An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Altaic?, Turkic, Southwestern (Oghuz) branch, Western group. Turkish is one of the thirty languages that constitute the Turkic family. The external classification of Turkic is disputed. Many consider it one of the three divisions of the Altaic phylum (the other two are Tungusic and Mongolic). However, the parallelisms between Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic are too few, according to others, to support the unity of Altaic. Turkish belongs to the western group of the Oghuz branch along with Azerbaijanian and Gagauz.

Overview. Turkish is the most widely spoken member of the Turkic family. Modern Turkish is the descendant of Ottoman Turkish and of its predecessor, the so-called Anatolian Turkish, which was introduced into Anatolia by the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century CE. Ottoman Turkish was written in the Arabic script and had gradually absorbed a great many Arabic and Persian words and even grammatical forms. After the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the language was reformed purifying its vocabulary of foreign elements and replacing the Arabic script with a Latin-derived one.

Distribution. It is spoken in Turkey, Northern Cyprus, and the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Greece. Emigrant communities are found in Western Europe, mainly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. Beyond Europe, in the United States and Australia.

Speakers. Turkish native speakers total 72 million people which include about 90 % of the population of Turkey. Some 4 million live in neighboring countries or have migrated to western Europe and other continents.










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Status. Turkish is the official language of Turkey where it is spoken by more than 90 % of the population. It is also, along with Greek, an official language in Cyprus.


Varieties. Modern Standard Turkish is based on the dialect of Istanbul. There are western dialects spoken in the Balkans (Danubian, Karamanli, Rumelian, Razgrad) and eastern dialects prevalent in different regions of Anatolia (Trabzon, Eskisehir, Rize, Edirne, Gaziantep, Urfa, Elaziǧ, Erzincan).


Anatolian Turkish. Begins with the invasion of Anatolia by the Turks in the late 11th century and lasts until the establishment of the Ottoman period two centuries later.

Ottoman. The language of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), influenced by Arabic and Persian.

Modern Turkish. Dating from the fall of the Ottoman Empire and from the language reforms implemented by Atatürk in the 1920s which included switching from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet and diminishing the amount of Arabo-Persian loanwords.

Oldest Documents. Though Turkish-speakers occupied Anatolia in the 11th century, the earliest texts date from the 13th century. They are literary works:                                                            

  1. Çarhname,  a religious  poem by Ahmed Fakih (died in the first half of the 13th c.).

  1. Gharibname, a long didactic and mystical poem composed by Aşik Paşa(1272-1333).

  1. Divan of Yunus Emre (c. 1238-1320), a collection of religious poems.


Vowels (8). Turkish vowel system is completely symmetrical regarding height (4 high and 4 low vowels), backness (4 front and 4 back), and roundness (4 unrounded and 4 rounded):


  1. The symbols are those current in writing; when they differ from those of the International Phonetic Alphabet the latter are indicated between brackets.

There are also long vowels but they are not phonemic. Turkish has no diphthongs.

Vowel harmony. It is the most remarkable feature of Turkish phonology. It governs the distribution of vowels within a word opposing front versus back vowels, and rounded versus unrounded ones.

    In the first syllable of a word all vowels can occur. If it is a front vowel all the subsequent vowels must be also of the front type. If it is a back vowel all the other vowels must be also of the back type. Thus, all the vowels of a word belong to the same class (back or front) and the vowels of suffixes vary according to the class of vowels in the primary stem.

    If the first vowel of a word is rounded then the following high vowels should be also rounded. But if the following vowel is low there is no harmony because of the phonological constraint that low non-initial vowels must be always unrounded.

Consonants (20). Consonant clusters are not allowed at the beginning of a word. Obstruent consonants (stops, affricates and fricatives), except [h] have contrasting voiceless and voiced varieties but stops and affricates in final position are devoiced e.g. absolute case kitap (‘book’), accusative kitabı. [k], [g] and [l] have also a palatalized form whose distribution is determined by the frontness or backness of the accompanying vowels: the palatalized forms go with front vowels while the non-palatalized forms go with back vowels.  [ʒ] occurs only in foreign words.


Stress. Turkish has, like other Turkic languages, a pitch accent (increase of the tone height) that usually falls on the last syllable of a word. It has also a stress accent (greater loudness) which tends to fall on the first syllable.

Script and Orthography. After the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the Arabic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet (1928). The latter includes 29 characters (8 vowels and 21 consonants). Below each letter, its equivalent in the International Phonetic Alphabet is shown.


  1. Note: ğ is not pronounced in most cases but lengthens a preceding vowel or, sometimes, adds a glide sound [j] to  it.

Suffixes variants. Due to sound harmony all vowels and some consonants of suffixes change according to the preceding sounds. This is indicated with capital letters as follows:

  1. A indicates a low vowel that is realized as e after a front vowel, or  as a [a] after a back vowel.

  1. I indicates a high vowel that is realized as i [i] after a front unrounded vowel, as  ü [y] after a front rounded vowel, as ı [ɯ] after a back unrounded vowel, or as u after a back rounded vowel.

  1. D may be realized as d or t. G may be realized as g, k or ğ.


Turkish is an agglutinative language adding different suffixes to a primary stem to mark a number of grammatical functions. Each morpheme expresses only one of them and is clearly identifiable. The only process that depends on prefixation is the formation of intensive adjectives and adverbs. The order of suffixes is rigidly established, derivational suffixes preceding inflectional ones. Nominal and verbal suffixes  belong to different classes and they are not interchangeable.

  1. Nominal. Nouns and adjectives are not distinguished morphologically. Adjectives may behave as nouns and nouns as adjectives. Besides, adjectives can be used adverbially without modifications or, sometimes, by doubling of the word. Intensive adjectives are made by reduplication of the first syllable. Nouns are marked for number, possession and case (in that order).

  1. gender: Turkish, like all Turkic languages, has no grammatical gender.

  1. number: singular, plural. The singular is unmarked and the plural is marked with the suffix –lar/ler. Unmarked forms can have also a generic meaning, so to get rid of ambiguity the indefinite article bir (identical to the numeral one) can be used to indicate singularity. Nouns following a numeral are usually left in the singular.

  1. possession: may be indicated by possessive markers attached to the noun. They are: 1s -(I)m, 2s -(I)n, 3s -(s)I, 1p -(I)mIz, 2p -(I)nIz, 3p pluralizing suffix plus -I. To indicate the number of the noun possessed the plural suffix is intercalated between the stem and the possessive marker. For example, the nominative possessive forms of taş ('stone') and köy ('village') are:


  1. case: absolute, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, ablative.

  2. The absolute case is unmarked; it is used for the subject as well as for an indefinite direct object. The accusative is the case of the definite direct object. The equative ('like', 'in the manner of') is also considered a case by some authors.

  3. Cases are marked by suffixes which are subject to vowel harmony. Thus, suffix markers of the accusative and genitive have 4 possible vowels (front i, ü, back ı, u) while those of dative, locative and ablative have two (front e, back a). In the locative and ablative the consonant can be d or t. Plurals are made by adding the suffixes -lar or -ler.


  1. A few examples:

  2. Ali       kitap     oku-du

  3. Ali  book-abs. read-past

  4. 'Ali read books.'

  1. Ali     kitab-ı     oku-du

  2. Ali book-acc. read-past

  3. 'Ali read the book.'

  1. Ahmed-in     kitab-ı

  2. Ahmed-gen. book-3rd

  3. 'Ahmet’s book.'

  1. comparatives and superlatives: superlatives are formed by adding a particle meaning ‘most' (en) before a noun or adjective; comparatives  are made by adding a particle meaning ‘more' (daha) and/or by putting the standard of comparison in the ablative case.

  1. pronouns: personal, reflexive, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite.

  2. There are personal pronouns for the first, second and third person, singular and plural. They are inflected in all cases like nouns.


  1. Reflexive pronouns combine the adjective kendi ('own') with the possessive suffixes.


  1. Possessive pronouns are formed with the genitive of personal pronouns plus the suffix -ki (which is almost always invariable):


  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish three deictic degrees: bu ('this'), şu ('that'), o ('that yonder'). When used as adjectives they are invariable but as pronouns they are declined.

  1. Interrogative pronouns and adverbs are: kim ('who?'), ne ('what?'), hangi ('which?'), neden ('why?'), niçin ('why?'), kaç ('how many?').

  2. The suffix -mI, attached to the questioned constituent, is used in yes-no questions:


  4. çocuğ-a  kitab-ı     ver-di-n-mi

  5. child-dat. book-acc. give-past-2 sg.-?

  6. 'Did you give the book to the child?'

  1. articles: Turkish has an indefinite article (bir, identical to the number one) but no definite articles. Demonstratives can, sometimes, act as such.

  1. compounds: two nouns may be joined to form a nominal compound in order to generate a word with a new meaning. The last member of the compound carries a 3rd person possessive suffix.

  1. Verbal. The typical verb form consists of stem + aspect/tense marker(s) + personal ending. Many suffixes can also be included to express voice, modality, negation, interrogation, etc.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense-aspect: tense and aspect are intimately linked. The basic tenses are present, past and future. The present has simple and progressive (ongoing action) forms. The past tense has also several varieties, including simple, progressive, aorist and i. The aorist is a kind of habitual past. If there is a negative marker it precedes the tense/aspect marker. The tense-aspect suffixes are:

  1. simple present: -(vowel)r

  2. present progressive: -iyor

  3. simple past: -DI

  4. progressive past: -Iyordu, -mAktAydI

  5. aorist past: -(Vowel)rdI

  6. pluperfect past: perfective aspect marker -mIş + past marker: -ti

  7. future: -(y)AcAK

  1. The present personal endings, which are used also by most tenses, are:


1s. -Im 2s. -sIn

3s. zero


1p: -Iz

2p: -sInIz

3p: -lAr

  1. The conjugation of gelmak ('to come') is:


  1. black: stem; red: tense/aspect marker; blue: personal endings.

  1. mood: indicative, subjunctive (or optative), necessitative, inferential (or indirective), conditional, imperative.

  2. The (mutually exclusive) mood markers are: necessitative -mAlI, subjunctive -(y)A, inferential -mIş, conditional -sA. The imperative has no marker but it has its own personal endings.


  1. black: stem; red: mood marker; blue: personal endings.

  1. voice: active, reflexive, reciprocal, causative, passive.

  2. Voice is marked by suffixes placed after the stem and before the tense/aspect/mood markers. The order in which these suffixes are placed after the stem is: reflexive or reciprocal-causative-passive. The reflexive and the reciprocal cannot co-occur; the causative may occasionally coexist with either the reflexive or the reciprocal; the passive may combine with all three (reflexive, reciprocal, and causative).

  1. The reflexive voice indicates that the performer of the action is also its recipient or beneficiary. To form the reflexive, the suffix -(I)n or the reflexive pronoun kendi are used.

  1. yıka ('wash') ⟶ yıkan ('wash oneself')

  2. kendini yıka ('wash oneself')

  3. 3sPoss-acc wash

  1. The reciprocal indicates that the action is done by more than one subject, one to another. It is formed by adding to the stem -iş (after a consonant) or -ş (after a vowel).

  1. anla ('understand') ⟶ anlaş ('understand one another')

  1. sev ('love') ⟶ sev ('love one another')

  1. The causative is formed with the suffixes: -DIr, -Ir, -t. They give the verb the meaning 'to cause to do'.

  2. -DIr is the commonest causative suffix, -Ir is used with about twenty monosyllables, -t occurs after polysyllabic stems ending in a vowel, r or l.

  1. inan ('believe') ⟶ inandır ('make believe, persuade')

  2. doğ ('be born) ⟶ doğur ('give birth')

  3. öl ('die') ⟶ öldür ('kill')

  4. anla ('understand') ⟶ anlat ('make understand, explain')

  1. The passive voice is formed by adding -Il after consonants (except after l when it is identical to the reflexive), or -n after vowels. Turkish passive voice is usually impersonal (e.g. 'fruits are bought'). The passive voice is not as frequent as in English.

  1. gör ('see') ⟶ görül ('be seen')

  2. al ('take') ⟶ alın ('be taken')

  3. oku ('read') ⟶ okun ('be read')

  1. non-finite forms: verbal nouns, present participle, future participle, aorist participle, personal participles, verbal adverbs (gerunds or converbs).

  2. Verbal nouns, formed by adding the suffix -mAk, function as an infinitive. They are declined in all cases except the genitive and don't take personal suffixes. Other verbal nouns are formed with the suffixes -mAklIk, -mA and others. In contrast with the infinitive they are inflected in all cases and take personal suffixes.

  3. Verbal adverbs, also called gerunds or converbs, represent ongoing events and are formed with a great variety of suffixes.


Turkish has a basic Subject-Object-Verb word order like all Turkic languages which, nevertheless, can be altered by putting the topic in initial position. In imperative clauses the verb occurs in initial position. Questions may also begin with a verb.

It is head final, modifiers preceding their head. In the nominal phrase the order is: demonstrative-quantifier-adjective-head noun. Attributes do not agree in number or case with their heads.

Postpositions, corresponding to English prepositions, but placed after the words they interact with, are used. Conjunctions are employed sparingly and most of the existing ones have been borrowed from non-Turkic languages. Subject personal pronouns are often dropped. In genitive constructions the possessor, which is the first element, carries a genitive suffix while the possessed carries a possessive suffix. Relative clauses use participles which play a role similar to that of subordinative conjunctions and relative pronouns in English.


During the Ottoman Empire, Turkish adopted many words of Arabic and Persian origin some of which were dropped due to the Atatürk reforms. Other loans come from Greek, Italian, French and English.

Basic Vocabulary

one: bir

two: iki

three: üç

four: dört

five: beş

six: altı

seven: yedi

eight: sekiz

nine: dokuz

ten: on

hundred: yüz

father: baba

mother: anne

brother: erkek kardeş

sister: kız kardeş

son: oğlum

daughter: kız

head: baş

face: yüz

eye: göz

hand: el

foot: ayak

heart: kalp

tongue: dil

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Turkish'. É. Á. Csató & L. Johanson. In The Turkic Languages, 203-235. L. Johanson and É. Á. Csató (eds). Routledge (1998).

  2. -'Turkish and the Turkic languages'. J. Kornfilt. In The World's Major Languages. B. Comrie (ed), 519-544. Routledge (2009).

  3. -Turkish Grammar. G. L. Lewis. Oxford University Press (2000).

  4. -Turkish: A Comprehensive Grammar. A. Göksel & C. Kerslake. Routledge (2005).

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