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The Turkish Language Explained for English Speakers

New Section: "Readings" added June 2017. See top menu.

About the Turkish Language, Street Turkish and advice for visiting Turkey. Manisa Turkish answers some of the difficulties which learners may encounter along their way.

Wikipedia says: The best website for learning Turkish with detailed explanations.

The Origins of Turkish.

The Turkish Language originated in The Altai Mountain Range in Northern Siberia centuries ago. For this reason it is called an Altaic Language. As nomads expanded further into Asia Minor, they brought their language with them to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and other countries. Many of these languages are mutually intelligible although local usage and vocabulary, spelling and alphabet may differ. However they all exhibit the same grammatical structure of agglutination and vowel harmony.

Turkish being a language emanating from Central Asia, is spoken from the borders of Greece into the hinterland of Western China. While the Ottoman Empire flourished Turkish was spoken from Vienna to Arabia, Egypt and Northern Africa. The Turkish vocabulary contains many words from Arabic, Persian and European languages. These imported words mostly follow the basic grammar and vowel harmony of native Turkish.

An Overview of The Turkish Language.

  1. In Turkish word meanings are changed by fixing other words on to the root as direct suffixes.
  2. These little important words show motion towards/motion from or static location of the suffixed word.
  3. The suffixes change their spelling according to set rules and they must follow the same vowel pattern Vowel Harmony as the word to which they are being added. Sometimes they also have a consonant change Consonant Mutation for ease of pronunciation.
  4. Those added to the stem of a verb may indicate its positive or negative form. Suffixes are then added for tense and person.
  5. Further moods may, might, can, can't, must can be added on to the original verb root, thus producing a new verb.
  6. Nouns are suffixed with possessor and the motion or location words are then added.
  7. There is no definite article "the" as a subject, but there is a specifier "the" as a direct object suffix.
  8. There are no gender forms (no "le" or "la" as in French) in Turkish. One single word is used for "he, she, it"
  9. As in English, adjectives describe their noun and remain in their basic form : there being no gender thus no gender agreement is required.
  10. The sentence form is SOV Subject, Object, Verb.

The Structure of Turkish.

Turkish is not a Classical Structured Language.
The Turkish grammar is not looked on by the Turks themselves as a Classical Structured Language. They have their own grammar rules which are not based on the Classical System as those in Latin or Greek.

Most Turkish grammars for foreigners are written by linguists and grammarians, usually in consort with a Turkish national, and they tend to use a classical language framework. Consequently most grammars are peppered with such classic terms as accusative, dative, locative and ablative together with such tenses and moods as aorist, subjunctive.

Manisa Turkish uses Turkish grammar nomenclature and many classical grammar terms have been discarded.

Turkish has the concept of Vowel Harmony where the vowels of suffixes must mirror the final vowel of the root word being suffixed. Also Consonant Mutation where spelling changes are made to preserve phonetic euphony with actual pronunciation. English has some consonant change but not for the same reasons.

There is also a Reflexive Genitive in Turkish where both the owner/possessor and owned/possessed are suffixed. This construction does not occur in classical grammar so many teachers have resorted to using a Persian name izafet. In this website Manisa Turkish follows Turkish Grammar nomenclature, calling it the Possessive Relationship.

Turkish is characterized by vowel harmony, consonant mutation (consonant change) and agglutination (word suffixation.)

Post positions are used instead of prepositions. Thus suffixes added to the stem of the verb may indicate positive or negative forms of the passive, reflexive, causative, potential, subjunctive moods plus further additions for tense and person.

Nouns are also suffixed with possessor my, your and noun condition to, from, in, by.

The subject definite article and grammatical gender are lacking. Adjectives precede their noun and do not have to agree in number or case.

The Features of Turkish Grammar.

The Turkish Alphabet: Consists of twenty-one consonants and eight vowels. The Turkish alphabet is phonetic as each letter always retains it own sound. In English the sound of the letters can change, as the letter a does in fat, fate, fare etc. In Turkish there is no such pronunciation change to letters of the alphabet.

The Adjectives: Adjectives and adjectival phrases precede their noun and do not agree in number.

Vowel Harmony: Turkish has eight vowels, four pairs (A-E, I-İ, O-Ö, U-Ü) with corresponding front/back, 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.

Consonant Mutation: In certain circumstances changes are made to the spelling of consonants. If the pronunciation of a consonant changes the spelling also changes to reflect this.

Agglutination: [a "gluing together" - combining simple words to express compound ideas.] 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. (i.e. ev - house evlerden - from the houses)

The Absence of Gender: Turkish does not have a definite article, nor does it have gender pronouns. A single word signifies he, she, it.

Verbs: Always come at the end of the sentence. Sentence construction follows the subject-object-verb pattern.

The Structure of Turkish: Differs in both grammatical structure and vocabulary from the Indo European Group, English, Spanish, French etc.

The Six Turkish Noun Conditions.

These six conditions are suffixed to the root word according to Vowel Harmony Rules. The vowels of the suffix match the final vowel of the root word.
Title Condition (Nominative):
The root word which carries no suffix. el hand, the hand.

Ownership Condition (Genitive): -in/-ın/-un/-ün
This is the condition of "belonging to" meaning of, 's in English elin [el-in] the hand's, of the hand.

Specific Object Condition (Accusative): -i/-ı/-u/-ü
This is is the direct object of a verb meaning specific the in English eli [el-i] the hand (obj.)

Movement Towards Condition (Dative): -a/-e
This is the condition of movement towards meaning to, towards in English ele [el-e] to/towards the hand.

Static Position Condition (Locative): -da/-de or -ta/-te according to Consonant Mutation rules.
This is the condition of place and position meaning in, on, at in English elde [el-de] in/on/at the hand.

Movement Away Condition (Ablative): -dan/-den or -tan/-ten according to Consonant Mutation rules.
This is the condition of movement away meaning from, by, via in English elden [el-den] from/by/via the hand.

Turkish Grammar is Regular.

Turkish pronunciation is Phonetic, In Turkish each letter of the alphabet always retains its basic pronunciation.
Turkish grammar is regular but differs in that it consists of post-positions which are suffixed directly to nouns or other parts of speech to modify their meaning. This use of suffixes is called agglutination, literally meaning "a gluing on". This is in contrast to English which uses individual prepositions for the same reasons.
Another peculiarity of Turkish is the Vowel Harmony where vowels change in pronunciation and spelling to mirror the previous vowel in a word.

Agglutination - (a sticking on to).

The putting together of language particles where each expresses a single definite meaning, thus forming a new word.
In English there are many words which agglutinate (extend) to form other words.

The word argue can be agglutinated to argument by sticking on a -ment suffix. This word can take additions of further suffixes: -ative giving argumentative and even further to argumentatively by adding a the -ly suffix.

This then is the way of Turkish but even the little words like in, from, at are suffixed to their noun, thus producing an extended word. As examples, adding the suffix -de in, on, at and the suffix -dan from
ev house
evde [ev-de] in the house.
evden [ev-den] from the house.
These suffixes harmonize with the vowel in the word ev.

Most suffixes follow the Rule of Vowel Harmony [see below]. There is both an A-UnDotted Vowel Form A I O U, and an E-Dotted Vowel Form E İ Ö Ü for the same suffix. Similarly adding suffix -da in, on, at and -dan from
oda room
odada [oda-da] in the room
odadan [oda-dan] from the room
These suffixes harmonize with the final vowel of the word oda.

Consonant Mutation.

Changes in pronunciation and spelling of consonants to preserve phonetics and euphony.

About Voicing of Consonants.
A Voiced Consonant is one where the voice box is used to produce the sound d b are in this category.
An Unvoiced Consonant is where the voice is silent and only air is expelled to produce the sound such as t p.

The Main Consonants with Two Forms in Turkish.
There is some consonant mutation in English. The terminal -y of lady changes to an -ie- in the plural ladies, and the terminal -f of knife changes to a -v- in the plural knives. Turkish has consonant change, but it is on a larger scale than English.

The changes: k to ğ and d to t.
The main changes that occur in Turkish words is that a terminal -k may change to a (soft g) when a suffix with a vowel is added.
The first letter -d of a suffix may change to a -t when the suffix is added to a word ending in a hard consonant ç f h k p s ş t. There are also some other minor consonant changes.

Turkish Vowels.

In Turkish the voice sounds are separated into two main groups, consonants and vowels. When there is no obstacle to a voice then the sound is called a vowel. There are eight vowels in Turkish: a e ı i o ö u ü.

The Eight Vowels of Turkish.
The eight vowels are divided into two groups, the A-UnDotted Vowels and the E-Dotted vowels.
The 4 A-Undotted Vowels are a ı o u.
The 4 E-Dotted Vowels are e i ö ü.
E-Dotted vowels are pronounced at the front of the mouth, as the French Language, while their A-UnDotted counterparts are pronounced at the back of the mouth (more like English).

Vowel Harmony Basics.

The harmony lies in the fact that all original Turkish words are pronounced either entirely containing A-UnDotted Vowels as kapılar doors or bulmacaları their crosswords, or entirely containing E-Dotted Vowels as evlerinden from their house or köylüler the villagers. Grammatical and verb suffixes also follow vowel harmony, being divided into two groups for front-vowel words and back-vowel words.

For example, the Undotted back-vowel plural suffix -lar would be added to kapı to form the word for doors kapılar
whereas the Dotted front-vowel plural suffix -ler would be added to köylü to produce villagers köylüler.

Turkish has imported many words from French, such as televizyon télévision and müzisyen musician, kuaför coiffure which have been modified phonetically to the Turkish Alphabet and incorporated into the language. These are spelled according to Turkish phonetics and often have both front and back vowels within one word which is unnatural for Turkish.

Such is true for the numerous Turkish words of Arabic origin, such as mektup letter and merhaba hello, and of Persian origin as hane office where vowel harmony does not occur in the word itself. In these cases, consistent with the general rule for vowel harmony in Turkish, the final vowel of the word determines the vowel harmony for suffixation.

Vowel Harmony Reference

A-UnDotted Vowels follow each other.
E-Dotted Vowels follow each other.

Turkish Verbs.

There are no irregular verbs in Turkish. One single conjugation is used for all verbs. Turkish Verbs also obey vowel harmony rules. All verbs belong to one of two groups determined by their infinitive forms, those ending in -mak [The A-UnDotted Vowel Group] and those ending in -mek [The E-Dotted Vowel Group].

The suffixes for all -mak verbs have only A-UnDotted Back Vowels bakmak to look becomes bakacak he will look.. However only E-Dotted Front Vowels are found in the suffixes of -mek verbs gelmek to come becomes gelecek He will come. In consequence there is more than one form for the tense sign suffix and in this case the future suffix may be -acak or -ecek to follow Vowel Harmony Rules.

Turkish Definite Articles.

Turkish does not have a subject definite article "the". However the object of a verb does have a objective suffix "the" in Turkish. This is one of the difficulties for those learning Turkish as English does not distinguish between subject "the" and object "the" as it uses the definite article "the" for both.

The Subject, considered as specific in Turkish (nominative ):

Fincan masada. The cup is on the table.
[subject, not suffixed: fincan "The cup"]
The Subject, the cup fincan is considered as definitive (specific) in Turkish.
It is the way of saying "the cup" as a subject.

An illustration of the Objective Definite Article (accusative):

Masadaki fincanı bana verin. Give me the cup which is on the table.
[object, suffixed: fincan-ı fincanı "The cup"]
Here the object the cup fincan has been made definitive (specific) by the addition of the objective suffix to produce fincanı.
It is the way of saying "the cup" as an object.

Turkish Lack of Gender.

There is no gender distinction in Turkish, so there is no "le" and "la" problems as in French, Italian etc. This borne out by the fact that Turkish only has one word for he, she and it, namely o.

Turkish Adjectives.

Turkish is a descriptive language, adjectives abound and if Turkish can make something into an adjective then it will do so.

Being an descriptive language basically the adjective or adjectival phrase always preceded its noun: kara kedi a black cat as in English. However Turkish makes great use of adjectival phrases and clauses to describes nouns, actions and thoughts.

In English we may say:
The black cat with the long tail which is sitting on the mat looks hungry.
The Turkish way will describe the cat not only as black, but also where and upon what it is sitting together with any other attributes, such as its long tail:

  • Minderin üstünde oturan uzun kuyruklu kara kedi aç görünüyor.
  • On the mat which-is-sitting long tailed black cat hungry looks.

In Turkish the subject and object are described adjectivally with regards to place and disposition.
Once all the describing is done, the verb is placed last in the sentence.

Structure of Turkish Words.

The structure of Turkish words is vowel followed by a consonant by a vowel or vice versa. A vowel always follows a consonant and a consonant always follows a vowel. There are no diphthongs (two vowels occurring together) in Turkish words, other than imported foreign exceptions.

In order to preserve this rule certain consonants are inserted as "buffers" between vowels. These buffers are always Y, N, S.. The Y is considered as a consonant in Turkish.

The majority of Turkish Vowels are always pronounced quite short, there is no lengthening of vowels. For Turkish learners this sometimes makes understanding difficult as there is little and light stress in Turkish pronunciation.

Turkish Word Order.

Word order is regular, but differs from English:

  1. Adjectival Descriptions of Subject.
  2. The Subject.
  3. Time Clauses.
  4. Adjectival Descriptions of Object.
  5. The Object.
  6. The Verb.

The verb is always last in a sentence.

Turkish punctuation normally puts a comma after the subject of a sentence. It is good practice to do this especially if the subject is extended by a long adjectival description.

An English example:
The man with the fishing rods in his hands, a long described subject, will be found, the verb, at your friend's 50th birthday party, a long described object, tomorrow night, time phrase.

Let us put that into Turkish Structure:
Ellerinde oltası olan adam, yarın gece arkadaşının 50'ci doğum günü partisinde bulunacak.
Hands-his-in fishing-rod-the which-are man, a described and suffixed subject, tomorrow night, time phrase,friend-your-of 50th birthday party-his-at, a described and suffixed object and at last the verb, will be found.

Logic Reigns Supreme - or Does It?

This article pebviously published on Reddit.

They say that Turkish is easy to learn because it is so logical. The grammar is logical and there are very few exceptions to any of its syntax rules. There is no gender, no masculine, feminine and neuter forms to master, so it must be easy. And so they say thus: the Professors, the Teachers, and especially native Turks themselves.

They say it is 'so' easy. "Why?, Doesn't a Turkish child learn to speak its mother tongue at a very early age?". You may have noticed that the professors, the lecturers and the native speakers state that this facility is so; however you may go on to notice that this list does not include Turkish Language Learners. Ask any of them, or should I say 'any of us', and for the most part you will receive an answer quite to the contrary. A resounding "No! Turkish is so difficult, I've learned the rules but I still cannot understand or make myself understood!".

So the learning road is littered with fallers by the wayside, triers to the man, but despite their industry it is all to no avail and so another well intentioned learner disappears into the distance, consumed by disappointment and their lack of success. They took their courses, they went to their classes, they watched their videos, they listened to their sound tapes and at the end of it all your friendly "Merhaba nasılsın" is met with a blank stare of misapprehension and you can see panic setting in in their eyes. So why is it so?

Let us try to give an explanation not only to ourselves, the poor misunderstood Turkish Learner but also to the all the Professors and Teachers and Native Turkish Speakers who say that as Turkish is so logical then it is therefore so easy to learn.

An Analogy Explained

Well, in these days of computing and programming, let us give an analogy, (a similarity between like features of two things, on which a comparison may be based). How many of us in our forays into computer programming, be it Visual Basic, Java Script or any programming language which is built on logic and which has its own syntax rules, have spent more time debugging our efforts to produce a successful result than actually being able to use our programming "skills" naturally and with ease?

Even when we have learned the rules of syntax of any particular computing language we still meet the stumbling block of logic. Consequently, until everything is in its rightful place our program will not flow and run successfully. In our debugging trials we often have to take the way of seeking examples, be it from a book, from the world-wide web or maybe we enroll for some course or other in order to increase our ability in our endeavour.

We know that each computer language has its own dialect. Visual Basic cannot understand a Java Script programme, it does not know what to do as it is unintelligible and gobbledygook. It does not 'compile', it does not 'run'. Similarly we come against a difference in vocabulary in Turkish, we can take an "educated guess" at a word in German and the Romance Languages, but the Turkish vocabulary stumps us; it is completely alien to us and we can gather no clue to the intended meaning. We can learn some of the dialect; and we need to learn this new vocabulary by heart, but even then after applying all the rules and knowledge that we have absorbed about it we find that we still have further problems with the actual logic of the language. We can always find an example that will show us the way to surmount our difficulties, and we can only say to ourselves - "I would not have thought of doing or saying it like that, myself!"

The Problems of Learning Turkish.

This was the situation that I found myself in when I went to Turkey to work in the late seventies. I did not know a word of Turkish, and at the age of forty-five I had to start somewhere. I bought a grammar book and tried to learn the rules, Vowel Harmony, Consonant Change, Affixed Post-positions (agglutination), Verbal Nouns etc. We realize that rules can be learned, but as in computer programming it is their application which becomes difficult especially when the logic of the Turkish Language is so different to that of our own mother tongue English. Moreover we are trying to apply these rules and logic to a completely different dialect. This is why Turkish is very difficult for us English Speakers.

Yes, the Professors, Teachers and Turkish Speakers are right; Turkish is an extremely structured and logical language, as proven by the fact that Turkish children learn to speak it very early in life, but it is this internal structure of the language which defeats us foreigners in our learning attempts. We just cannot "think Turkish!". We never learned how to, and probably many of us never will be able to think with Turkish logic. So even after many years of trying to learn Turkish we are labelled as speaking 'Tarzanca' in the manner of the film hero 'Tarzan of the Apes' as only the best we can do is akin to "Me Tarzan!, you Jane!".

After 34 years of learning I can tell you all that Turkish is very difficult for us English Speakers.

John Guise - Manisa Turkish