Turkish Language

views updated May 23 2018


Türkçe; official language of the Republic of Turkey.

Turkish is one of the Turkic languages of the Altaic language family, one of the world's major language families. Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus constitute the Altaic language family, which originated around the Altai mountain ranges in central Asia, straddling Mongolia, China, and Russia. Altaic languages usually are grouped with the Uralic languagesfor example, Samoyed, Finnish, and Hungarian. Debates continue about whether the typological and lexical similarities between the two language families signal a common ancestor language or prolonged contact.

The Turkic Languages

The Turkic language group includes most of the languages and dialects spoken along a wide Eurasian belt that extends from eastern Siberia to eastern Europe and the Balkans. The major representative Turkic languages are (starting in the east) Yakut, Altai, Khakas, Uygur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Bashkir, Tatar, Chuvash, Azeri, and Turkish. With the exception of Turkish, all of these languages are spoken in the republics and territories of the former Soviet Union or in northwestern China.

Turkish, Azeri (also referred to as Azerbaijani Turkish), and Turkmen are the major members of the southwestern, or Oghuz, branch of the Turkic languages. In demographic terms, this branch is the most important Turkic group. The Azeri language is spoken in the Republic of Azerbaijan and in northwestern Iran. Turkmen is spoken in the Republic of Turkmenistan and in adjoining territories in northern Iran and Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq. Lesser-known members of the southwestern branch are Gagauz, spoken in the Balkan states of Bulgaria and Moldavia, and Qashqaʾi, spoken in parts of southwestern Iran. The languages of this branch are closely related and have a relatively high degree of mutual intelligibility. What interferes with the complete comprehension of written material is mainly vocabulary, which was developed or acquired by each language while functioning in different historical and cultural spheres, and the different alphabets they use (Arabic and Latin). In oral communication, differences in pronunciation slow down comprehension.

Turkish was introduced to the Middle East with the westward migration of various Turkish tribes, who had converted to Islam by the ninth century, from the western regions of central Asia. By the end of the eleventh century, these Muslim Turks had conquered Asia Minor, and the Turkish language began to be established in Anatolia. As the official administrative language of the Ottoman Turks, Turkish spread further with the continuing Ottoman conquests, into the Balkans and central Europe to the north and into the Arab lands and North Africa to the south. Turkish became the lingua franca in many of these regions, and the impact of Turkish on the indigenous languages after centuries of contact is clearly discernible today.

Old Anatolian, Ottoman, and Modern Turkish

The earliest written Anatolian Turkish materials are in Arabic script and date from the thirteenth century. Three basic periods are recognized for the historical development of the Turkish language, based on written data: (1) Old Anatolian Turkish for the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries; (2) Ottoman Turkish for the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries; (3) Modern Turkish since 1928. The linguistic base remained remarkably stable, particularly for the spoken language, so that some poetry, including early hymns of Sufism and Sufi orders from the fourteenth century still can be understood and appreciated by a general audience. However, in the process of adapting to Islam and the Arab-Persian culture, Turkish gradually acquired many words and some syntactic elements from Arabic and Persian. As the Ottoman Turks became the standard-bearers for the Islamic world, borrowings from both Arabic and Persian accelerated to such an extent that by the nineteenth century an official or literary Ottoman Turkish text could be understood only by an educated elite conversant in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.

By the start of the twentieth centuryand hastened by the postWorld War I disintegration of the Ottoman Empirenationalistic notions about a distinct Turkish identity inspired moves to rid the language of excessive foreign elements. The Alphabet Reform of 1928 abandoned the Arabic script and mandated a phonetic Turkish script based on the Latin alphabet; this was a crucial factor in the emergence of Modern Turkish. The new writing system was tailored exclusively to the vowel-rich Turkish sound system, eventually setting up a well-defined modern national standard for Turkish based on the dialect of Istanbul, the old capital of the Ottoman Empire and the educational, cultural, and intellectual center of the country.

The Turkish language shares a core vocabulary with the other Turkic languages and exhibits characteristic common features: vowel harmony, agglutination, and, on the syntactic level, left-branching. Turkish has eight vowels, four pairs with corresponding front/back, high/low, and rounded/unrounded sounds, which form the basis for vowel harmony. According to vowel harmony rules, vowels of suffixes must have the same properties as the vowel in the last syllable: either front/back or rounded/unrounded. Twenty-one letters represent the consonants. Agglutination in Turkish takes the form of suffixes attached to the end of a word, whether noun or verb. Suffixes add to the word's meaning and/or mark its grammatical function. Turkish does not have a definite article, nor does it have gender pronouns (one word signifies he, she, or it ). Sentence construction follows the subject-object-verb pattern. As a left-branching language, all modifiers precede the element modified.

A lexical inventory of Modern Turkish clearly shows that the Turkish language has enriched itself by borrowing freely from other languages and continues to do so. In 1931 the Turkish Linguistic Society undertook reforms that effectively resulted in eliminating Arabic and Persian words not fully assimilated into the Turkish language. However, these words were replaced with neologisms or borrowings from European languages.

see also anatolia; azeri language and literature;istanbul; literature: turkish;ottoman empire; sufism and the sufi orders; tribes and tribalism: qashqaʾi; turkish linguistic society; turkish script.


Boeschoten, Hendrik, and Verhoeven, Ludo, eds. Turkish Linguistics Today. New York; Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991.

Kowalski, T. "Ottoman Turkish Dialects." In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 4. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Lewis, G. L. Turkish Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

Slobin, Dan Isaac, and Zimmer, Karl, eds. Studies in Turkish Linguistics. Philadelphia; Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1986.

erika gilson
updated by eric hooglund


views updated May 29 2018

Turk·ish / ˈtərkish/ • adj. of or relating to Turkey or to the Turks or their language. ∎ hist. relating to or associated with the Ottoman Empire.• n. the Turkic language that is the official language of Turkey.