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Turkish Language

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Overview: Turkish, which is spoken in much of Turkey and Cyprus as well as in neighboring countries, is the primary language of the Turkic language family that spans much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Within that, it is also a part of the Oghuz sub-branch of Turkic languages, which all belong to the proposed Altaic family according to proponents of the Altaic language theory. Most of the languages within the Oghuz family have a high degree of mutual intelligibility with one another.

Turkish is widely spoken throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, with greater than 80 million speakers worldwide. Outside of Turkey, it is most frequently spoken natively in places that were once part of the Ottoman Empire (such as Bulgaria and Romania). Turkish immigrants around the world also speak Turkish, with a significant community of them present most notably in Germany.

Roots of the language: Old Turkish was spoken by a number of successful tribes and kingdoms that spread across a large area in the eighth and ninth centuries. Then, Arabic and Persian became huge influences as Islam took hold with the Turkish people in the tenth century, adding many words to the language that were especially popular among the educated elite.

Modern Turkish has been molded in many ways by political forces. The regulatory body of Standard Turkish, the Turkish Language Association, was founded in 1932 with the partial aim of eliminating foreign words (especially Arabic and Persian) from Turkish and replacing them with native equivalents, at which they have been moderately successful. Many foreign loanwords are still in use in modern Turkish, however, at times co-existing with native words of similar meaning.

Language characteristics: Turkish is a highly agglutinative language, meaning that many words are formed through a series of prefixes and suffixes attached to a native root. The language is also known for its vowel harmony, a set of special rules relating to when and where vowels can be used (the two classes of vowels, “front” and “back,” cannot be used together in the same word). Turkish uses plural pronouns and other grammatical constructions to denote respect, creating a relatively complicated system of honorifics between speakers.

Written form: The earliest known inscriptions in Turkish date back to the eighth century and were written in a rune-like alphabet known as the Old Turkic or Orkhon script. The roots of this alphabet are debated–some scholars believe that it was derived from the ancient Aramaic script, while others see it as inspired by classical Chinese characters. It is very likely that the script can be linked to other early writings from nearby countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and even Central European countries like Hungary.

Much of Turkey’s literary heritage is written in Ottoman Turkish, which uses an adapted version of the Arabic script. In the early twentieth century, as political and social reforms were spreading across Turkey, the language purposely switched to using the Latin alphabet (with a few letters modified to represent uniquely Turkish sounds). Most Turkish writing continues to use the Latin alphabet today.

Last Updated : April 21, 2015



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