Monday, January 28, 2013

Language Profile: Turkish

This week we're taking a look at Turkish, a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic language family with over 50.8 million native speakers. It's an official language of the island nation of Cyprus alongside Greek, as well as a regional official language in Kosovo. Of course, it is also the official language of Turkey, where over 90% of the population speaks the language.

The Turkish Angora cat is an ancient breed native to the
Ankara region of Turkey. You thought we'd take the
easy way out and slap in a photo of a turkey, didn't you?  
During the time of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), the literary and official language used in what is now Turkey was aptly called Ottoman Turkish. This language was a mixture of Turkish, Persian, and Arabic which was fairly unintelligible for the majority of society, especially the little-educated who tended to speak a "purer" vernacular form of the language. This vernacular formed the basis for what is known as the Turkish language today. Modern standard Turkish is most closely based on the dialect used in Istanbul (not Constantinople!).

There are many distinct accents and dialects of Turkish which are currently being researched by Turkish linguists at various universities. As usual, it's a bit tricky to decide exactly what differentiates a language from a dialect or even an accent.

Atatürk also had an awesome 'stache.
The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Its first president was named Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His last name meant "Father of the Turks" which the government clearly felt suited him, as he was forever after known only as Atatürk. In 1934, the Turkish parliament even made a point of declaring it forbidden for anyone else to ever be known by that name!

One of the main goals of Atatürk and his government was to modernize the new country. In 1932, the Turkish Language Association was founded. Its first task was to remove Arabic and Persian loanwords from the language and replace them with Turkish equivalents. They succeeded in removing hundreds of words, as well as reviving the use of some words from Old Turkish that hadn't been used in ages. The association is considered to be the official authority on the Turkish language and contributes to linguistic research on Turkish and related languages, as well as publishing the official Turkish dictionary. The most recent version of Güncel Türkçe Sözlük (literally "Great Turkish Dictionary") contained 616,767 entries.

Atatürk introducing the new alphabet.
Atatürk made Turkish script reform another top governmental priority. During imperial times, the language had been written in a Perso-Arabic script. This made it difficult to write many Turkish words, especially in the case of vowels. Turkish contains eight vowel sounds, while the Ottoman Turkish alphabet used only three. The solution was to start a language commission of linguists and academics to create a new alphabet, of course!

In 1928, Atatürk introduced the new Latin-based alphabet to the country, even taking it upon himself to tour the country teaching it to the public. Special schools were opened across the country to teach all citizens the new alphabet and within a few years, a majority of the population was literate. It was quite an achievement considering that when the country was first formed a mere 10% were literate. The president was so passionate about educating the people that he even helped to develop the textbook used to teach Turkish to schoolchildren.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
Due to the new Turkish alphabet, spelling of the language is mostly phonetic, with one letter per phoneme. That makes it easier to learn if you're looking for a language to add to your list. The alphabet is nearly the same as that of English, though it excludes q, x, and w. Instead, it adds the letters ç, ş, ğ, ı, ö, and ü, bringing it to a grand total of 29 letters. You've already learned the Turkish alphabet... you might as well learn to speak the language now too!