Learning a new language is a rewarding yet sometimes challenging endeavour. The journey of learning Turkish, an agglutinative language deeply rooted in history and vibrant culture, is no exception.
Before learning a language, I always think it’s good to learn about a language. What makes it different form the languages you know? What special features does it have? It’s good to know the “size of the prize”.
While the task of learning any other language might seem daunting, understanding various aspects like the writing system, vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar can simplify the process.
Let’s delve deep into these facets of the Turkish language and assess how hard it really is for English speakers.
You might also like these other posts on Turkish vocabulary and grammar.
How Hard is Turkish? An Overview
Turkish is a mixed bag of complexity. Overall, I’d call it “moderately hard”.
On the one hand, it has a Latin script writing system, and it’s easy to see all the words. So the English speaker, or indeed speaker of any European language or any other language with a Latin script, would be at an instant advantage.
But closer inspection shows very few familiar words with European languages, and a deep dive shows a grammar that can get really gnarly!
Luckily, there are systematic patterns and rules that can help a learner immensely.
The writing system of Turkish, grounded in the Latin script, is an easy starting point, offering phonetic consistency which makes reading and writing less arduous than anticipated.
However, when it comes to vocabulary, you might find a steep learning curve as Turkish has limited cognates with English. Knowledge of Persian or Arabic, two large regional languages spoken in regions that border Turkey, offers only a slight advantage.
While the pronunciation has a few unfamiliar sounds, with practice, these can become second nature.
The real challenge of Turkish arises in grappling with the intricate grammar. The divergence from English is significant, characterized by a distinct word order, vowel harmony, and extensive usage of suffixes or agglutination, making sentence construction an initially complex task.
Despite these challenges, the systematic nature of Turkish grammar, coupled with its phonetic writing system, means that with persistence and the right approach, you can get to proficiency without too much of a struggle.
While Turkish would be harder for English speakers than a Romance language, it’s definitely still an achievable task.
And the best part is that learning Turkish is very rewarding. It opens up a rich country in which the spoken level of English outside the cities drops quickly. So dive in!
Turkish Writing System
Let’s start with an easy one.
Fortunately for us, the Turkish writing system is one of the easier aspects for English speakers to grasp. Turkish uses a version of the Latin script, which means that it is largely phonetic — words are generally pronounced as they are written.
The Turkish alphabet consists of 29 letters, with special emphasis on vowels, which play a significant role in the language’s vowel harmony system.
Below is a table of some of the unusual letters found in Turkish that you won’t find in English. You might recognise a few of these from German, however.
|c||j||As in “jam”|
|ş||sh||As in “shoe”|
|ç||ch||As in “chocolate”|
|ı||–||A neutral vowel. Like the way Americans pronounce “oo” in “book”.|
|ö||ö (as in ‘bird’)||Similar to German “ö”|
|ü||ü (as in ‘blue’)||Similar to German “ü”|
Pay attention to that “ı” letter — it’s an “i” without the dot. There’s also a capital “I”. Note that the letter “i” still exists in Turkish, and its capital form is “İ”, with a dot on top.
Pronouncing these letters isn’t difficult. I’m confident that most Turkish language learners can get the hang of them. Where things get really interesting is in Turkish vowel harmony!
See here for more about Turkish vowel harmony.
When it comes to vocabulary, Turkish might present a steeper learning curve for those used to Indo-European languages. Man common words in Turkish are pure Turkish, or derived from old Turkish or another regional language.
If you know Persian and Arabic, you might notice a few cognates. But they’re few in number.
For example, consider these common Turkish words. In the Discussion column, I mention whether the words have roots in Arabic or Persian. (If not mentioned, it’s because they’re pure Turkish.)
|Numbers: zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten|
twenty, thirty, forty, fifty
|sıfır, bir, iki, üç, dört, beş, altı, yedi, sekiz, dokuz, on|
yirmi, otuz, kırk, elli
|The word for “zero” has Arabic roots.|
|Verbs: be, have, do, say, go, get, make, know, take, see||olmak, sahip olmak, yapmak, demek, gitmek, almak, yapmak, bilmek, almak, görmek||Mostly pure Turkish.|
|Fruits: apple, banana, cherry, grape, lemon, orange, peach, pear, strawberry, watermelon||elma, muz, kiraz, üzüm, limon, portakal, şeftali, armut, çilek, karpuz||Half and half. “muz” is from Persian (a cognate of an Arabic word), as are “şeftali” and “karpuz”. “Limon” and “portakal” have Arabic and Italian roots respectively.|
|Foods: kebab, baklava, börek, dolma, döner, halva, kofta, meze, pide, sarma, lahmacun||kebap, baklava, börek, dolma, döner, helva, köfte, meze, pide, sarma, lahmacun||A mixture of words of Arabic, Persian, and pure Turkish origins. E.g., “baklava”, “köfte”, and “kebap” have Persian roots, while “lahmacun” and “helva” have Arabic roots. (But, friendly advice, don’t get into an argument about the origins of foods…)|
|Adjectives: big, small, good, bad, tall, short, fast, slow, old, young||büyük, küçük, iyi, kötü, uzun, kısa, hızlı, yavaş, yaşlı, genç||Mostly pure Turkish origin. “Yavaş” is also in Persian.|
|Animals: cat, dog, bird, mouse, mosquito, cow, chicken, duck||kedi, köpek, kuş, fare, sivrisinek, inek, tavuk, ördek||These words are of pure Turkish origin. “Ördek” is shared with Persian.|
|Times: day, month, year, time, morning, afternoon, evening, night||gün, ay, yıl, zaman, sabah, öğle, akşam, gece||Mostly Turkish origin, “zaman” comes from Arabic / Persian|
|People: family, friend, happiness, love, life||aile, arkadaş, mutluluk, aşk, hayat||A mix of origins: “aile” (family) and “hayat” (life) are of Arabic origin.|
Turkish pronunciation is, on the whole, pretty easy. There are really very few “weird” sounds. In fact, I’d say pronunciation is easier than most European languages, as the vowels are easy (et tu, French?), there are no harsh consonants, and even the trilled “r” is subtle, unlike the exaggerated trilling in some words in Spanish and Italian like rojo (you trill harder at the beginning) or arrivederci.
But there are still some sounds which don’t have direct equivalents in English, making them somewhat challenging to master, depending on how comfortable you are with bending your mouth into unfamiliar shapes.
|ı||–||A front, unrounded vowel, pronounced as [ɯ]|
|ö||bird (approx.)||A front, rounded vowel, pronounced as [ø]|
|ü||blue (approx.)||A high front, rounded vowel, pronounced as [y]|
|r||rolled r||The Turkish ‘r’ is rolled, akin to Spanish or Italian|
Some consonants might also pose difficulty due to subtle differences in their pronunciation compared to English. These are quite minor though, and can be learned if you have an attentive ear.
Grammar. Here be dragons
Turkish grammar can be considered one of the most challenging aspects for English speakers due to its agglutinative nature and other unique features such as vowel harmony, extensive suffixation, and a significantly different word order. Let’s delve into these grammatical elements in detail.
See here for an introduction to the interesting features of Turkish grammar.
Firstly, Turkish follows a subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, which is quite different from the subject-verb-object (SVO) structure common in English. This shift in structure often requires English speakers to change their approach to sentence formation and comprehension.
The change in word order can initially be perplexing but becomes more intuitive with practice and exposure. (If you speak another SOV language, like Japanese, Korean, or Persian, the word order may seem more intuitive.)
|Ben kitap okurum||I read a book.||“I book read”|
|O çay içer||He/She drinks tea||“He/She tea drinks”|
|Biz film izleriz||We watch a movie||“We movie watch”|
Vowel harmony is a second distinctive feature of Turkish grammar, where vowels within a word harmonize to follow a particular pattern, primarily dictated by the first vowel of the word.
Generally speaking vowel harmony means you have to learn vowel groups, and know how they affect the vowel in the suffix. There are eight vowels, and they’re grouped into either two groups of four, or four groups of two.
Those groupings mean that some particles have two forms, and some have four.
For example, in Turkish there are two possible endings for plurals — ler and lar. Which one you choose depends on the vowels beforehand. The plural for elma, “apple”, is elmalar, but the plural for şişe, “bottle”, is şişeler.
The “negative” or “question” particle has four forms. See the following table of four simple questions and how the question particle is different in each one.
|Mümkün mü?||Is it possible?|
|Tatlı mı?||Is it sweet?|
|Yeni mi?||Is it new?|
|Zor mu?||Is it difficult?|
It might seems difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy to get the hang of as it all corresponds to the natural way in which your mouth is shaped for certain words. And the rules are few and 100% consistent.
See here for a a longer article about vowel harmony.
Thirdly, agglutination in Turkish refers to the addition of various suffixes to a base word to convey different meanings or grammatical properties, often resulting in long and complex word formations.
To make sentences in Turkish, you need to master suffixes and how to apply them.
|-ci / -cı / -cu / -cü||Indicates profession or specialization||Balıkçı, Kitapçı||Fisherman, Bookstore owner||The suffix adapts according to the vowel harmony rules.|
|-lik / -lık||Forms nouns indicating a state, condition, or quality||Gençlik, Zenginlik||Youth, Wealth||It usually transforms an adjective into a noun, describing a state or quality.|
|-mış / -miş / -muş / -müş||Past tense, often indicating indirect or reported past events||Gelmiş, Okumuş||(He/She) has come, (He/She) has read||Used to convey information that the speaker learned from someone else or to form the narrative past tense.|
|-ler / -lar||Plural suffix||Kadınlar, Çocuklar||Women, Children||This suffix is added to make nouns plural. It adheres to vowel harmony rules.|
|-de / -da||Locative suffix indicating “in” or “at”||Evde, Okulda||At home, At school||The suffix varies based on the vowel harmony and is used to indicate location.|
The fun thing about agglutination is that you get a strong hint about the word’s meaning right at the beginning. The rest of the stuff afterwards? Just details! (Very important details, mind you…)
Finally, the Turkish verb system includes an extensive array of verb forms to convey various tenses, moods, and aspects.
The verb system in Turkish often involves the addition of several suffixes to the verb stem, which can be a complex process to master.
|I went to the store||Mağazaya gittim||Simple past tense conjugation with the “-tim” suffix.|
|Did you want to go somewhere?||Bir yere gitmek istiyor mudun?||Question form with desire suffix “-mek istiyor” and past tense suffix “-dun”.|
|I can’t go anywhere right now||Şu anda hiçbir yere gitemezim||Negative ability conjugation with “-emez” suffix for “can’t go”.|
|Where do you want me to go?||Nereye gitmemi istiyorsun?||Directive form using the “-mem” suffix to indicate “me to go”.|
|I don’t want you to go||Gitmeni istemiyorum||Negative desire form with “-men” (you to go) and “-miyorum” (I don’t want).|
|He said he went already||O, gitmiş olduğunu söyledi||Reported speech with “-miş” suffix for indirect past tense information.|
|I didn’t know he went||O gitmiş, bilmiyordum||Past tense with unawareness, using “-miş” for indirect past and “-miyordum” for “I didn’t know”.|
|Do you think you’ll go?||Giteceğini düşünüyor musun?||Future tense conjugation with “-eceğin” suffix, combined with the thought suffix “-i düşünüyor musun”.|
|I’m not sure I’ll go||Giteceğimden emin değilim||Future tense with uncertainty, using “-eceğim” for “I will go” and “emin değilim” for “I’m not sure”.|
|He is going||O gitiyor||Present continuous tense with the “-iyor” suffix.|
|We will go together||Birlikte giteceğiz||Future tense with the “-eceğiz” suffix for “we will go”.|
|She was going||O gitiyordu||Past continuous tense with “-iyordu” indicating a continuous action in the past.|
|I used to go often||Ben sık sık giterdim||Habitual past tense, “-erdim” indicates a habitual action in the past.|
|Are you going tomorrow?||Yarın gitiyor musun?||Present continuous tense formed with “-iyor” suffix, used to refer to a future event.|
|If I go||Eğer gitersem||Conditional tense with the “-ersem” suffix.|
Turkish verbs are hard. But you can also just learn the most basic ones and get by in everyday life.
While Turkish poses a distinct challenge for English speakers due to its unique grammar, the phonetic nature of its writing system and a systematic approach to learning can make the process easier.
Like any language learning endeavour, persistent effort and practice can eventually lead to mastery.
Hopefully, English speakers reading this will see that Turkish is a complex but achievable goal.
If you have specific experiences learning Turkish — we’d love to hear about it.