Random Comments on the Turkish Language

My native language is Turkish. I grew up in northern Turkey. I started learning English in high school but it was already too late. The language processing part of my brain was already formed according to Turkish syntax.

In 1981 I moved to US to work on my Ph.D. degree in physics. Since then I have been speaking English at work but Turkish at home. I have been speaking English for 32 years but my mind still thinks in Turkish and translates every sentence to English. Translation steals a lot of energy from me.

I have been told that learning English is much easier for a native German speaker or for a speaker of any Germanic languages.  A native German speaker has to learn the English words and build his vocabulary of English just like the Turkish person does. The learning tasks are equal in that regard but the German person does not have to reverse the sentence structure in his mind.

For example, in Turkish, we say “seni seviyorum” to say “I love you,” but, word for word, the translation would be “you loving I” which can reverse the meaning sometimes.  Another example: “iyi işler yap, ödül bekleme”. It means “do good works, do not expect rewards.” Word for word translation is “[you] works do, rewards expect not.” This is what I was referring to when I mentioned the brain formation. Uttering the verb at the end of a sentence has implications for the thinking process. If you examine my metaphysics ideas, especially my writings on the ‘subject” and “object” in the context of metaphysics you would find links to the SOV structure of the Turkish syntax.

Linguists refer to the Turkish sentence structure as SOV (subject, object, verb). In contrast, English is an SVO (subject, verb, object) language. It is interesting that the languages with wide diffusion all have SVO structure. English, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish, and Arabic are SVO languages. There is a claim that the SVO structure makes the language processing easier for the brain. This is not a scientific claim yet.

Regarding the verb placement in a sentence, I learned that German has complicated rules. But, both German and English belong to the Germanic family of languages. So, I will stick to my claim that it is easier for a German speaker to learn English compared to Turkish or Japanese speakers.

In Turkish there are variations on the placement of the subject and the object but the verb is always at the end. Hence the SOV ordering! But, Turkish poets always played with the word ordering.  In Turkish poetry you may find sentences where the verb is not necessarily at the end.

Learning English has additional difficulties for a native Turkish speaker. I will mention the funny ones here. First of all, native Turkish speakers cannot pronounce the “th” sound. This is a constant struggle for me.

Secondly, we have difficulty with “he” and “she” in English. This can be very embarrassing sometimes. In Turkish there is only one word for “he” and “she.” The Turkish word is “o” which is so easy to say. The Turkish “o” is completely gender-neutral. Turkish Sufis refer to God as “O” sometimes. Turkish makes it easy to talk about God in a gender-neutral way.

Another example for a gender-neutral term in Turkish is “yeğen.” In Turkish there is only one word for “nephew” and “niece”. The word is “yeğen.” Last month my niece visited me. In more than one occasion I referred to her as my nephew when I was talking to my American friends.

Turkish belongs to the Turkic family of languages. The Turkic is a branch of the Altaic family of languages which includes the Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Japonic and Korean language branches.

Turkish is the majority language spoken in Anatolia (Asia Minor). There are about 70 million native Turkish speakers in the world. Turkish speakers constitute 40% of the Turkic speakers.

Turkish was written in the Arabic script for a long time until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk changed the script to Roman alphabet in 1928. This is good and bad. It is good because it makes it easier for the Westerners to learn Turkish and the unique phonology of the  Turkish language can be explicitly written in the Roman alphabet. In Arabic script the vowels are not written; they are sounded based on the context. The switch to the Roman script was bad in one respect: we are now cut off from Ottoman history and literature. People cannot read the Ottoman literature, nor can they read the historical documents. But, overall, I think it was a good decision. The Roman script suits the Turkish language better.

In the Turkish alphabet there are 29 letters. The additional letters were invented to represent the unique sounds of Turkish. The “c” in Turkish is pronounced as “j” as in judge. The “ç” is pronounced as “ch” as in church. The “ı” is “i” pronounced with the tongue root drawn back. The “ğ” lengthens the preceding vowel. The “ö” and “ü” are as in German.

During the Ottoman period the scholarly, literary and administrative documents contained many Persian and Arabic words. This resulted in an official language known as the Ottoman Turkish which is extinct now. Even though the cultural language was Ottoman Turkish the language spoken by the people always remained close to its Central Asian origins.

In 1909 the “Türk Derneği” (Turkish Club) was founded in Istanbul to promote a simpler Turkish and to purify the language from Persian and Arabic influences. Similar movements started soon after. This was part of the search for a national identity during and after the World War I. The Ottoman Empire being an empire did not emphasize national identities. The national sentiment for “Turkishness” was not emphasized either. The Ottoman Sultans were far removed from “Turkishness” for many centuries anyway because their mothers were always non-Turkish. Please see the list of the mothers of Ottoman Sultans for a quick look.

Ottoman Empire sided with Germany during World War I and the consequences were disastrous. Germany lost the war and paid dearly in the following years. The cost of war for the Ottoman Empire was equally great. During and after the war until 1924 Anatolia was in total chaos. Ottoman Empire surrendered and British forces occupied Istanbul. Many towns in Anatolia were occupied by Greek and French forces. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led an independence struggle and expelled the Allied forces from Anatolia in 1923 and established the Turkish Republic. During those revolutionary times Ataturk and other leaders of the Turkish Republic promoted the national sentiment for “Turkishness.” Their goal was to establish a nation-state just like the nation-states of Europe. The purification of the language was a big part of this effort. Thanks to their systematic efforts, after many decades of purification, Turkish spoken in Anatolia is now much closer to other Turkic languages, especially to Azerbaijani.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic the “Türk Dil Kurumu” (Turkish Language Academy) was founded in Ankara. This institution shepherded the language reform and it was responsible for etymological research and the creation of new words using Turkic roots in accordance with the Turkish rules of word formation. Many new words invented by this institute found their way into Turkish literature first and then into spoken language. Many others failed completely and disappeared. Jaklin Kornfilt says that “the work of the Academy [Türk Dil Kurumu] can be judged to have been essentially successful in creating a widely understood language with a transparent morphological component and its own, typologically consistent syntax.” [1]

Population genetics research has shown that “Anatolian Turks are prevalently descended from indigenous (pre-Islamic) Anatolian populations with some influence from East and Central Asian populations.” Given these facts, some scholars are puzzled how Turkish replaced Greek in Anatolia in just few centuries. They explain it using the concept of “elite dominance language replacement.” What they mean by this is that the Central Asian tribes became dominant in Anatolia militarily and politically after the 13th century and the local people adopted their language to get ahead economically. This does not sound very convincing to me. I have my own theory. I think that local Anatolian men were attracted to exotic looking Central Asian women in great numbers. Studies [2] indicate that 30% of the women in Anatolia carry Central Asian genetic markers today. Percentage of men carrying Central Asian genetic markers is much smaller. It is only 10-15%. This indicates that many local men married Turcoman women over the centuries increasing the genetic influence of the Central Asian women. This also explains how Turkish language replaced Greek in Anatolia. Mother’s language is always the first language. Today, Anatolian population remains as one of the most ethnically mixed populations in the world.

[1]  Jaklin Kornfilt, “Turkish and the Turkic Languages,” published in “The World’s Major Languages” edited by Bernard Comrie

[2]  Cengiz Cinnioglu et al, “Excavating Y-chromosome Haplotype Strata in Anatolia,” Hum. Genet. (2004) 114 : 127–148

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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