An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Altaic?, Turkic, Southwestern (Oghuz) branch, Eastern group. Turkmen is a member of the Turkic family. The external classification of Turkic is disputed. Many consider it one of the three divisions of the Altaic phylum but for others its relationship with Tungusic and Mongolic is not proven. Turkmen belongs to the eastern group of the Oghuz branch along with Khorasani Turkic.

Overview. Turkmen are descendants of Oghuz tribes that remained in Central Asia after the collapse of the Oghuz empire in 744 CE, and which occupied Turkmenistan between the 16th and 18th centuries. Their language is a typical Turkic one, quite similar to Turkish and Azerbaijanian, with agglutinative morphology based on suffixes, verb-final syntax and vowel harmony. It has been influenced by Persian and Russian.

Distribution. Turkmen is spoken mainly in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan where it is the native language of about 75 % of the population. It is also spoken in the neighboring countries, particularly in Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Around half a million people in the Near East (Iraq, Syria, Turkey) identify themselves as "Turkmen" but their language and culture are different. The Salars of China also claim to be "Turkmen" but their language is also different.

Speakers. There is some confusion about the number of Turkmen speakers arising from the mistaken assumption that the "Turkmen" of the Near East speak Turkmen, and from counting those that speak Khorasani Turkic in Iran. About 5 million people speak Turkmen in the following countries:














Status. Turkmen is the official language of the Republic of Turkmenistan. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, efforts have been made to reduce the importance of Russian in the public sphere.

Varieties. There are two main dialect groups:

  1. a)One group includes those spoken by the tribes of Yomud (western and northern Turkmenistan), Teke (south Turkmenistan), Gökleng (Garrigala district), Sarïq (Murgap river region in southeastern Turkmenistan), Salïr (Saragt district in southeastern Turkmenistan) and Ersari (Lebap province in eastern Turkmenistan).

  1. b)The other group  includes the dialects  spoken in the frontier regions between Turkmenistan and Iran in the south and between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the north which are more distant from Standard Turkmen.


Vowels (16): The symmetry of the Turkic vowel system is broken by the existence of an additional front vowel ä [æ:]. In contrast to most Turkic languages, Turkmen has preserved the Proto-Turkic long vowels though the orthography does not recognize vowel length. All vowels have short and long varieties except e, which is always short, and ä, which is always long.


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

Vowel harmony. 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 (23): A particular feature of the Turkmen consonantal system is the presence of the dental fricatives [θ] and [ð] which correspond to the alveolar s and z of other Turkic languages.


When the velar voiceless stop is accompanied by back vowels (see below) it is realized as [q], when it is accompanied by front vowels it is realized as [k]. When the velar voiced stop is accompanied by back vowels it is realized as [ʁ], when it is accompanied by front vowels it is realized as [g].  

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

Script and Orthography

Until 1929 the Arabic script was used, then it was replaced by the Latin alphabet and in 1940 it was changed once more, this time by a Cyrillic script. Since the independence of Turkmenistan the Latin alphabet was adopted again. It contains 30 letters (equivalences in the International Phonetic Alphabet are shown between brackets):


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/ä after a front vowel, or as a after a back vowel.

  1. I indicates a high vowel that is realized as i after a front unrounded vowel, as ü [y] after a front rounded vowel, as y [ɯ] after a back unrounded vowel, or as u after a back rounded vowel. In word-final position high suffix vowels are always unrounded.

Morphology. Turkmen 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.

  1. Nominal. Nouns are marked for number, possession and case (in that order).

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender.

  1. number: singular and plural. The singular of nouns is unmarked and the plural is marked with the suffix -LAr.

  1. possession: there are six possessive markers, one for each person and number, that are attached to the noun:

  1. case: nominative (unmarked), accusative, genitive, dative, locative, ablative.


  1. comparatives and superlatives: superlatives are formed by adding some particles (like iň) before the adjective; comparatives are expressed by adding the suffix -rAk to the adjective. Intensive adjectives are formed by partial or total reduplication.

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

  1. Personal pronouns exist  for the first and second persons, singular and plural. For the 3rd person demonstratives are used. They are inflected like nouns in all cases.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish two deictic degrees: bu and şu correspond to 'this', şol and ol to 'that'.

  1. Reflexive pronouns are:


  1. The interrogative pronouns kim ('who?'), näme ('what?'), haýsy ('which?'), nire ('where?'), näçe ('how much?') are declined in all six cases.

  1. Among the indefinite and negative pronouns we found bütin ('all'), ençe ('some'), her kim ('everybody'), hiç kim ('nobody'), hiç näme ('nothing'), etc.

  1. Verbal. A finite verb form has a verbal stem + tense-aspect or mood marker suffixes + personal marker (possessives or pronominals). The possessive-based personal markers are used in the simple past and the conditional, those of pronominal origin elsewhere.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p. The 3rd person is usually unmarked (has no personal marker) and its plural is distinguished from the singular by adding the plural marker (-lAr).

  1. tense-aspect: present, aorist, simple past, future, imperfect, pluperfect.

  2. The present tense marker is -ýAr, the aorist marker is -Ar, and for the simple past -dI is used. The aorist expresses an habitual action or disposition to act and may have an indefinite future sense. For a definite upcoming event the future is required. The future has one single form ending in -jAK for all persons. The conditional is marked with -sA and uses possessive personal markers.

  3. The imperfect and pluperfect are formed with the aid of the copula particle dI; the imperfect uses -yArdI and the pluperfect -(I)pdI.


  1. black: verbal root, red: tense/aspect marker, blue: personal endings.

  2. Negative forms are obtained by adding the suffix -MA immediately after the stem e.g.  almayaryn (1s).

  1. mood: optative-imperative, conditional, necessitative.

  2. The optative and imperative share the same paradigm. The imperative corresponds to the 2nd person and is employed for commands and requests.

  1. The other persons correspond to the optative which has subjunctive force (e.g. 'let him wait'). The optative-imperative has its own set of personal markers as shown in the conjugation of  the verb gel- ('come').

  1. The necessitative expresses need or obligation ('must'). It is expressed with the suffix -mAlI and does not take personal markers.

  1. voice: active, reflexive, passive.

  2. The reflexive voice is marked with -(I)n, for example: yuw ('wash'), yuwun ('wash oneself'). The passive voice is marked with -Il, for example: böl ('divide'), bölün ('be divided').

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, participles, verbal adverbs (converbs).

  2. To the infinitive, formed with the suffix -mAK, can be attached plural, possessive and case markers, and it can combine with postpositions. In the dative case it can signal purpose; combined with some possessive suffixes it can form causal clauses.

  1. Participles are formed with the following suffixes:

  2. -An (past participle)

  3. -yAn (imperfective or intraterminal past participle)

  4. -Ar (aorist participle)

  5. -jAK (future participle).

  1. When acting as attributes of nouns they are used to form relative clauses; in the locative case they can form temporal clauses expressing simultaneity.

  1. Converbs can connect clauses in a similar way as 'and' . Besides, they can express duration or simultaneity.


Like all Turkic languages, Turkmen has a basic Subject-Object-Verb word order which, nevertheless, can be changed to highlight a certain topic. It is head final, modifiers preceding their head. 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 imported from Persian.


Arabic and Persian word-loans are numerous and are related, mostly, to Islamic culture. More recent loans come mainly from Russian.

Basic Vocabulary

one: bir

two: iki

three: üç

four: dört

five: bäş

six: alty

seven: ýedi

eight: sekiz

nine:  dokuz

ten: on

hundred: ýüz

father: kaka

mother: eje

brother: gardaş, dogan

elder brother: aga

younger brother: ini

sister: uýa

son: ogul

daughter: gyz

head: baş

face: yüz

eye: göz

hand: el

foot: aýak

heart: ýürek

tongue: dil

Key Literary Works

Initially, the Turkmen people used Chagatai as their literary language and only in the 18th century the Turkmen language began to emerge as a literary vehicle. In contrast to other Turkic literatures, Turkmen literature had comparatively little Persian influence, borrowing a lot from Turkmen oral tradition, instead.

18th c.    Poems. Makhtumquli  or Magtymguly Pyragy (1733-83)

  1. Makhtumquli composed poems in different genres: goshgï (folk songs), destans (epics) and ghazals (a Persian verse form). Many of his poems were lost but others were preserved by oral transmision and sung across all of Central Asia.

18th c.    Destans. Gurbanali Magrupi

  1. Magrupi was a writer of destans, the Turkmen epic form sung by itinerant bards (bagshys) accompanied with the dutar (a two-stringed lute-like instrument). In some of them, like in Dövletler (which describes a revolt carried out in 1770 against the khan of Khiva), Magrupi's heroes are historical or contemporary political figures.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Turkmen Reference Grammar. L. Clark. Otto Harrassowitz (1998).

  2. -Turkmen Manual. Descriptive grammar of contemporary literary Turkmen. Texts. Glossary. O. Hanser. Verlag des Verbandes der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Österreichs (1977).

  3. -An Introduction to the Turkmen Language. G. K. Dulling. Central Asian Research Centre & St Antony's College (1960).

  4. -Turkmen Grammar: A short descriptive grammar of the Turkmen language. D. Gray (2004).

  5. -'Turkmen'. C. Schönig. In The Turkic Languages, 261-272. L. Johanson & É. Á. Csató (eds). Routledge (1998).

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