the official language of Turkey and is also spoken in Cyprus and some Balkan countries. It is also spoken by Turkish communities in many other countries around the world, including Germany, France, the United States, Iraq, Syria, Northern Cyprus, Greece, the Caucasus, and other parts of Europe and Central Asia, and others.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The origins of the Turkic language family is still a subject of fierce debate among linguists, but the general thinking is that Turkish is an ancient language going back 5500 to 8500 years. The modern Turkish language, as it is spoken today, is based on the language reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in the early 20th century. Atatürk’s language reforms aimed to modernize and simplify the Turkish language by replacing the Arabic and Persian loanwords with new words based on Turkish roots. This led to the creation of a new, standardized version of the Turkish language that is now widely used in Turkey and other parts of the world.
In summary, while the Turkish language has a long and complex history, the modern, standardized version of the language is relatively young, dating back to the early 20th century.
The oldest written records are found upon stone monuments in Central Asia, in the Orhon, Yenisey and Talas regions within the boundaries of present-day Mongolia. These were erected to Bilge Kaghan (735), Kültigin (732), and the vizier Tonyukuk (724-726). These monuments document the social and political life of the Gokturk Dynasty.
Expectedly, the last thousand year history of the language has ‘Anatolia’ written all over it. Given its geographical location, it makes sense that Turkish has been influenced by Farsi and Arabic, two languages spoken in countries that border Turkey. In addition, Turkish has borrowed substantially from French, and in modern times some English words also managed to make their way into the language. And in return, some Turkish words made it into English, such as yogurt (yoğurt), caviar (havyar), pastrami (pastırma), bergamot (bey armudu), horde (ordu), etc.
The history of the language is divided into three main groups, old Turkish (from the 7th to the 13th centuries), mid-Turkish (from the 13th to the 20th) and new Turkish from the 20th century onwards. During the Ottoman Empire period Arabic and Persian words invaded the Turkish language and it consequently became mixed with three different languages. During the Ottoman period which spanned six centuries, the natural development of Turkish was severely hampered. Turkish formed the basis for Ottoman Turkish, the written language of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Turkish was basically Turkish in structure, but with a heavy overlay of Arabic and Persian vocabulary and an occasional grammatical influence. Ottoman Turkish co-existed with spoken Turkish, with the latter being considered a “gutter language” and not worthy of study. Ottoman Turkish, and the spoken language were both represented with an Arabic script.
Then there was the “new language” movement started by Kemal Atatürk. In 1928, five years after the proclamation of the Republic, the Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin one, which in turn sped up the movement to rid the language of foreign words. And today, Turkish is a language that’s beautiful to the ear, a delight to the tongue, rich in context and quite conducive to great poetry.
Turkish vocabulary contains about 100.000 words – about 70-75% of which has Turkish origins, while the remaining 25-30% are loanwords. The loanwords in Turkish come from a variety of sources, including Arabic, Persian, French, and English, among others. Many skeptics understandably ‘guesstimate’ that the percentage of loanwords might just be higher, considering that the prevalent way to greet someone in Turkish is with an Arabic word (Merhaba) and there doesn’t seem to be a great Turkish alternative, which is kinda sad.
UNIQUE PROPERTIES OF THE LANGUAGE
Turkish is an agglutinative language, which means that words are formed by adding affixes to a base or root word. For example, the word “evlerinizden” consists of the base “ev” (house) and the affixes “-ler” (plural), “-iniz” (second person possessive), and “-den” (ablative), meaning “from your houses”.
Moreover, unlike many other languages, Turkish does not have grammatical gender. This means that there are no gendered pronouns, and nouns do not have a gender assigned to them.
Much like many languages around the world, Turkish has borrowed great many words from a variety of languages throughout its history, including Arabic, Persian, French, and English. This has led to a rich and diverse vocabulary.
Another intriguing aspect is that Turkish has a system of vowel harmony, here’s how fluentinturkish.com explains it:
Vowel harmony is a common feature of agglutinative languages with some exceptions like the Guarani Language. Vowel harmony develops in languages mainly because of the natural tendency towards a muscular economy and creating harmonious sounds with the less effort.
Yes, Turks do not want to spend energy when talking! Moving your tongue front and back to say one word, come on!
THE INFLUENCE OF TURKISH LANGUAGE TODAY
Turkish is natively spoken by the Turkish people in Turkey and by the Turkish diaspora in some 30 other countries. Turkish language is mutually intelligible to varying degrees with Azerbaijani and other Turkic languages. In particular, Turkish-speaking minorities exist in countries that formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire, such as Iraq, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece (primarily in Western Thrace), the Republic of Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia. More than two million Turkish speakers live in Germany; and there are significant Turkish-speaking communities in the United States, France, The Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
What’s interesting today is that Turkish is considered one of the top 10 languages that one should learn due its relevance in a social and economic sense. Although the Turkish language remained under the radar for most of the 20th century, the new century heralds a much brighter future both for the speakers and learners of the language.
But wait, so what’s the mystery?
What is so interesting about Turkish is that it is not a part of Indo-European language family. All the other languages in the region surrounding Turkey happen to be a part of this family tree (see below). Geographically sitting smack in the middle of this nebula, Turkish confusingly do not belong to this great family. Linguists have contradicting hypothesis trying to explain the origins and peculiarities but so far we don’t have a great explanation as to exactly where Turkish belongs and where it doesn’t.
Unlike English, German, Italian, Hindi, Farsi, Kurdish, Russian or Armenian languages, Turkish isn’t a member of the club. There are about 445 living Indo-European languages, yet just like an unwanted red-headed step child of the family, Turkish simply doesn’t belong.
- The Turkish language is a fascinating topic with a rich history and unique characteristics that set it apart from other languages.
- Turkish is a member of the Turkic language family, which includes other languages such as Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Kazakh. These languages are spoken primarily in Central Asia and parts of Europe and the Middle East.
- The Turkish language is written using the Latin alphabet, which was adopted in the 1920s as part of a modernization effort by the Turkish government. Turkish has a rich vocabulary with many loanwords from other languages such as Arabic, Persian, and French.
- The Turkish language has a unique grammar structure that places verbs at the end of sentences, and uses suffixes to indicate tense, mood, and person.
- Turkish has a vowel harmony system, which means that the vowels in words must match each other in terms of frontness or backness.
- Turkish has a rich literary tradition dating back to the Ottoman Empire, with famous writers such as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Orhan Pamuk, and Elif Şafak.
- Turkish has a large number of dialects spoken throughout the country, including Anatolian Turkish, Istanbul Turkish, and Black Sea Turkish.
- The Turkish language does not belong to the Indo-European language family, which includes languages such as English, Spanish, French, and Hindi. Instead, Turkish belongs to the Turkic language family, which is a separate and distinct language group.
FAMILY IS EVERYTHING
The Turkic language family is one of the largest language families in the world, with over 30 languages spoken across Central Asia and parts of Europe and the Middle East. The languages in this family are characterized by their agglutinative grammar, which means that words are formed by adding suffixes to root words.
While there are some similarities between Turkish and Indo-European languages, such as loanwords and similar grammatical structures, the two language families are not related.
The origins of the Turkic language family are still a subject of debate among linguists, but it is generally believed that the Turkic languages originated in Central Asia and spread to other parts of the world through migration and conquest. Despite its non-Indo-European roots, the Turkish language has had a significant impact on the development of other languages in the region.
Many languages in Central Asia and the Caucasus have borrowed words and grammatical structures from Turkish over the centuries, and the Ottoman Empire‘s use of Turkish as a language of administration and diplomacy spread the language’s influence even further.
Overall, the Turkish language is a complex and fascinating subject that continues to intrigue linguists and language learners alike.
And if you’re a language enthusiast, for a more technical look at the structure of the language, you may check out the video below.
And for useful Turkish words and phrases, you can check out another post from our blog here.