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F - 139 : Turkish Language

Arriving at Istanbul’s Airport for the first time was a real shock. It was 1979 andI felt so lost. Did not understand a single word or sign. It was my first time in a country where I had no clue how to find my way. Luckily, Turkish people are friendly and many speak English. Eventually, I found my way to the Bosporus. It was the time before iPhones and Google Maps. The Turkish language is rather different from any other European. No word is the same. Some of them were incredibly long.

The Turkish Language is as important to Turkish Culture as the Flag on every Mountain Top

Once in town, I discovered a few clues. There are lots of French words (see my blog B -3 Kartpostal or Carte Postale ). They arrived in the second half of the 19th century, when the Ottoman Sultan tried to modernize Turkey. He invited thousands of French officers, engineers and civil servants to help with his effort. The success of the modernization was mixed. But 5’000 modern French words made it permanently into the Turkish Language. If you pronounce them phonetically and understand French, you can guess their meaning.

Otopark = Auto Parc = Car Park

Frisör = Friseur = Hairdresser

Avokat = Avocat = Lawyer

Fotograf = Photographe = Photographer

Kravat = Cravatte = Tie

Plaj = Plage = Beach

These French words are in daily use now. However, without understanding the context, I still did not get very far. The fact that all my friends spoke fluently English did not help either. Since the language is written in Latin letters, it is easy to read and pronounced like it is spelled. Not like French or English! But that still did not help in understanding.

The Migration of Turkish People over the last 2'500 Years

Turkish was for Millenia a spoken language. The nomadic Turks had no need for records. Their culture and religion was transmitted orally. In the Altai mountains of western Mongolia, Turks lived far from each other but met for religious celebrations or weddings. There, the elder sang and told the stories of past heroes and gods. It was like in ancient Greece, before Homer recorded the stories. Turkish was only written down when the Caliphs of Bagdad began recruiting young Turks in the 9th century AD. Relatively quickly, the conversion of the shamanic Turks to Islam followed. From then on, the Koran was the book of reference, like our bible. The Arabic script was used to write Turkish.

Kemal Ataturk campaigning for the Latin Alphabet

It could have worked were Arabic suitable for Turkish. But the vowel systems do not match. The Turkish language has eight vowels. Arabic three short and three long. U, ö and ü do not exist in Arabic. This made the Arabic script time consuming to learn. In the Ottoman Empire where only the elite could read and write (10% of population), this did not matter.

But for Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, it was a big issue. He wanted every Turkish person to participate in the matters of state. They had to be able to read and write. Against considerable resistance, he introduced the Latin Alphabet in 1929 with the shortest transition time possible: 3 months. And it worked. The transfer to Latin letters, the removal of Arab and Persian vocabulary and the general accessibility of schooling eradicated illiteracy. By 1945, almost every Turkish person could read and write. This cause was so important to Ataturk that he often travelled to small towns and villages to convince people of the benefits of the new alphabet. It was also a way to differentiate modern Turkey from Arab countries which had become French and English colonies after World War I. Ataturk wanted Turkey to be independent and modern!

Was told that this was an Ad for rapid Car Service - Luckily I understand Jeep and Chrysler

For our eyes and ears Turkish remains a difficult language. Its structure differs substantially from Indo-European. It is not a tonal language like Chinese where tonality can change the meaning of a word. Turkish is an agglutinative language. Different suffixes added to words change their meaning. Indo-European languages need several words to describe something. In Turkish, you put all in one word. Found a good example on the Turkish Language site

  • Ev = House

  • Evde = In the house

  • Evin = Your house

  • Evinde = In your house

These agglutinations lead often to incredibly long words. Did not find a good example but remember some of the very long words from my first visit ever. They made me think “what the heck”.

Turkish alphabet - took this Photo from an On-Line Turkish Language Site

Apart from suffixes, the Turkish grammar and vocabulary is easy. It is like German and has a very logic sequence with Subject – Object – Action, which is strictly adhered to. The words are difficult to remember though since they do not relate to anything we are familiar with. Add to this the complexity of vowel harmony that needs to be adhered to. It gives you an idea. But I am told that knowing 2’000 words lets you get by.

The Turkish Language Family spans across all of Asia and reaches to Siberia

There are about 75 million people who speak Turkish in Anatolia, Northern Cyprus and a few thousands scattered across the Balkans. The entire Turkish language family is bigger though. Turkmen and Azerbaijani are languages very close to Turkish. The latter two are to 60% identical. I would say they are dialects. The Swiss dialect in Valais and Grison sound rather different to the untrained ear. But to a Swiss, it is just another dialect. The Turkish language family across the Asian continent comprises about 110 million speakers. When you look up these languages on a map, it looks like a map of the Turkish migration from the Altai mountains into Anatolia.

If you do not know your Spices, Shopping is going to be a Challenge

Well, maybe it is time to pick up some Turkish to talk to our boat crew and buy fish and vegetables in the market.

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Apr 05, 2022

Very good reading. The subject of the Turkish language is fascinating. Finno-Ugric languages are related to Turkish, and some researchers found connections to Japanese.

Apr 05, 2022
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Couple of funny Turkish borrowed words

Şimendifer = chemin de fer = railway

Şıpıdak = Schiebedach = sunroof

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