An Introduction to Turkish Grammar and What Makes it Different

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Are you thinking of learning Turkish? Then Turkish grammar is likely to be one of the more challenging aspects of it. (Turkish reading/writing and phonology is relatively easy, and vocabulary is just a matter of memorisation.)

Because most textbooks tend to give a huge overview of everything, I thought I’d give the “language learner’s perspective” of the main features of the Turkish grammar.

So consider this to be an introduction to Turkish grammar and what makes it different from other languages that you might know or have studied.

Overall, I’d say Turkish grammar isn’t too hard, compared to most languages. It’s one of the easier languages.

But there are some unique features of Turkish grammar that are worth looking at in detail.

Main Features of Turkish Grammar for learners
Main Features of Turkish Grammar for learners

Turkish Grammar Overview

Below are a few features of Turkish grammar that are noteworthy for language learners.

Yes, these features are shared by other languages, but I’m sure many language learners who have focused on the world’s main European, Asian, Middle-Eastern, and African languages would find some of these new.

The main interesting features of Turkish grammar are:

  • Word order, which is subject-object-verb. “Like Yoda, speak they do”
  • There’s no “Is” (though there is a verb that is used in some cases)
  • Agglutination, or “Sticking words together with other bits to give them meaning”
  • Cases, or “Particles at the ends of words to indicate their role in a sentence”
  • Harmonisation, or “You modify the suffixes and sometimes parts of the words to make the whole word sound nicer”

We’ll look at all of these in turn below.

Plus, we’ll also consider a few aspects of Turkish grammar that aren’t difficult! These include

  • The lack of gender
  • The absence of irregularities
  • The simplicity of plural forms
  • The ease of negation

Count your blessings, after all.

Word Order in Turkish (SOV)

Turkish sentences are arranged in a different order from English and most European languages. Word order is the first obstacle if you’re not used to subject-object-verb (SOV) word order in sentences.

For some people, though, subject-object-verb (SOV) verb order is intuitive — especially if you speak a language that has it, like Japanese, Korean, Turkish, or Hindi/Urdu.

You might like this other article: How hard is Korean for English Speakers?

In English, and most European languages and Chinese (plus many others, but those are the main ones), sentences are subject-verb-object (SVO). So for many others who haven’t dabbled much in Asian languages, SOV is confusing.

Here is how SVO works in English:

  • I (subject) ate (verb) your gummy bears (object).
  • What?? Those (subject) were (verb) chewable sedatives! (object)
  • Great. I’m (subject) calling (verb) the hospital (object).

Of course, there are many other sentence structures in English and in other languages. But in English you can’t say “The force, use, you must!”, unless you’re trying to force sounding like Yoda. (And was he even speaking English, or was there some magic translation going on? Not sure.)

In Turkish, however, you use subject-object-verb. See below for some examples.

I’m looking for a small watermelon.Ben (“I”, subject) küçük bir karpuz (“a small watermelon”, object) arıyorum (“am looking for, verb”)
We have these watermelons here.Burada (“here”) bu karpuzları (“these watermelons”, object) var (“there is / there are”, verb).

(See below note on this sentence)
But those are huge!Ama onlar (“those”, subject) dev (“huge”, adjective)!
Use the force!Gücü (“force”, subject) kullan (“use”)!
English / Turkish showing SOV structure

There is flexibility in word order in Turkish. Because Turkish uses a case system to show what’s a subject and what’s an object, you can move words around for emphasis and focus.

Additionally, you can change word order for questions, and adverbial phrases (like “I’m working at home”, evde çalışıyorum).

The sentence in the above dialogue, “Those are huge!” is an example of an exception to this rule. This sentence also omits “is” as it’s used in English. Let’s look at that next.

“Is” Doesn’t Exist (At Present)

There is no spoon screen grab from The Matrix
There is no “is”

Turkish is one of those languages that doesn’t have a clear “to be” verb in the present tense, where it’s most often used. There is no “is”! (But there is a “there is”…)

There is a verb “to be”, olmak. In the present tense, its presence is usually implied and not explicitly stated.

To say that ice cream is too sweet in languages with a clear “to be” verb, you’d say e.g. (in other languages):

  • Spanish: Ese helado es demasiado dulce
  • French: Cette glace est trop sucrée
  • German: Das Eis ist zu süß
  • Persian: اون بستنی خیلی شیرینه (suffix of “ه”or verb of “است”)

But there are a number of major languages that don’t bother with a “to be” verb (never mind confusing between different kinds of them, like in some Romance languages, like estar and ser in Spanish).

In those languages, you just say “The ice cream sweet” and people get it. It’s quite liberating. Some of these languages are Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and Chinese. (Note: They do have variations of verbs for “to be”, but generally they’re examples of languages where it is often omitted in the present tense.)

Turkish is one of these languages with no “to be” verb. To say “The ice cream is to sweet,” you say “Dondurma” (ice cream) “çok” (too / very) “tatlı” (sweet).

Part of the reason for this in Turkish is that some adjectives can function as verbs in the present tense. It’s a bit like saying “This song rocks!” rather than “This song is quite good.”

There are, of course, many ways of using “is” in English. For example, to say “there is” or “there is not”. Turkish has other ways of saying these things, like “var” for “there is”, or “yok” for “there is not”.

And in other tenses, like past or future, the verb for “to be”, olmak, is still used.

Vowel Harmony

Before going too far, you have to know that “vowel harmony” exists in Turkish grammar (it’s not just a spoken thing)

Vowel harmony sounds complicated and unfamiliar at first. But it’s quite intuitive, and it’s a short set of rules. Once you’ve looked at agglutination and verb conjugation, knowing that the rules are set by vowel harmony greatly reduces the number of things you need to know.

Vowel harmony is a somewhat unique feature of the way in which Turkish is written and spoken. You harmonize the vowels of words and their suffixes. This makes the language sound more fluid and harmonious.

Vowel harmony mostly applies to the suffixes in Turkish. Suffixes are used to describe the relationships of words (cases), and to conjugate verbs.

The core principle of vowel harmony is that it’s a bit like very rough rhyming — you stick to roughly the same side of the mouth (front or back, open or closed)

There are two primary types of vowel harmony in Turkish: “2-way” (a.k.a. e-type, or “simple”) and “4-way” (or i-type, or “compound”).

It’s a topic worthy of its own post. But essentially, you use vowel harmony when choosing how to spell the suffix you’re going to add to a word.

Consider the simple example of vowel harmony in Turkish grammar for plural forms, a 2-way harmony. To make a plural, you add “lar” or “ler” to the of a word. To figure out whether to use lar or ler, you do so based on the last vowel of a noun.

For example, the plural of ev, “house”, is evler. The plural of nar, “pomegranate”, is narlar. (There are some simple and predictable rules for the other possible vowels.)

An example of the 4-way harmony type is the suffix for the accusative case (the object of a sentence, like “apple” in “I ate the apple”). Here, you might have to stock “i”, “ı”, “u”, or “ü” to a word to mark it as an object. Again, it depends on the final vowel.

For example, “milk” is süt. To say “I drank the milk”, you say sütü içtim, adding the “ü” to indicate it’s the object. But for “coffee”, which is kahve, you say kahveyi içtim, adding the “i” instead.

The rules for 4-way harmony are intuitive and come naturally with a bit of practise to see how they correspond with how you naturally speak.

There are exceptions to vowel harmony — like loanwords (like “televizyon” or “yogurt”) and proper nouns.

See here for a complete guide to Turkish vowel harmony — explained simply.

Consonant Harmony / Softening

See more about Turkish consonant harmony here.

Related to vowel harmony is the concept of consonant harmony or consonant softening in Turkish grammar. Again, it relates mostly to suffixes, and the purpose is to make pronunciation more natural and fluid.

Consonant harmony is simpler. If a word ends with a hard consonant of “p”, “ç”, “t”, or “k”, and then gets a suffix that starts with a vowel, you soften them to “b”, “c”, “d” or “g/ğ” respectively.

(The change of “k” to “ğ” is a bit different. In most cases, it turns into “g” rather than “ğ”. It mainly becomes “ğ” when “k” is followed by a vowel, leading to the elongation of the preceding vowel.)

For example, “book” is kitap in Turkish. The object marker is “ı”, a vowel, for this word. But to say “I read the book”, you say kitabı okudum, substituting the “p” for a “b” to soften it.

Similarly, in Turkish, the word for “tree” is “ağaç”. But to say “It’s on the tree”, you add the “ın” particle, which means the whole phrase becomes ağacın üzerinde — changing the ç to a “c”.

Some exclusions to this are most monosyllabic words, loanwords (of recent foreign origin, not long-standing imported words like kitap), and the names of people, places, or things.

Agglutination, or “Stickingtogetherness”

Turkish is an “agglutinative” language.

I am not a fan of complicated grammar words, but you hear this one a lot, so it’s worth knowing. Agglutination means “Sticking things together”. Think of something that’s glutinous, like glutinous sticky rice. Mmm…

Glutinous rice to illustrate agglutination in Turkish
Agglutinated rice

Turkish grammar uses agglutination to:

  • Express relationships: For example, sandwich is sandviç. But “my sandwich” is sandviçim, “your sandwich” is sandviçin, etc.
  • Indicate tense: The verb for “to eat” is yemek. “I ate” is yedim, “I am eating” is yiyorum, “I will eat” is yiyeceğim.
  • Indicate person of a verb: The verb “to want” is İstemek. To say “I want, you want, he/she wants, we want” you’d say istiyorum, istiyorsun, istiyor, istiyoruz. Pronouns aren’t needed other than for emphasis.
  • Describe case of a noun: Turkish uses a case system (more below) to describe a word’s role in a sentence. E.g. “city” is şehir. But to say you live “in the city” you say şehirde. And to say you like the city (as an object) you say şehri.
  • Express negation: You put a particle inside a verb to negate it. E.g. I like it / I don’t like it” is seviyorum / sevmiyorum. “I ate it / I didn’t eat it” is yedim / yemedim.

Note that the negative marker can take a number of forms: me, ma, mı, mi, mu, or mü. This chapter from Turkish Textbook explains it well.

They can be combined, too, of course, e.g. expressing a negative thing in the past tense for another person.

There are other uses of agglutination in Turkish, too (like compound words), but those above are the most common.

Conjugation in Turkish grammar — A Further Word

(Get it, a further word…)

Turkish grammar has conjugation. It works through agglutination (see above). You assemble words by adding various particles to verb stems.

Turkish conjugation is less straightforward than English, which barely has any. But the nice part is that there are very few exceptions (just a short list of common verbs), and it otherwise behaves very predictably.

In terms of complexity, Turkish conjugation is somewhere between Spanish (which has lots of tenses) and German (which has just a few, like English, but also which conjugates for person). It’s quite similar to Persian conjugation, which should be unsurprising (they’re neighbours!), but they are quite different languages, from different families.

Turkish verbs conjugate for six “persons”: I, you, he/she/it, we, you plural, and they. The “you plural” conjugation is the same as the “you formal” conjugation, just like in French (vous) and Persian (شما).

For each person, there’s an ending. We’ll get to that in a second.

Generally all very conjugation follows one pattern:

verb root + [negative?] + tense particle + person ending

The verb root is well known. You get a verb’s infinitive, like yemek (to eat) or anlamak (“to understand”), and remove the -mek or -mak at the end. In some cases, there might be a slight variation for some tenses.

After the root, you consider adding a negation particle, which takes the form of m + i/ı/u/ü, depending on vowel agreement. E.g. while “I speak” is konuşuyorum, “I don’t speak” is konuşmuyorum.

After the negation particle (if any), you add a tense particle. These are fairly consistent. There are four main tenses in Turkish — present simple, past, future, and continuous (the “-ing”) tense. (There are others, like the “can” and “must” aspects, which aren’t exactly tenses.)

For each of these tenses, you take the relevant particle and put it next to the verb. For example, the verb “to speak / talk”, konuşmak, has the stem konuş. To say “I speak, I will speak, I am speaking, I spoke”, you say konuşurum, konuşacağım, konuşuyorum, konuştum.

There are some rules about consonant and vowel agreement (see the above section), but they’re simple rules.

There are a few irregular verbs worth knowing whose stems change slightly. A few of these are gitmek (“to go/leave”), etmek (“to do”), yemek (“to eat”), and demek (“to say”).

One final thing — it’s important to know the role a verb plays in Turkish. Most verbs are accusative — they change or affect something. E.g. you eat an apple, or you love a dog. But verbs can also be dative from something). These affect the nouns around them in different ways — they affect the case.

What’s a case? Good question…

Cases (The Role of Words in Sentences)

For anyone who has studied Russian, German, or Latin, “cases” may strike a chord of fear in your hearts.

But don’t worry! Cases in Turkish grammar are actually way easier than other languages with cases for a few reasons: There’s no grammatical gender, there are few exceptions, and there is a lack of (also exception-filled) declension tables.

Cases are best described as being indicators or flags to say what role a word is playing in a sentence.

If you speak Korean or Japanese, you might be familiar with particles that play similar roles, denoting object or subject.

Side note for Korean speakers: For example, in Korean, to say “I ate the rice”, you say 밥 먹었다 (bab-eul meog-eossda) placing 밥 as the object, but to say “The rice is delicious”, you say 밥 맛있다 (bab-i mas-issda), placing 밥 as the subject.

And for Japanese speakers: To say “I ate the rice”, you say ご飯食べた (gohan o tabeta) placing ご飯 (gohan) as the object, but to say “The rice is delicious”, you say ご飯おいしい (gohan wa oishii), placing ご飯 (gohan) as the subject.

Let’s look at the word “table” in Turkish, which is masa.

EnglishRole of “table”Turkish
This table is dirty.Subject
(Nominative case)
Bu masa kirli. (No changes)
Can you see the table?Object
(Accusative case)
Masa görebiliyor musun?
The top of the table is clean.Possessive / Relationship
(Genitive case)
Masanın üzeri temiz.
I put a book on the table.To / Towards / On
(Dative case)
Masaya bir kitap koydum.
She’s already at the table.At / in / with
(Locative case)
O zaten masada.
I brought the food from the table.From
(Ablative case)
Masadan yemeği getirdim.
I wrote it with a pen.With (Instrumental case)Kalemle yazdım.
Examples of Turkish cases

In each of those examples, the role of the word “table” is different. (In the last one, I used “pen”, as there was no good way to use “table”.)

Because Turkish uses suffixes to indicate the role of a word, there is actually some flexibility in word order in Turkish.

Turkish Grammar Features That Are Easy

It’s also worth looking at the features of Turkish grammar that are not difficult. These include grammatical gender, plurals, and the lack of exceptions.

Firstly, grammatical gender. This language, she has no grammatical gender! Forget Romance languages’ or Arabic’s two genders, or German’s three, or Swahili’s 18 (or so) “noun classes”.

So you don’t have to worry about using different pronouns, or modifying adjectives or even verbs.

Secondly, complicated plurals. There aren’t any! Some languages have all kinds of funky plural forms, like Arabic or German, who decide to all up change the word for its plural form. Turkish doesn’t do it.

Thirdly, negation. Negation in Turkish, other than having to worry about vowel harmony, is very easy, with just a particle inserted into verbs.

Finally, while there are a lot of Turkish grammar rules, there are very few exceptions — and the ones that do exist are rare. This is one of those times when it’s to your advantage to be able to think in rules — learning as an adult is sometimes better.

Wrap up

I hope that was a useful introduction to Turkish grammar’s main features.

If you have any other questions — or want contrasts with other languages — drop a comment below.

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