The Turkish Language
You may recall from my first post that my primary goal for traveling to Turkey was to learn the Turkish language. At PSU, I was able to study Turkish for two years before moving here, so I had a basic knowledge of the language when I arrived. Being here has reminded me that there’s a huge difference between studying a language’s words and grammar and being able to use it “on the street,” but that both are necessary to achieve fluency. Applying my book knowledge of Turkish to daily situations like haggling for a pair of boots or trying to find a concert venue has required lots of creativity and willingness to look like a goofy foreigner.
However, this task has been at least as rewarding as it has been demanding. Istanbul hosts more tourists than most cities in the world, and only a tiny fraction of them know any Turkish. Because of this, when they see an obvious foreigner like me with intermediate Turkish abilities, they almost always react with exuberance. Knowing some Turkish has granted me access to a slightly different status than the average tourist, which, believe me, has saved me lots of money in addition to making my daily interactions more complex and meaningful.
In this post, I want to share a little bit about the Turkish language, as well as some bigger linguistic ideas that will give you an idea of what’s going on with the world’s languages.
Some important differences between English and Turkish
Studying Turkish as opposed to, say, Spanish, has a unique set of challenges for English speakers. For example, both Spanish and English have a ton of words that came from Latin, so if I don’t know how to say “allegation,” I know there’s a good chance I can pronounce the same word with Spanish phonetics – alegación – and it will work. On the other hand, Turkish is entirely unrelated to English, so I have to learn almost every word by memorization. There’s no way to guess that the same word translates in to Turkish as iddia – you just have to know.
Another big difference between Turkish and English is the order of words within sentences, known in linguistics as syntax.
Syntactically, English sentences use the order subject-verb-object (SVO):
The cat ate the food.
(S) (V) (O)
In Turkish, the order is subject-object-verb (SOV):
Kedi yemek yedi.
The cat food ate
(S) (O) (V)
This is simple enough in preschool-style sentences about our pets enjoying a nondescript meal, but unfortunately, life is more complicated than that, and word order can get challenging. Take the sign in the picture above, for instance.
Its most literal translation to English would be:
Attention! Above-from rock pieces-of fall-can and large rock masses-of move-can. Please rock bottom-of-to approach-don’t
It’s not so bad though! Learning a language takes a lot of work, but the process is so intellectually and socially rewarding that you hardly notice.
Turkish, Kurdish, and English: How are they related?
After my post about southeast Turkey, many of you asked if Kurdish and Turkish were similar at all. The short answer is no. But there’s a long answer, and it requires explaining the concept of language families:
All of the world’s languages came from one common language, which we know very little about. When groups of people moved to different parts of the world and became separated from one another, their languages developed in unique ways. The process repeated itself and more languages were created as people moved and created new communities.
Indo-European language family tree (source: linguatics.com). Kurdish (omitted) is part of the Iranian subfamily.
Linguists represent this process by making family trees of languages. As you can see on the image on the right, English comes from a Germanic language, which comes from an ancestral language called Indo-European, which came from the world’s first language. The Indo-European family also includes Czech, Spanish, Russian, Persian (Farsi), and Hindi, to name a few.
Kurdish, perhaps surprisingly, also belongs to the Indo-European family. It is a close relative of Persian.
Turkish has a much different bloodline. It comes from an ancestral language called Turkic, which came from a language called Uralic, which came from the world’s first language. This is to say that Turkish and English, as well as Turkish and Kurdish, do not have a common ancestor except for the world’s first language.
Turkish and Kurdish, then, are just as unrelated as Turkish and English. In southeast Turkey, I found that I couldn’t converse with young children because they spoke Kurdish as their native language. Eventually, they will become bilingual when they learn Turkish in school.
The Turkish alphabet
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet, 1928.
You may remember from before that Turkish used to be written using the Arabic script, but it now uses letters from the Latin alphabet like English, with a couple modifications. Thankfully, this fairly new way of writing is highly phonetic, which means each letter only makes one sound.
This is what the alphabet looks like,
Aa Bb Cc Çç Dd Ee Ff Gg Ğğ Hh Iı İi Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Öö Oo Pp Rr Ss Şş Tt Uu Üü Vv Yy Zz
And this is what the alphabet sounds like.
Here’s a recording of me introducing myself. This is the text:
Merhaba. Benim adım Seth. İstanbul’da oturuyorum. En sevdiğim renk yeşil.
Hello. My name is Seth. I live in Istanbul. My favorite color is green.
My experience learning a foreign language
There’s an unfortunate stereotype that Americans are monolingual English speakers with little interest in other languages. While this isn’t true (it’s a stereotype after all), it also makes sense since in America, English is very isolated compared to Europe, where large language communities are densely concentrated next to each other. This means Americans are less often faced with other languages, so maybe we perceive less of a need to learn them. Of course, there is the exception of Spanish, whose speakers constitute a giant minority population in the US, but English-speaking Americans still lag far behind Europe in terms of bilingualism.
When people learn foreign languages, they reduce the distance between them and other cultures, allowing for greater understanding and tolerance, and who doesn’t want that? There are so many other reasons, too, like the fact that studying foreign languages is great intellectual exercise, or that being bilingual makes it easier to get jobs, or that people will give you discounts on Turkish delight because you speak some Turkish. The list goes on.
Metin, Uğur, and their lokum (Turkish delight), Istanbul.
In the comments, feel free to ask questions and talk about your experience with foreign languages. Have you studied any? Did you grow up speaking a language other than English? What languages would you like to learn?
Bonus: If you make a recording of you introducing yourself in Turkish (like the one I made), it would make my week. Plus, I’ll bring you extra lokum in when I see you!