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Turkish Citations Turkish Links Select a New Language
Number of Speakers: Approximately 55.9 million
Key Dialects: Western, Eastern
Geographical Center: Turkey
About 56 million people speak Turkish. Most of them live in Turkey where Turkish is the official language and 90 percent of the population speak it as a first language. Turkish is also the language spoken at home by people who live in the areas that were governed by the Ottoman Empire. For instance, in Bulgaria there are about 850,000 speakers (Grimes 1992). About 37,000 Turkish speakers live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan. In Cyprus, Turkish is a co-official language (with Greek) where it is spoken as a first language by 19 percent of the population (Comrie 1990). Over a million speakers are found in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece; over 1.5 million speakers live in Germany (and other northern European countries) where Turks have for many years been "guest workers." About 24,000 Turkish speakers live in the United States (Grimes 1992).
Turkish belongs to the Turkish branch of the Altaic language family. It is the westernmost of the Turkic languages spoken across Central Asia and is generally classified as a member of the South-West group, also known as the Oguz group (Baskakov 1966, Campbell 1991). Other Turkic languages, all of which are closely related, include Azerbaijani (Azeri), Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Turkmen, Uighur, Uzbek, and many others spoken from the Balkans across Central Asia into northwestern China and southern Siberia. Turkic languages are often grouped with Mongolian and Tungusic languages in the Altaic language family.
Except for superficial differences in vocabulary, the Turkic languages are similar enough that under other political circumstances they would very probably be considered dialects of the same language. The central Soviet government focused attention on, and fostered, the differences among the peoples in the Central Asian republics and their languages. Now, with independence, these separate republics are exploring their similarities and differences, and working out their alliances with one another and with Turkey.
Turkish is mutually intelligible, barring vocabulary differences, with the Turkic languages spoken in adjacent areas, in particular Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Turkmen, and a speaker of Turkish can be understood as far east as Kyrgyzstan.
Strictly speaking, the "Turkish" languages spoken between Mongolia and Turkey should be called Turkic languages, and the term "Turkish" should refer to the language spoken in Turkey alone. It is common practice, however, to refer to all these languages as Turkish, and differentiate them with reference to the geographical area, for example, the Turkish language of Azerbaijan.
Turkish has several dialects. The Turkish dialects can be divided into two major groups: Western dialect(s) and Eastern dialects (Grimes 1992). Of the major Turkish dialects, Danubian appears to be the only member of the Western group. The following dialects make up the Eastern group: Eskisehir, Razgrad, Dinler, Rumelian, Karamanli, Edirne, Gaziantep, and Urfa. There are some other classifications that distinguish the following dialect groups: South-western, Central Anatolia, Eastern, Rumelian, and Kastamonu dialects (Comrie 1990). Modern standard Turkish is based on the Istanbul dialect of Anatolian (Comrie 1990).
Turkish uses a Roman-based writing system that was adopted in the course of the so-called writing reform of 1928 (Comrie 1990). It takes into account and symbolizes sounds that are specific to Turkish by using adapted phonetic symbols. Prior to the reform that introduced the Roman script, Turkish was written in the Arabic script. Up to the fifteenth century the Anatolian Turks used the Uighur script to write Turkish (Comrie 1990).
Like all of the Turkic languages, Turkish is agglutinative, that is, grammatical functions are indicated by adding various suffixes to stems. Separate suffixes on nouns indicate both gender and number, but there is no grammatical gender. Nouns are declined in three declensions with six case endings: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, and ablative; number is marked by a plural suffix. Verbs agree with their subjects in case and number, and, as in nouns, separate identifiable suffixes perform these functions. The order of elements in a verb form is: verb stem + tense aspect marker + subject affix. There is no definite article; the number "one" may be used as an indefinite article.
Subject-Object -Verb word order in Turkish is a typical Turkic characteristic, but other orders are possible under certain discourse situations. As a SOV language where objects precede the verb, Turkish has postpositions rather than prepositions, and relative clauses that precede the verb.
Turkish has 8 vowels, and 20 consonants. It also has Turkic vowel harmony in which the vowels of suffixes must harmonize with the vowels of noun and verb stems; thus, for example, if the stem has a round vowel then the vowel of the suffix must be round, and so on. Stress on words pronounced in isolation is on the final syllable, but in discourse, stress assignment is complicated especially in the verb.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
The language is used in all aspects of public and private life in Turkey. There is a robust modern Turkish literature and important and popular works from other languages are regularly translated.
Turkish as a language has a long grammatical tradition and the Turk Dil Kurumu Turkish Language Academy has existed since the foundation of the modern Turkish state to establish standards. There are numbers of western and Turkish linguists writing on the language.
Turkish has been spoken in the area constituting Turkey since the thirteenth century. It formed the basis for Ottoman Turkish, the written language of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Turkish was basically Turkish in structure, but with a heavy overlay of Arabic and Persian vocabulary and an occasional grammatical influence. Ottoman Turkish co-existed with spoken Turkish, with the latter being considered a "gutter language" and not worthy of study. Ottoman Turkish, and the spoken language insofar as anyone wrote it, were both represented with an Arabic script.
The establishment of the modern Turkish state in the 1920s involved considerable language reform. Spoken Turkish was declared the language of the country; measures were taken to expunge Persian and Arabic borrowings and to replace them with native Turkish or at least Turkic words; the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Roman alphabet currently used to represent Turkish; and a massive literacy campaign was undertaken. These and other vocabulary reforms and standardization measures undertaken since the 1920s have been quite successful: current standard Turkish is indeed standard and consists of mostly Turkic vocabulary; the written language is clearly an extension of the spoken language; and the literacy rates in Turkey are at about 90 percent.
Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1-2. London: Routledge.
Comrie, B. 1992. "Turkic Languages." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 4:187-190. New York: Oxford University Press.
Comrie, B., ed. 1990. The World's Major Languages. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Kornfilt, J. 1987. "Turkish and the Turkic Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 619-644. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kornfilt, J. 1992. "Turkish." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 4:190-196. New York: Oxford University Press.
Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.
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