A thesis submitted to the
Kent State University Honors College
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for General Honors
Hannah Selin Hunter
August, 2013
Thesis written by
Hannah Selin Hunter
Approved by
________________________________________________________________, Advisor
_______________________________________________, Chair, Department of English
Accepted by
___________________________________________________, Dean, Honors College
LIST OF FIGURES.............................................................................................................v
LIST OF TABLES..............................................................................................................vi
VOWEL HARMONY…………………………………………………….…..6
TURKISH VOWEL HARMONY………………………………….………...9
a. ORKHON RUNIC SCRIPT.....................................................18
b. ARABIC ALPHABET.............................................................19
c. LATIN ALPHABET.................................................................24
2. DIALECT DIFFERENCES...............................................................25
3. INVARIABLE SUFFIXES................................................................27
4. COMPOUND WORDS.....................................................................28
5. BORROWED WORDS.....................................................................29
HIGH VS. LOW TURKISH...........................................................................36
ATATÜRK AND THE LANGUAGE REFORM...........................................42
VII. THE NEW ALPHABET.................................................................................56
VIII. LOOKING TO THE FUTURE.......................................................................65
WORK CITED...................................................................................................................69
EXPLANATION OF CD................................................................................71
OVERVIEW OF OLD TURKIC....................................................................77
OVERVIEW OF OTTOMAN TURKISH......................................................87
IPA Chart of Vowels..........................................6
Turkish Vowel Cube...........................................9
Turkish Vowels.................................................10
Front Vowel Harmony......................................11
Back Vowel Harmony......................................11
The Genitive Case............................................12
Arabic Alphabet..........................................19-21
CD Tracks...................................................71-72
Front, Unrounded............................................73
Back, Unrounded............................................73
Front, Rounded...............................................74
Back, Rounded................................................74
Long Turkish Word...................................75-76
The first person I want to thank is my advisor, Dr. Howard. When I initially asked
Dr. Howard to be my thesis advisor I had no confidence that she would agree. I had taken
one class with her the year before, but even if she remembered me I was not sure that she
would have the time or the interest to be my advisor. I am grateful that she did agree
because I cannot imagine working with anyone else on this topic. I know that she was
very busy during the year that I wrote my thesis and I appreciate the time she set aside to
work with me. I also appreciated her enthusiasm about my topic and her guidance.
Without her guidance my thesis and I would have fallen apart many times. It was
genuinely a joy to work with her. I left every meeting wanting to do nothing but work on
my thesis for hours and hours. It was a privilege sharing my thesis experience with her.
Next I would like to thank the rest of my thesis committee. When I asked Dr.
Palmer and Dr. Bindas to be on my committee, they had never met me before, but they
were willing to take a gamble and I appreciate that. Professor Dauterich already knew me
from my Freshman Honors Colloquium, however I only asked him to join my committee
a couple of weeks before my defense. I appreciate his willingness to jump in at such short
notice. I would also like to thank everyone at my defense for having such insightful
comments and questions. The discussion during my defense was challenging and exciting
because of the thoughtful questions presented by the committee members. I left my
defense confident that I had ended up with the best combination of people I could have
hoped for. Thank you all for making time to be on my committee.
I also have to thank my dad, David Hunter, for his constant willingness to bounce
ideas back and forth with me. His insight into the history and politics of Turkey was
always thought provoking and guided me in directions I might not have taken without
him. I can say with confidence that my thesis would not have ended up the way it did
without his comments. Thank you dad for your patience and your seemingly neverending knowledge of everything Turkish. While I am thanking my dad, I must also thank
my aunt, Susan Bohanan. She was kind enough to read through my rough draft and help
me with my final editing. Reading through my entire thesis, especially as a rough draft, is
not something that everyone would be willing to do, so I acknowledge and appreciate her
contribution to my final paper.
Lastly, I want to thank my friend Remona Dowell. She was the first person to tell
me about an Honors Thesis and encourage me to write one. It took a full year for her
suggestion to bear fruit, but eventually it id. Throughout the thesis writing process she
instilled in me the perfect mixture of confidence and terror. She kept me responsible by
asking me periodically how my thesis was going and gave me advice when I was lost. If
she had not encouraged me to write a thesis, I can honestly say I never would have.
Chapter I
Before introducing the birth and development of the thesis, a few general notes will
be helpful. This thesis includes many Turkish words and sounds as well as some Arabic
words and sounds. These words and sounds are represented either in an alphabetic form
or in a phonetic form. When a Turkish word is given, as it is spelled in Turkish, it is
italicized and the English translation is put in parentheses, for example the word el
(hand). When an Arabic word is given it is not italicized, but the English translation is
still provided in parentheses. If, however, the word is written phonetically with the
International Phonetic Alphabet, the word will be put in forward slashes and again the
English translation will be provided in parentheses if it had not already been provided, for
example the word /el/ (hand). When a letter is referred to it is put in angle brackets, for
example the letter <a>. If instead of a letter a sound, or a phoneme, as it is officially
referred to, is given, then simple brackets are used, for example the phoneme, [a]. If the
reader does not know the International Phonetic Alphabet, or if they simply want to hear
the words pronounced, there is a CD in the back of the thesis that includes the
pronunciations of most of the Turkish words. There is also an explanation and guide to
the CD given in the Appendix.
The inspiration for this thesis came from the Kent State University course, “The
History of the English Language,” taught by Dr. Howard. This course did not
immediately lead to the idea of a thesis, but when combined with an interest in the
Turkish language became the initial thesis proposal titled “The Morphological History of
the Turkish Language.” The interest in the Turkish language stemmed from my
childhood, which was spent in Turkey. My background in Turkish also aided the research
as it would have been much more difficult without my fluency in the Turkish language.
The initial idea was very broad, the only clear direction was to study the history of
the Turkish people and their language as far back as it could go. Through initial research,
this broad idea quickly led to the more narrow idea that Turkish has remained remarkably
similar throughout the centuries. This was based off of a comparison to the English
language. In the course, the History of the English Language, Dr. Howard had pointed
out how English has changed significantly in the past centuries. In comparison to
English, Turkish has not changed nearly as significantly in a similar time frame. This
argument was to be proven or disproven through research throughout the following year.
Research on Old Turkic led down two roads, first, research on vowel harmony, and
second, research on Ottoman Turkish. The research on vowel harmony led down a long
road of research that linguists have done on Turkish vowel harmony. Linguists often
disagreed on the specific causes for disharmony or even on how Turkish vowel harmony
works in the first place. The research on Ottoman Turkish led to a study of the Arabic
language and the influence it had on the Turkish language1. However, it became very
apparent that the effects of the Arabic language on the Turkish language were inseparable
from the effects that the Arabic people had on the Turkish people. The Arabic language
entered the Turkish language and mixed with it for a political reason. This then led to
$!Prior knowledge of the Arabic language, from a single semester of a foreign language
course, was very helpful in understanding the influence it had on the Turkish language.!
research on the Ottoman Empire itself, the politics at the time and eventually Atatürk.
Atatürk was another example of politics and language being intertwined. Atatürk used
language to reach the political goals he was aiming for.
This thesis began on a purely lingual note, but inevitably soaked in politics along
the way. The purpose of language is communication and the ability to communicate
equally distributes lingual power. However, it became apparent that during the Ottoman
Empire the language of the government was used to block communication between
classes. The educated class spoke a different language completely than the language of
the uneducated masses. This cut the uneducated people off from the ability to read and
write, which also disabled them from understanding Ottoman laws and therefore knowing
their rights. Although the focus of this thesis is on vowel harmony in Turkish, it is
impossible to talk about vowel harmony without acknowledging one of the most common
causes of disruption in vowel harmony: borrowed words. The majority of borrowed
words in Turkish come from the Arabic language. The influence of the Arabic language
on the Turkish language is inseparable from the politics of the Ottoman Empire and the
role of religion in government. The Arabic language and the Muslim religion are
understandably bound. Therefore, the more religious the government becomes the more
Arabic is used. The more secular the government becomes the less Arabic is used. This is
also true of individuals in Turkey. The more religious a person is the more Arabic they
will know and use.
Language holds power. It either allows for communication or it disables
communication. Language can be used to oppress a particular group of people, or control
a particular group of people. Oppression through language is a form of structural violence
that has been a part of Turkish history since the beginning of the Ottoman Empire. The
struggle between Arabic and Turkish is parallel to the struggle between secularism and
Islam. This struggle has been displayed in modern Turkey through the two main political
parties; the secular party and the religious party. The recent protests in Istanbul, the
largest city in Turkey, are centered on the age-old battle of secularism vs. Islam. The
connection between Turkish vowel harmony and Turkish politics may not be
immediately obvious. However, they are in fact linked through the power that language
holds. Language shapes culture, just as culture shapes language.
Although the history and politics of the Turkish language are very important to the
topic of this thesis, the focus is in fact on vowel harmony. Vowel harmony is a distinct
feature of the Turkish language and is explained at the very beginning of the thesis.
Although vowel harmony is a significant feature of Turkish, it does have exceptions.
These exceptions are clearly addressed in the chapter titled “Disharmony.” However,
what is also shown is that every word has a little vowel harmony. Even when vowel
harmony is broken, Turkish has a rule to fix it and continue on with a new harmony.
Vowel harmony is never completely dropped in Turkish. This resilience of a Turkish
linguistic feature embodies the resilience of Turkish identity. Instead of allowing the
foreign borrowing to break vowel harmony, the Turkish language adapted and created
rules to continue vowel harmony. In the same way, instead of allowing foreign peoples to
break their spirit, the Turkish people rose up and reclaimed their identity as Turks at the
end of the Ottoman Empire.
Chapter II
Vowel harmony is a distinguishing feature of the Turkish language. There will be a
deeper explanation and analysis later; however, this chapter is meant only as a broad
explanation of the concept of vowel harmony. It is important to explain the concept early,
as it will inevitably be mentioned throughout the following chapters.
Before delving into vowel harmony, a brief discussion of vowels will be given.
When discussing vowels Yule says:
“While consonant sounds are mostly articulated via closure or obstruction
in the vocal tract, vowel sounds are produced with a relatively free flow of
air. They are all typically voiced. To describe vowel sounds, we consider
the way in which the tongue influences the shape through which airflow
must pass. To talk about a place of articulation, we think of the space
inside the mouth as having a front versus a back and a high versus a low
area. Thus, in the pronunciation of heat and hit, we talk about “high,
front” vowels because the sound is made with the front part of the tongue
in a raised position. In contrast, the vowel sound in hat is produced with
the tongue in a lower position and the sound in hot can be described as a
“low, back” vowel.” (Yule, 33-34)
A chart of all vowels from the International Phonetic Alphabet is shown below. The
International Phonetic Alphabet, often shortened to IPA, is a phonetic notation of sounds
that is primarily based on the Latin alphabet. The International Phonetic Alphabet has a
one to one ratio of symbols to sounds. In other words the symbol [!] will always be
pronounced as the <i> in the English word “bit.” The International Phonetic Alphabet can
be very useful when representing words in foreign languages and will be used commonly
in later chapters.
Figure 1. IPA Chart of Vowels
Vowel harmony is a system of vowel assimilation, which in this context refers to
phones adapting to be more similar, based on specific features. Vowel harmony does not
go beyond the word boundary but is not limited to the syllable; it is a morphological
feature that affects an entire word. There are progressive and regressive vowel harmonies.
In progressive vowel harmony, the vowel at the beginning of a word determines the
feature(s) that the following vowels adopt. In regressive vowel harmony, the vowel at the
end of the word is the determiner and the preceding vowels adopt the appropriate
features. The assimilating features include vowel height, vowel backness, vowel
roundedness, tongue root position, and nasalization.
Vowel harmony is found in a number of languages. Although many languages
show traces of vowel harmony or historically had vowel harmony, not many still have a
strong vowel harmony system. Two of the major language branches with vowel harmony
are Uralic languages and Turkic languages. In the Uralic language family as well as a few
other languages with vowel harmony, there are neutral vowels. These neutral vowels do
not hinder or block vowel harmony, but they also do not quite fit in with it. They exist
outside of the realm of vowel harmony, as ghosts, while vowel harmony passes through
them. Although these neutral vowels are not considered to break vowel harmony, they
certainly do not create a neat little package for vowel harmony and lead to complications.
Turkish does not have these troublesome neutral vowels and in fact at first glance the
Turkish language seems to have a straightforward and beautiful system of vowel
harmony. The chart above shows that there are four front, four back, four round, and four
unrounded vowels. Not only does Turkish not have neutral vowels, it also has perfect
symmetry, at first glance.
Chapter III
The Turkish language has progressive vowel harmony with the determining
features of vowel backness, vowel roundedness, and vowel height. Below are two charts
to illustrate the Turkish vowel inventory. The image of a cube shows the IPA chart of the
vowel inventory in Turkish presented as a cube. The table shows the Turkish spellings
with the IPA symbols2.
Figure 1. Turkish Vowel Cube
</[email protected]!/!AB!9/6!0114!"4;?3515!"4!291!0/;=!-8!29"6!2916"6!>"29!/4!/35"-!.1;-.5"47C!
<i> [i]
<ü> [y]
<ı> ["]
<u> [u]
<e> [e]
<ö> [œ]
<a> [a]
<o> [o]
Table 1. Turkish Vowels
The first chart above shows that Turkish has four back vowels: [a], [o], [u], ["] and
four front vowels: [e], [i], [y], [œ]. Turkish also has four rounded vowels: [o], [u], [œ],
[y] and four unrounded vowels: [a], ["], [e], [i]. Lastly, Turkish has four high: [i], [y],
["], [u] and four low (non-high) vowels: [e], [œ], [a], [o]. The intricate rules involving
roundedness harmony will not be discussed in this chapter; they will be discussed in the
chapter on a deeper look at vowel harmony. Because vowel height only relates to
roundedness harmony and not backness harmony it will not be discussed in this section
Now that the theory has been explained, some examples will demonstrate how
vowel harmony works in practice. The Turkish word deniz (ocean) has an two front,
unrounded vowel: [e] and [i]. When a plural suffix is added to the root the vowel in the
suffix must match the front, unrounded vowels in the base word. Therefore, deniz
becomes deniz-ler (oceans) with the [e] matching the frontness and unroundedness of the
[e] and [i] in the root word. Turkish has many more inflectional endings than English
including the accusative suffix. When the accusative suffix is added the word denizler
(oceans) becomes denizler-e (to the oceans) with the accusative suffix. In this word, too,
the following vowel [e] follows the front and unrounded features of the initial vowels [e]
and [i]. To help visualize this process a chart is given below:
Base word
Plural ending
Plural form
+ ler =
Table 2. Front Vowel Harmony
The same suffixes for a word beginning with a back vowel will have a back vowel.
For example, the word balık (fish) has two back, unrounded vowels. If we put the same
plural ending on this word as deniz (ocean), we would get the word balık-lar (fish plural).
With the accusative ending added on it would become balıklar-a [to the (plural) fish].
Once again a chart is added below to help visualize the process.
Base word
Plural ending
Plural form
+ lar =
Table 3. Back Vowel Harmony
Turkish is a case heavy language, relying very little on prepositions and personal
pronouns. Due to vowel harmony some form of adaptation is required. The solution in
Turkish is that the case endings have multiple forms they can take. For example the
dative case would be expressed differently for the words bahçe (garden) and araba (car).
bahçe-ye (to the garden)
araba-ya (to the car)
The dative ending can be expressed with either the vowel [a] or [e]. This is to ensure that
the suffix can agree in backness with the root it is attached to. Where the dative case only
has two vowel options for its endings, the genitive case has four. It not only ensures the
possibility of agreeing with the feature of backness, but also roundedness. If we take the
words bahçe (garden) and araba (car) from before and add the words köy (village) and
okul (school) in the genitive case the result can be seen below.
Base form
Genitive ending
Genitive form
back + rounded
okul +
un =
front + rounded
köy +
ün =
back + unrounded
araba +
nın =
front + unrounded
bahçe3 +
nin =
Table 4. The Genitive Case
bahçe-nin (the garden’s)
araba-nın (the car’s)
köy-ün (the village’s)
okulun (the school’s)
Turkish, however, is not only a case heavy language; it is also generally a suffix
heavy language. The verb “to be” does not exist on the lexical level in Turkish the way it
does in English. This makes sentences such as “I am who I am,” incredibly difficult to
translate and even professional translators can only come up with Ben benim, which
translates back into English as “I am me.” Another possible translation could be Ben
oldu!um ki"iyim, which, translated back into English, would be “I am the person who I
am.” The word ki"i (person) must be added in order for the suffix -yim (I am) to have a
root to be attached to.
There are suffixes in Turkish that do not have more than one form. An example of a
suffix that does not adapt in Turkish is -/ken/, which refers to the preposition “while.”
&!G?29-379!291!>-.5!!"#$%!9/6!0-29!/!0/;=!#->1?!/45!/!8.-42!#->[email protected]!/??!6388"E16!H362!
/7.11!>"[email protected]!291!8.-42!#->1?C!<[email protected]!!"#$%!;/4!01!3615!2-!69->!8.-42!#->1?!
Some examples of this suffix are shown below.
bahçe-de (in the garden)
bahçe-de(y)-ken (while (any personal pronoun)4 was in the garden)
araba-da (in the car)
araba-da(y)-ken (while (any personal pronoun) was in the car)
You can see that the first example follows vowel harmony, but the second example does
not. If there were two versions to the ending /ken/, then the second example would be
araba-day-kan. However, only one version exists and so /ken/, breaks vowel harmony in
words with back vowel roots.
Even linguists do not agree on the specifics of Turkish vowel harmony. Some say
that roundedness is a significant feature; others say that is not even a feature of vowel
harmony in Turkish. Many theories are put forth to explain the significant number of
words lacking vowel harmony in Turkish. One of the theories that is mentioned by a
number of linguists is the existence of opaque vowels in Turkish. Opaque vowels are
seen when a “non-alternating ‘neutral’ vowel blocks the spread of [vowel harmony] and
spreads its own feature value” (Mailhot & Reiss). In other words and invariable suffix
could count as an example of an opaque vowel in Turkish. The vowel in the invariable
suffix breaks the current vowel harmony and begins a new harmony of it’s own. The
vowels following the invariable suffix must agree with the new features and not the old.
The article “Vowel and Consonant Disharmony in Turkish” by Clements and Sezer
'!Because there is a lack of gender in the Turkish language without context it is
impossible to determine whether the personal pronoun translates to “he,” “she,” or “it.” In
Turkish “he,” “she,” and “it” are all the same word, the word o.!
claims that much of the apparent disharmony in the Turkish language actually comes
from opaque vowels. However, they do not make it clear in the article why opaque
vowels occur to begin with and give no pattern for their occurrence in Turkish. Therefore,
their argument seems to come down to replacing the title “disharmony” with “opaque.”
The article “ Computing Long-Distance Dependencies” by Mailhot and Reiss also
mentions opaque vowels in relation to the Turkish language as well as in relation to other
languages. In relation to Turkish, this article implies that the Turkish plural form, having
only two variations with no rounded options, is a form of opaqueness. The article says
“the situation we observed in Turkish, in which the [-ROUND] value on the plural suffix
‘blocks’ access to the value for [ROUND] on the preceding root vowel, sheds light on the
phenomena that characterize opaque vowels in harmony systems” (Mailhot & Reiss).
However, they then argue that this is not truly blocking the roundedness feature, it is
simply agreeing with the preceding vowel as best as it can within it’s own limitations.
However, it is agreeing with the preceding vowel and is not therefore a true occurrence of
an opaque vowel. With the definition of an opaque vowel in mind, it does seem that this
occurrence in Turkish cannot be categorized as an opaque vowel. I would therefore argue
that true opaque vowels do not exist in Turkish, except for invariable suffixes. However,
with no other example of opaque vowels in Turkish, it seems unnecessary to refer to
invariable suffixes as opaque vowels as well.
While there are no pure examples of opaque vowels in Turkish, the article “Vowel
Harmony in Turkish and Turkmen” by Tosun lays out the theory that [-HI] vowels are in
fact opaque with respect to rounding. This theory upon examination stands it’s ground.
The majority of examples of Turkish words beginning with a [-HI] and [+ROUND]
vowel show that the following vowel is [-HI] and [-ROUND]. However, words beginning
with a [+HI] and [+ROUND] have following vowels with the exact same features. The
article “Computing Long-Distance Dependencies,” says very similarly “[+HIGH]
suffixes are lexically unspecified for [ROUND], whereas the [-HIGH] suffixes are
lexically [-ROUND].” Although they refer to [+HI] suffixes as unspecified rather than as
[+ROUND], the basic idea of the two theories is the same.
There is a pattern, however, of this rule being broken after palatalized consonants.
Palatalized consonants will be discussed further in the section on compound words under
“Disharmony Causes.” For now it is enough to know that palatalized consonants
influence the back vowels following them to be higher and fronter. Therefore, the mid
vowels [o] and [ö], after a palatalized consonant become high vowels and obey rounding
harmony. A couple of examples given by Mailhot and Reiss are: usûl (system), which
becomes usûlü (his/her/its system) and me"gûl (busy), which becomes me"gûldüm (I was
busy). In these examples it can be seen that the back vowel [u], becomes the front vowel
[ü] due to the palatalized [u]. Rounding is also followed because both [u] and [ü] are high
vowels. In examples of heightening, however, the weakness of palatal representation in
Turkish writing is revealed again. The only letter in the Turkish language that can be
written with hats, showing their palatalization are the vowels [a], [e], [i] and [u]. Not only
are these vowels and not consonants, even though consonants are the actual palatalized
sounds, they also do not include any mid rounded vowels. Considering that palatalization
has, arguably, the greatest effect on these mid rounded vowels, it seems odd that even
when they are palatalized there is no visual sign of it. For example, the word petrol
(gasoline) in Turkish has a palatalized [o] and is therefore followed by an [ü] in the word
petrolü (his/her/its gasoline). However, the word cannot be spelled as petrôlü, as
expected, because the letter <ô> does not exist. The same is the case with the word göl
(lake). When the first person possessive ending is added it becomes gölüm (my lake).
There is no hat that can go above the letter <ö>, yet the following [l] is palatalized and
therefore creates a higher [ö]. Due to the heightening of this vowel the following vowel is
also rounded. Despite the fact that a system does exist to indicate palatalization not only
is it falling out of use completely, but even when it is correctly used it fails to account for
all palatalized sounds.
It is easy to see that although Turkish is presented to many as having a beautiful,
symmetric system of vowel harmony with four back, four front, four rounded, four
unrounded, four high and four mid vowels, that is not the whole story. Palatalized sounds
in Turkish occur in front of back vowels, though only in borrowed words. This leads to
back vowels being pronounced frontally and mid height vowels being pronounced closer
to high vowels. Due to height being an important factor in rounding harmony,
palatalization also affects rounding. There are also many exceptions to vowel harmony
stemming from invariable suffixes (-/ken/, -/da#/, -/yor/, -/leyin/, -/imtrak/, -/ki/, and
-/gil/), compound words and borrowed words. There are also examples of vowel harmony
being broken in native words, but these examples are rare. All of these things point to a
much more complicated system of vowel harmony. However, the rules about rounding
opacity display consistency where simple disharmony could be seen instead. Turkish
vowel harmony upon first glance looks flawless, upon second glance looks chaotic and
upon third glance looks complex. There are overarching rules of harmony and then there
are the more detailed rules that are equally important to take into consideration. Native
speakers do not learn these rules in school, but naturally adopt them through exposure to
the language. This is, of course, the case with native speakers and the grammar of any
language. Still, it is interesting to think that the average Turk has no idea about the
intricacies of vowel harmony that they follow day to day as they speak.
Chapter IV
1. Writing Systems
Although Turkish does have a strong system of vowel harmony, there are a few
categories where disharmony occurs. However, before we dive into disharmony it is
appropriate to pause and discuss the different writing systems that Turkish has had over
the years. These writing systems, as a general rule, have not been appropriate for the
Turkish language and vowel harmony.
a. Orkhon Runic alpabet
The Orkhon Turkic language was written with a runic alphabet that is thought to
have been derived from the Aramaic/Iranian writing systems. However, the Orkhon
Turkic alphabet had not only syllabic features, but also some letters to indicate vowels
and letters to indicate consonants, unlike the Aramaic/Iranian syllabaries. The
Aramaic/Iranian systems were syllabic in nature and did not use symbols for individual
vowel sounds. Syllabaries are writing systems that represent syllables instead of
individual sounds. Although the writing system for Orkhon Turkic was a mixture
between syllabic and alphabetic systems of writing, later texts show that it was shifting in
the direction of alphabetic writing. In texts from Eastern Turkestan, it can be seen that
vowels were beginning to be used abundantly in writing, leading the way to a more
alphabetic system. This shows that although Turkish borrowed its earliest alphabet from a
different language family, the Indo-European family of languages, over time the alphabet
was shifting to fit the Turkish language more appropriately. Due to the feature of vowel
harmony in Turkish it is important to represent vowels separately. A syllabic alphabet
simply does not clearly represent Turkish and does not accommodate vowel harmony as
it ideally should. The Orkhon Turkic alphabet was therefore not a good alphabet for
Turkish at first, but had the potential to become one if it was given enough time to
b. Arabic alphabet
However, before the Turkish language had time to transform the Indo-European
alphabet it had borrowed completely, it borrowed a Semitic alphabet. When the Turks
became Muslims en masse, they also adopted many Arabic words and the Arabic
alphabet. Before beginning an analysis of how the Arabic alphabet was ill suited for the
Turkish language, first there is a table below. The table shows the Ottoman version of the
Arabic alphabet, the modern Turkish equivalent and then the International Phonetic
Alphabet’s symbol to clarify the sound it made.
Modern Turkish
a, e
[a], [e]
b, p
[b], [p]
c, ç
[d! "], [t! "]
[d! "]
d, z
[d], [z]
d, t
[d], [t]
g, @
[g], [A]
k, y
[k], [j]
g, k
[g], [k]
h, e, a
[h], [æ]
a, e
[a], [e]
o, ö, u, ü
[o], [œ], [u], [y]
ı, i
["], [i]
Table 1. Arabic Alphabet
As shown in the chart above5 transliteration from Ottoman Turkish to modern
Turkish is difficult due to ambiguity, especially in terms of vowels. The reason that
vowels are especially difficult to transliterate is due to essential differences between the
Arabic and Turkish languages and connectedly between the Arabic and Latin alphabets.
The Arabic language has an intricate root system. In Arabic there are root words
and from those root words there are rules as to how to form other words. This means that
when an Arabic speaker learns one new root they immediately know around 50 new
words. Because of the emphasis on consonants and the intricate root system in Arabic
there is not a strong need to write out vowels. The Arabic system, therefore, does not
include short vowels; it only includes the long vowels. This system of writing works for
the Arabic language because of the characteristics mentioned above. However, Turkish is
a vowel heavy language and does not have the same root system as Arabic. This led to a
significant amount of confusion in Ottoman Turkish writing and leads to confusion in
transliteration. Another issue that leads to confusion in transliteration is the fact that
Arabic and Turkish have different vowels and Turkish, the vowel heavy language, has
more vowels. The vowels that Arabic and Turkish share are <a>, <i>, <o>, <u> ([a], [i],
L!This chart was taken from the Wikipedia page on the Ottoman Turkish alphabet.
However, it was modified with information from Thomas T. Pedersen’s transliteration of
the Ottoman Turkish alphabet.!
[o], [u]) and the vowels they do not share are <e>, <ı>, < ü>, <ö> ([e], ["], [y], [œ]).
During the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was written with the Arabic alphabet; however, no
additional vowels were created to represent the Turkish vowels that do not exist in
Arabic. Instead, the reader was left to guess from context, which word the author
intended and therefore which vowel should be pronounced. The chart above shows just
how ambiguous these vowels could be in Ottoman Turkish if they were even written,
which they often were not. One of the saving graces for Ottoman Turkish reading and
writing was the vowel harmony that is characteristic of the Turkish language. Vowel
harmony could help the reader guess which vowel sound the ending should have as long
as the root had a clear indication of the vowel. However, if the reader did not see a vowel
in a native Turkish word and could not guess the vowel the assumption was that [e]
should be read.
However, the vowels were not the only ambiguous letters in Ottoman Turkish.
There were also “hard” consonants [k], [x], [ z], [t], [d], [s] (O9 O: O; O< O/ C) that were
followed by the vowels [a], ["], [o], and [u] and “soft” consonants [P], [t], [k], [s], [5],
[d] (O6 O, OD O0 O* +) that were followed by the vowels [e], [i], [y], and [œ]6. In this case
“hard” refers to pharyngealized sounds in which the pharynx is contracted during
articulation. This contraction of the pharynx makes the sounds harsher sounding, hence
the name “hard.” The “soft” consonants are not pharyngealized. When Ottoman Turkish
borrowed words from Arabic, it preserved the spelling. However, Turkish does not have
all of the same sounds that Arabic does. This meant that Ottoman Turkish ended up with
(!Source: “A Simplified Grammar of the Ottoman-Turkish Language” by Sir James
William Redhouse, page 48.!
multiple spellings for the same sound. For example, it has three symbols for the sounds
[z] and [s], two for [h] and one for [x], two for [d] and two for [t]. One [z] was a [z] in
Arabic; the other [z] was a [P] in Arabic, which does not exist in Turkish. The last [z]
could also be pronounced as a [d] in Ottoman Turkish and was a hard consonant,
indicating what the vowel following it should be. However, the actual pronunciation of
all three was the same. The same is true with the [s]. One [s] came from the Arabic [s],
the other came from the Arabic [P] sound and the third was a hard [s] affecting the
pronunciation of the following vowel. There were three symbols for [h] in Arabic and
although modern Turkish only has sound, Ottoman Turkish did have two sounds [h] and
[x]. It had both the soft [h] and hard [x]. Lastly, the two symbols each for [d] and [t] were
simply one soft and one hard consonant, influencing the vowels following, but no
distinction in their pronunciations. Ottoman Turkish therefore manipulated the Arabic
alphabet for its own purposes. Since Arabic was rich in its representation of consonants
and poor in its representation of vowels, Ottoman Turkish used the consonants to
distinguish between vowels. However, this hardly seems like an efficient system. Not
only were there multiple consonants for the same sound, but there were also consonants
that represented more than one sound. The letter <D> could represent anything from a [k]
to a [g] to an [n]. The chart above shows that there were separate letters for these sounds;
however, the other two letters were rarely ever used. Literacy in Ottoman Turkish was
truly an art and required at the least a basic knowledge of Turkish, Arabic and Persian.
Due to the fact that literacy in Ottoman Turkish required knowledge of all three
languages and was quite complicated in the rules of spelling, the literacy rate in the
Ottoman Empire was very low. Only the highly educated were truly proficient in reading
and writing in Ottoman Turkish and even they made many mistakes in spelling or had
variations in spelling. When foreigners wanted to learn the Ottoman Turkish language
they would go through a process of learning how to speak the language using Latin letters
and transliteration. Then once they had learned how to speak the language they could
start learning the alphabet and eventually learn to read and write. This is because reading
and writing Ottoman Turkish was dependent on already knowing the language. Without
knowing the language attempting to read or write Ottoman Turkish would simply be a
guessing game.
The Arabic alphabet is very well suited to the Arabic languages and could possibly
be well suited to other Semitic languages. However, it is not suited to the Turkish
language for the many reasons already laid out above. Arabic does not focus on vowel
representation, because it is not necessary in Arabic. Turkish must have clear vowel
representation to accommodate for its vowel harmony.
c. Latin alphabet
The Latin alphabet was not taken from a specific language because at the time
many European languages from different language families were using the Latin
alphabet. The Latin alphabet is certainly the most phonetic system of writing that Turkish
has used to date. A letter represents each sound, for the most part. Therefore the vowels
are shown individually unlike the Runic syllabary and the Arabic alphabet. However, the
Latin alphabet is not perfect. The shortcomings of the Latin alphabet will be outlined in
more detail in chapter five, “The New Alphabet.” Right now it is enough to say that the
Latin alphabet, while not perfectly representing the Turkish language, represents it better
than any of its predecessors.
Turkish has never had an alphabet that perfectly fits the language. The Runic script
used before the Arabic script was inspired by they Aramaic/Iranian Runic script at the
time. It seems undeniable that the different alphabets, from different language families,
that Turkish has used have affected the language. While Turkish was still using the Runic
script inspired by the Aramaic/Iranian syllabary it had already begun to shift into a more
alphabetic system. However, soon after this shift the Turkish language was invaded by
the Arabic alphabet, which has already been shown not to suit the Turkish language. The
current Latin alphabet was the first alphabet used for Turkish where the structure of the
Turkish language was taken into consideration.
2. Dialect Differences
During the Ottoman Empire, the definition of an “Ottoman” was not very
connected to any ethnicity. As long as someone could speak Ottoman Turkish, had
Ottoman manners, was loyal to the sultan, and believed in Islam, not only could they be
considered Ottoman, but they could also be accepted into the ruling class. This broad
acceptance led to a lot of ethnic mixing in the Empire, the ruling class and in the sultan’s
own family. However, the stipulation that someone had to have the customs and language
of the Ottomans in order to be of the ruling class effectively excluded Turks from
positions of power. The Turks still spoke simple Turkish and held onto their cultural
customs, while the Ottomans had embraced Arabic and Persian into their language and
customs. Technically, the Ottoman Empire had Turkish roots; but in reality, it was a
complete mixture of ethnicities and religions. This mixture has been reduced either by
elimination of other ethnicities such as the Armenian genocide or a trade such as when
Turkey gave Greece their own citizens from inside Turkish borders to receive Turks from
Greece in turn. The borders of Turkey were also significantly reduced after the Ottoman
Empire, which reduced the number of different peoples in Turkey.
However, even with all of this purification and the nationalism that came after
WWI, Turkey is still a diverse country with many dialects. There are naturally many
different dialects and accents in Turkey either left over from the Ottoman times or due to
influence from surrounding countries or other circumstances. These different dialects and
even accents can change vowels in their pronunciations. This appears to disrupt vowel
harmony. However, it is not a true disruption, as it does not change standard Turkish and
because all of the vowels in a different dialect are often pronounced differently.
Therefore, even if a word looks like it doesn’t have harmony on paper, often it does. For
example, in Azerbaijan there is a front <a> that makes the sound [æ]. If someone on the
border with Azerbaijan picked up the front <a> pronunciation, then it makes sense that
they would follow it with front vowels, not back vowels, in order to follow vowel
harmony. This would look disharmonious to a Turk speaking standard Turkish because
they would assume that the <a> is pronounced as a back <a>.
Turkey has quite a few dialects and accents, although more accents than dialects.
However, although there are different dialects and those dialects pronounce words
differently, this does not truly affect vowel harmony. It is a superficial problem, not truly
a cause of disharmony.
3. Invariable Suffixes
Turkish often has four forms for its suffixes to cover both the backness and
roundedness features, and it rarely has fewer than two forms, to cover at least the
backness feature. However, there are some suffixes in Turkish have one invariant form,
and these suffixes, by nature, must break vowel harmony in certain words. Vowel
harmony appears to be absent from some of these words, but it is not. It follows different
rules when it comes across an invariable suffix; that is, when the vowel in the invariable
suffix does not match the initial vowel in the word, vowel harmony “restarts” with the
invariable suffix’s vowel. Any subsequent suffixes will harmonize with the vowel in the
invariable suffix. An example of an invariable suffix in Turkish is the suffix -yor, for the
3rd person singular present progressive tense. The word gel (come), beginning with a
front, unrounded vowel, becomes gel-dim (I came) and geldi!im-de (when I came).
However, with the 3rd person singular present progressive tense suffix, gel (come)
becomes geli-yor (he/she/it is coming). The [o] in –yor does not harmonize with the [e] in
gel (come). The suffix -yor will harmonize with all base words containing back vowels,
but will not harmonize with any base words containing front vowels. Any suffix
following -yor must agree with the back vowel [o], not necessarily with the vowels in the
base. The first-person present progressive form of the word gel (come) becomes geliyorum (I am coming), in which the final vowel, [u], agrees in backness with the vowel [o]
from the invariable suffix directly before it, not with the initial front vowel [e] of the base
Although invariable suffixes do appear to simply break vowel harmony, in reality
they also start a new rule. Invariable suffixes are a native problem in Turkish and Turkish
has found a system to manage them. Vowel harmony does not simply quit when it runs
into an invariable suffix, but instead, it starts again. Invariable suffixes have also
decreased since Orkhon Turkic, showing that Turkish has a tendency to create an
alternate to an invariable suffix in order to better obey vowel harmony. There are still a
few invariable suffixes in Turkish, namely: -/ken/, -/da#/, -/yor/, -/leyin/, -/imtrak/, -/ki/,
and -/gil/. However, of these only -/ken/, -.yor/, -/ki/, and -/gil/ are used commonly. The
others are only used in specific words and are historical endings at this point.
4. Compound Words
Another cause of disharmony in Turkish is compound words. A word such as
bugün (today) does not have vowel harmony because it is a compound word. Bu (this)
and gün (day) create the word bugün (today). In this case, just as with invariable suffixes,
the harmony picks up with the last vowel in gün (day), not the initial vowel in bu (this).
In the genitive, therefore, the word becomes bugünün (today’s), and the vowel in the
suffix, [ü], agrees with the vowel directly preceding it, [ü], not with the initial vowel, [u].
5. Borrowed words
Before we talk about borrowed words, we will pause and discuss the history of
Persian and Arabic borrowing in Turkish. It will be helpful to understand the reasons why
so much of the Arabic and Persian languages entered Turkish.
The Turks were a nomadic people originating from the steppes of Southeast Asia.
As they moved westward they ran into Muslim Persian and Arabic forces and decided to
become Muslim themselves. This conversion to Islam was not only religious; it was also
political and lingual. As the Turks conquered land and began to settle down, they
modeled their government off of the Persian government and began speaking some
Persian. Eventually, by the start of the Ottoman Empire Persian was the language of the
government and Arabic was naturally the language of religion because the Quran is
written in Arabic and must be read in Arabic.
The language of the Ottomans was, as mentioned above, comprised of Turkish,
Persian and Arabic for the most part. The Turkish language provided a base, or a starting
point for the Ottoman language. Persian was the language of bureaucracy and literature,
in other words the language of culture and beauty. Arabic was the language of religion
and also education. The more Persian and Arabic words that a person used during the
Ottoman Empire, the more educated and poetic they were considered to be. However, as
rejected as Turkish was and as accepted as Arabic and Persian were, the Ottoman Turkish
language always remained, for the most part, Turkish in it’s structure. It also continued to
adapt the Arabic and Persian words that were accepted into the language to the Turkish
conjugations and suffixes, though Arabic and Persian structures of course seeped into the
Turkish language. These influences affected one of the defining characteristics of the
Turkish language: vowel harmony.
Turkish vowels have perfect symmetry, at first glance. This, however, is a
simplified version of a much more complex system. The eight vowels that are generally
accepted as the vowels in Turkish are not actually the only vowel sounds in the Turkish
language. Due to foreign borrowings, especially from Arabic and Persian new vowel
sounds entered the Turkish language. These new sounds are becoming Turkicized over
time, but as the fall of the Ottoman Empire was only around 100 years ago the Arabic and
Persian influences on the Turkish language are still very fresh. One of the new sounds
introduced into Turkish by Arabic and Persian was palatalized consonants in front of
back vowels. The sounds [k], [g] and [l] are naturally palatalized before front vowels.
This happens through assimilation. The sounds [k], [g] and [l] are the consonant
equivalents of back vowels. In anticipation of a front vowel the tongue starts to move
forward when pronouncing these “back” consonants, thereby creating a “fronted” or
palatalized pronunciation. However native Turkish words have no palatalization before
back vowels, while Arabic and Persian do. Although the palatalized sounds [kQ], [gQ] and
[lQ] themselves are consonants, they affect the vowels that follow them. In the same way
that front vowels create palatalized consonants through assimilation, palatalized
consonants can then create palatalized back vowels. Therefore, when a palatalized
consonant is followed by a back vowel the back vowel is pronounced as a frontal vowel.
This could lead to confusion in the perfect system of vowel harmony that Turkish
supposedly has, especially because it deals with the most important feature in vowel
harmony: backness. For example the word hâl (state of being or mood) has a back vowel
[a]. According to the rules of vowel harmony if we were to add the first person
possessive ending meaning “my” then it should become hal-ım. However this back vowel
[a] has a hat on top of it to signal that it is palatalized and therefore fronted. When we add
the first person possessive ending it becomes hâl-im, with a front vowel in the suffix.
This would imply that in the eyes of vowel harmony the letter <â> is further front than it
is back.
The representation of palatalized sounds in Turkish writing has lead to confusion
since the beginning of the alphabet reform. During the creation of the alphabet there were
debates about how to represent the palatalized sounds. At first some wanted to put an h
after the palatalized consonant and some wanted to represent the palatalized [kQ] with a
<q>. The <h> won out over the <q>, but did not last long itself and was replaced by the
current system of adding a hat on top of the vowel (<â>, <î>, <û>) following the
palatalized consonant. It may be noticed that although there are four back vowels in
Turkish ([a], [o], [u], ["]) only three of the back vowels have hats in Turkish. This is
most likely because the palatalized back vowels came mostly from Arabic and there is no
[o] in Arabic. Therefore, there would be no occasion to write <ô>, just as there is no need
to indicate palatalization on front vowels. It is interesting to note that although the
palatalization primarily affects the consonant and only secondarily the following back
vowel, the Alphabet Commission in the end decided to put the hat on the vowel and give
no sign that the consonant is also palatalized. This could be a sign of their lack of true
understanding of palatalization, or perhaps they simply found it to be the simplest or most
aesthetic solution. It is hard to know for sure.
Today, there is even more confusion with the written representation of palatal
sounds, because the hat is no longer being used on a day-to-day basis. People have
simply become lazy and quit writing the hat over vowels following palatalized sounds.
Even in official settings, such as newspapers, and simple dictionaries meant for children
the hat is simply being omitted or written over some words, but not all. This has lead to
mispronunciation due to the myth of a phonetic alphabet. Turkish is taught as a perfectly
phonetic language. This means that there should be a one to one ratio of letters and
sounds, as there is in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Every letter should have a
sound and only one sound it can ever produce. This is usually true in Turkish; however,
words that come from Arabic and Persian and have vowels with hats or include a <@> in
them can be confusing for a native speaker to spell. In a perfectly phonetic language a
native speaker should have no difficulty ever spelling a word, even if they had never
heard it in their life before. The vowels after palatalized consonants create sounds that
could be spelled in multiple ways. For example the word for paper is spelled kâ!ıt and
can be represented phonetically as /kQR"t/. This word could also be spelled kyaıt and be
read in much the same way. However, due to a lack of diligence in recording the hat
above the <a> in modern writing the word is often written as ka!ıt and mispronounced as
This new trend of mispronunciation has not only affected the general population of
Turkey, but has even infected the realm of radio and TV. Official newscasters and radio
reporters are mispronouncing Arabic and Persian root words with hats above their
vowels. This has lead to a call by some to be more diligent about writing the hats on the
applicable vowels. A Turkish blogger complains that the pronunciation of palatalized
sounds itself is not difficult and every Turks could easily master it if the hats were simply
written in their proper places. However, when the hats are neglected, the pronunciation is
not clear from the spelling and people have no way of knowing the correct pronunciation
unless they already know the word. This may not seem as unreasonable to an English
speaker, as memorization of spelling and pronunciation are simply a part of the English
language. However, as has already been mentioned, memorization of pronunciation and
spelling is not a part of the Turkish education and therefore is in no way intuitive for a
Turkish speaker. The pronunciation, therefore, follows the spelling directly. If a word is
spelled differently the pronunciation will not endure this change, it will adapt because not
enough people have memorized the correct form. This is not always the case; of course,
there are some words that are used often enough that the pronunciation will endure. One
example of a Turkish word with hats that has endured and is pronounced correctly even
when it is not spelled correctly is the word hâlâ (still). This word is unique because it has
a non-palatalized equivalent hala (aunt) and both words are commonly used, making the
distinction very clear. However, even if the pronunciation endures a generation or two, as
new generations learn the rules of phonetic spelling the word will most likely shift to
have two different pronunciations at the very least. It seems that for the very sake of
preserving the phonetic nature of Turkish spelling, the palatalization in back vowels
should either be dropped or the hat should be consistently written above the appropriate
vowels. Although for many native Turkish speakers who know how to say the words it
seems unnecessary to write the hat, it is in fact essential.
With the emergence of English as the new language of international communication
and therefore the language of education, it would be possible for the idea of non-phonetic
spelling to become normal for the educated population. This could put a new face on the
old problem of high vs. low Turkish. If those who are well educated begin pronouncing
palatalized back vowel sounds correctly and the less educated still pronounce these
sounds without palatalization, there will once again be a separation in language.
Education itself can create a separation in vocabulary, but it does not often create a
significant separation in pronunciation. It cannot be said for sure what will happen to
palatalized sounds in Turkish. However, whatever happens, it is not likely that it could
cause the kind of high vs. low Turkish that existed during the Ottoman Empire. Although
it might cause minor confusion, it does not seem plausible for it to lead to the emergence
of a completely new language, unintelligible to the everyday Turk.
In Turkish, borrowed words are not altered to obey the rules of vowel harmony;
instead they are accepted into the language as unaltered as Turkish pronunciation will
allow them to be. In these cases, the harmony begins with the vowel directly before the
new suffix is added, not with the initial vowel. Therefore, in the word kitap (book), of
Arabic origin, the last vowel in the base [a] is used for harmonizing with the suffixes.
Thus kitap (book) becomes kitab7-ım (my book), with [ı] harmonizing with [a], and in
kitabım-la (with my book), in which both suffix vowels, [ı] and [a], agree with [a] in
kitap, the last vowel of the base.
)!The [p] becoming a [b] is not related to vowel harmony and is not relevant to this
Summary of the Causes of Disharmony
To summarize, vowel harmony in Turkish is progressive, adapting from left to
right. In the Turkish language, backness and roundedness are the two major features that
affect vowel harmony. However, these two features are not equal in importance.
Backness harmony is more important to maintain than roundedness harmony. The major
exceptions to vowel harmony in Turkish come from invariable suffixes, compound
words, and borrowed words. When exceptions do occur in compound words and
borrowed words, the harmony picks up from the last vowel in the word, not from the first
vowel. When exceptions occur in invariable suffixes the harmony picks up with the last
vowel in the suffix itself and ignores the vowels before. This shows that while
disharmony does exist in Turkish words, there is a system in place to deal with it. Vowel
harmony does not fall apart; it simply begins following a new set of rules. Vowel
harmony is a significant feature of the Turkish language and is always important to keep
in mind when discussing the language.
Chapter V
Around the eleventh century the nomadic Turkish tribes had become Muslims. It
appears that their conversion was due to Persian influence because the majority of basic
Islamic words in Turkish come from Persian. Even the Islamic words that Turkish shares
with Arabic are of Persian origin. Once the Turks settled into their new Islamic
civilization they began to absorb Persian and Arabic words at an impressive rate. One of
the major reasons for this mass acceptance of foreign vocabulary was due to a shift in
identity. The Turks no longer thought of themselves primarily as Turks, but rather as part
of an Islamic community of believers. The acceptance of Persian and Arabic words went
beyond adopting words for new ideas. Instead the Turks began actually replacing their
own commonly used vocabulary with the Persian or Arabic equivalents. For example the
word for “city,” which used to be balık8 was replaced by the word "ehir of Persian origin.
Persian was especially thought of as the language of poetry, literature, sophistication and
beauty. Most writers of the time wrote in Persian and were respected for it. Arabic
became the language of religion, because despite the origin of basic religious words in
Turkish being in Persian, the prophet Mohammed had been an Arab and the holy book of
Islam, the Quran, was written in Arabic. Arabic also became the language of education as
education was highly linked to religion. The few women who did learn to read during the
*!G?29-379!balık no longer means city, in modern Turkish it does still have a meaning.
Balık in modern Turkish means “fish.” The current word for fish is most likely not related
to the Old Turkic word for city. This is only meant as an interesting side note.!
Ottoman Empire generally only read the Quran.
However, while the Turkish language of government, religion and literature were
absorbing mass amounts of Persian and Arabic, the Turkish language of the everyday
people remained largely the same. This created a gap between the more educated
population and the less educated population, leading to a higher Turkish and a lower
Turkish. As the Persian and Arabic languages were thought of as higher languages of
beauty and culture, the Turkish language was thought of as a barbaric language spoken
by uneducated people. This gap that was created during the eleventh century only
widened further and further until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The reasons for the
widening gap were not only the borrowings of vocabulary, but also the borrowings of
Persian and Arabic grammar. Turkish has never had grammatical, or in fact, natural
gender. However, Arabic does, and both Persian and Arabic noun phrases are {ADJ N}
whereas Turkish noun phrases are {N ADJ}. In Ottoman Turkish, Persian adjectives
modified Arabic nouns and agreed in grammatical gender, thus creating common phrases
with Arabic and Persian elements mixed together. This mixture created a language that
required speakers to have at the very least a basic understanding of not only Turkish, but
Arabic and Persian as well in order to use the language. As most Turks were not educated
in Persian or Arabic they sometimes could not even understand the basic meaning of
what someone meant when they spoke Ottoman Turkish. Geoffrey Lewis tells “the tale of
the sarıklı hoca (the turbanned cleric), who, wishing to buy some mutton, addresses a
butcher's boy with the words 'Ey sâgird-i ka88âb, lafom-i @anemden bir kıyye bilvezin
bana eitä eyler misin?' (O apprentice of the butcher, wilt thou bestow on me one oke
avoirdupois of ovine flesh?). The perplexed boy can only reply 'Amin!' (Amen!).” This
amusing anecdote, quite possibly apocryphal, shows the general sense that those who
spoke Ottoman Turkish, or rather high Turkish, and those who spoke simple or low
Turkish were truly not speaking the same language.
Some Turkish poets, starting even in the early stages of the Arabic and Persian
influx into Turkish, refused to write with foreign words. The most famous early poet of
this kind was Yunus Emre who wrote in the thirteenth century in the simple Turkish
language, and Turks can still read his poems with considerable ease today. Not only
poets, but also government leaders displayed their discontent with the Persian and Arabic
borrowings, even before the rise of the Ottoman Empire. In 1277 the ruler of Konya,
Semsüddin Mehmet [email protected], decreed that no language other than Turkish would be
accepted in official government business. Unfortunately he was killed in battle a few
months later. A Sufi (religious) poet at that time wrote the famous verses:
Türk diline kimesne bakmaz idi
Türklere hergiz gönül akmaz idi
Türk dahi bilmez idi bu dilleri
Ince yolı, ol ulu menzilleri
None had regard for the Turkish tongue;
Turks won no hearts.
Nor did the Turk know these languages,
The narrow road, those great staging posts
These verses were written to encourage Turks not only to learn Arabic, for religious
purposes, but also to know Turkish and Persian. The context prior to this verse also
makes clear that the narrow road in the last line refers to the path to righteousness and the
great staging posts are the Turkish and Persian languages. Thus the author is not only
encouraging Turks to learn Persian but also to know their own language. Resistance to
the Ottoman Turkish and promotion of pure Turkish began before the rise of the Ottoman
Empire and continued all the way to its fall. Writing during the Ottoman period suggests
that Turks viewed the Ottoman language as a form of oppression. There were always
people who resisted the idea that Turkish was in any way lesser than the Persian and
Arabic languages. One such person was Mır Ali Sïr Neväl (1441-1501) of Herat in
Afghanistan, who argued against the idea of the inferiority of the Turkish language and
promoted the writing of poetry in the Turkish language. He argued that because Turkish
is equal to Persian, it is more natural for a Turk to write poetry in Turkish rather than in
Persian. Around the same time, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the school for
plain Turkish poetry developed. However, those who appreciated poetry generally
expected it to be in Ottoman, and those who only spoke Turkish did not often enjoy
poetry. Therefore, while Mır Ali Sïr Neväl was expressing his nationalistic pride, he was
one of few in his time.
However, the mid-nineteenth century saw a surge in Turkish nationalism and
journalism, which led to the ideas of language reform. The father of Turkish journalism
was the writer and poet Tbrahim Sinasi, and he cofounded an unofficial newspaper written
in the language of the people. Among the other pioneers were Namık Kemal (1840-88), a
patriot and distinguished writer, and his friend Ziya Pasha (1825-80). Namık Kemal, who
was an inspiration to Atatürk, wrote:
“Even of literates in Istanbul, perhaps one in ten is incapable of getting as much
as he would like from a normally phrased note or even from a State law, the
guarantor of his rights. The reason is that our literature is swamped with locutions
borrowed from several foreign tongues of east and west, which have damaged the
flow of expression, while the style of composition has become totally detached
from the particles and terms and forms of discourse and has fallen, to put it
plainly, under the domination of another language. So prevalent is foreignness in
our vocabulary that it is harder, in my view, to extract the meaning from one of
our nation's best-known literary compositions, for example that of Nergisî, than to
understand the Gülistan, which is written in a foreign language. While the three
languages of which Turkish is compounded have attained a certain unity in
speech, they still preserve their original forms in writing. Like the three persons of
the Trinity, they are said to be united but are in fact the reverse of integrated.”
(qtd in Lewis 13)
More and more people started arguing for the reformation of the Ottoman language.
Specifically there was a call to abandon Persian or Arabic words that had Turkish
equivalents and to use the Turkish grammar once again. Turkish does not have the
grammatical genders; therefore there was a call to abandon the Arabic grammatical
genders that had become a part of Ottoman Turkish. Most importantly, there was a
demand to make the language of the government accessible to the people.
By the end of the nineteenth century most writers were consciously avoiding
Persian constructions and no longer thought of themselves as Ottomans. They thought of
themselves as Turks. It was this atmosphere of nationalism and stirring for change that
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born into. During Atatürk’s life there were more and more
demands for a purification of the language and for a change in government. The people
were tired of the sultan’s and their oppressive abuse of power. Thus, when the Ottoman
Empire finally fell after World War I and Atatürk took control of what is now modern
day Turkey, a reform of the language was the next logical step. As Andrew Mango says
in his book Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, “Atatürk was not
alone in his choices. But he was unique in his abilities.” Here Mango is referring to the
fact that at the time that Atatürk implemented the new alphabet and purification of the
language, he was simply following the desires of his generation. However, his ability to
implement these reforms was what made him unique.
Even though the language reform effectively merged the language of government
and literature with the language of the people, it could not completely reverse the damage
done. To this day, there are words of Turkish origin that sound less formal and less
educated than their Arabic equivalent. One example is the word gerek (needed), which is
of Turkish origin, but nowadays many people use lazım (needed) instead, despite the fact
that it lacks vowel harmony. There is also a growing trend in the present day in Turkey of
using more Arabic words in order to sound fancier and more intelligent. This indicates a
shift in the general thinking from a more Western perspective, back to the Arabic and
Muslim roots of the Ottoman Empire.
Chapter VI
In the late nineteenth century, Muslim Turks were worried about the future of the
Ottoman Empire. The Empire was no longer the power it used to be and Europe waiting
expectantly for its inevitable fall. However, as Andrew Mango says in his biography
Atatürk, “The question that haunted Muslim Turks was not whether the country would
survive, but whether they would survive in it” (Mango 22). This concern came from the
growing influence of Arabic and Persian and the dominance of Christian groups in place
of Muslim groups. The Turks were becoming more and more a minority in their own
During this time, roughly in the winter of 1881 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder
of modern day Turkey, was born. He was born only to the name Mustafa, which means
“the chosen,” and acquired Kemal, which means “perfection,” during his years at school
and Atatürk, which means “father Turk,” only in his later years. His name, therefore,
translates to “the chosen, perfection, father Turk,” which already reveals his arrogant
nature, since he adopted two of those names later in his life. Atatürk, as he is most
commonly referred to, was one of many in his generation who was bent on reform.
Reformation was not a new idea in his generation; it had been on the minds of ethnic
Turks since the early years of the Empire. The reformation he was looking for focused on
language and government. He believed that the language needed to be purified and the
government should be modeled after the French government.
The reason that those focused on politics believed so strongly in language reform is
that the Ottoman government used the Ottoman language as a tool of oppression. The
Ottoman language was very complex, as it embodied three languages at once, and was
not spoken by the uneducated class of people. Therefore, the language of government
was the language of the educated elite and inaccessible to a large portion of the
population. This gave the Ottoman government an unjustifiable amount of power over the
uneducated population. All newspapers were written in Ottoman Turkish and books were
written in Arabic, Persian or Ottoman Turkish. Therefore, even if someone taught himself
or herself to read and write the Arabic script, they would still be at a loss when trying to
read. The majority of the population in the Ottoman Empire, therefore, could not read the
laws and did not know their own rights. They were cut off from the government and
therefore stripped of any power. Without the ability to communicate or understand the
government, the people were left powerless to express their concerns or even know what
they should be concerned about. This is why Atatürk and his contemporaries knew that a
language reform was necessary. The language of the government had to become
accessible to the people in order for the people to have a say in the way their country was
run. They recognized that language holds power and the rulers of the Ottoman Empire
were using language to keep all of the power to themselves. Atatürk and his
contemporaries wanted to give the people the power they deserved and language was one
of the tools they knew they should use. Although Atatürk was only one of many who
desired change, he would be the one who actually brought it to pass. “Atatürk was not
alone in his choices. But he was unique in his abilities,” as Mango says (34).
In his early years Mustafa, as he was called then, already showed a unique
temperament. He was always proud and serious, even in his childhood years. “His sister
Makbule was later to say that he was too proud to play leapfrog, as he would not bend
down to allow other children to vault over him” (Mango 35). This trait would follow him
into his adult life. Mustafa’s father, Ali Rıza, was a progressive man who died at a young
age due to his drinking habits. It would seem that despite the fact that Mustafa only knew
his father at a young age, he inherited both his reformist attitude and his love of drinking.
His father’s untimely death meant that for the majority of his formative years Mustafa
was the man of the house. This meant that his mother and sister were to listen to him and
he was answerable to no one in his immediate family. For an already proud young man,
this must have been an ideal situation and only encouraged his sense of self-importance.
However, “Atatürk was proud, but not rebellious,” he did not make enemies of his
teachers and in fact did quite well in his studies. (Mango 37) Mustafa Kemal, as he
became known during his school years, studied French during high school, which was not
common, and became proficient, though not quite fluent. This is an early example of his
love for language. Once he finished his high school education he moved on to higher
education in the military. His father had been in the military and Mustafa Kemal had
always been fond of the form fitting, western style uniforms they wore. He not only
preferred the western style of dress, but also approved of most western ways of life over
the traditional Ottoman or Turkish ways of life. He preferred the western style of
government, the dress, and the love of logic over love of religion. All of these preferences
would later be seen in the reformations he brought about.
During his military education he plotted revolution with his fellow students as he
also began the destruction of his liver with the infamous Turkish drink, rakı. He and his
fellow students constantly spoke of reform and revolution. Mustafa Kemal was very
interested and involved in politics starting from his time at military school. It was also in
military school that Mustafa Kemal met many of the men who would become his trusted
advisors and friends when he eventually took over the Republic of Turkey. The military
school at the time was full of the aspiring reformists of the day. Mustafa Kemal’s biggest
rival, Enver, graduated two years ahead of Mustafa Kemal from the same military school.
Both Enver and Mustafa Kemal graduated near the top of their class and wished to not
only be a part of a reform of the Empire, but rather at the head of it. It was Enver who
first took control and attempted reforms, but in the end failed. The group that was led by
Enver, called the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress), had a limited goal, which was
to restore the constitution. The constitution had been adopted and then dropped in the
years prior to the CUP. However, the CUP did not plan for what they should do once the
constitution was restored. They believed that the rest would come easily. Their lack of
planning showed and led to their prompt failure. However, Ali Fuat claims that Mustafa
Kemal was more realistic even in those days. He claims that even before the CUP took
control Mustafa Kemal had been stressing the need to establish a Turkish national state.
Others also report that Mustafa Kemal had been developing a Latin alphabet for Turkish
based off of the French system of writing. While the CUP obsessed only over the
constitution, Mustafa Kemal was apparently thinking past it to the problems that would
need attention after the restoration of the constitution. Mustafa Kemal knew that there
would be much work left even after the constitution was restored. Therefore it is not
surprising that in the end it was Mustafa Kemal who succeeded in creating the Republic
of Turkey that we know today and not Enver and the CUP. “But the early years of
revolutionary plotting [when Enver was the leader of the revolution] revealed another
side to [Mustafa Kemal’s] character. When he was not on top, he was critical of those
who were. He alone deserved to be leader.” (Mango 76) Although this does not show an
endearing side to Mustafa Kemal, it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has
paid attention to his proud character, which was already evident in his formative years. In
fact if it were not for his determination to be on top, he very well may not have ever
become the leader of the Republic of Turkey.
It was during his time at the military school in Manastır that a friend, most likely
Ömer Naci, introduced Mustafa Kemal to the patriotic poet by the name of Namık
Kemal, who was known as the poet of liberty. Mustafa Kemal was very affected by
Namık Kemal and was recorded as saying: “Bedenimin babası Ali Rıza Efendi,
hislerimin Namık Kemal, fikirlerimin Ziya Gökalp'dir,” which means “the father of my
flesh is Ali Rıza Efendi, the father of my sentiments is Namık Kemal, and the father of
my thoughts is Ziya Gökalp.” Because of his admiration of Namık Kemal many believe
that he gave himself the name “Kemal” after Namık Kemal. However, the exact story of
how Mustafa Kemal acquired his name “Kemal,” is still very much a mystery. Through
Ömer Naci’s encouragement Mustafa Kemal also developed a love for Ottoman literature
and particularly poetry in military school.
Although Mustafa Kemal became a strong proponent of Turkish nationalism he did
not start out life this way. He was born in Salonica, which is not actually a part of modern
day Turkey, the country he himself founded. Also, despite his adamant assertion that he
was of Turkish ancestry, due to his fair complexion and blue eyes he is most likely of
Albanian ancestry. In fact, he did not begin telling people that he was of Turkish ancestry
until later in life. He did, however, grow up in a Turkish speaking community and
Turkish, as the everyday person spoke it, was his first language. As he came across
Turkish nationalism in writing he began to embrace it and it became a part of his ideals
for reformation. After his military education, during his military service was when his
Turkish nationalism really started to show. Mango tells a story to illustrate this newfound
nationalism Mustafa Kemal demonstrated:
“on another occasion Mustafa Kemal told Ali Fuat that he had had a
furious argument in Jaffa with an officer who was, like him, of
Macedonian origin. This fellow-Macedonian had remonstrated with a
Turkish sergeant for dealing harshly with Arab recruits who did not
understand his commands. The Arabs, the officer said, were of a noble
race, which had given birth to the Prophet, and the Turkish sergeant was
not worthy of washing their feet. ‘Shut up, Captain.’ Mustafa Kemal
shouted. ‘The Arab race to which these privates belong may well be noble
in many respects. But it is an undeniable truth that the race to which you,
I, Müfit (Özde8) here, and the sergeant belong, is also great and noble.’”
(Mango 66)
This story illustrates both Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalism during his military
service and his self-confidence in speaking out so openly. He was open about what he
believed and did not keep his opinions to himself. However, this story also indicates the
level to which Arabic was respected above Turkish in the Ottoman Empire. This is one
reason that many opposed the language reform and the alphabet reform. They believed
that Arabic was on a higher level than Turkish and eliminating the Arabic vocabulary and
grammar from Turkish would serve no purpose other than destroying the language. This
was partly a legitimate concern as the language reformation did include abandoning many
Arabic based words. The sudden drop in vocabulary meant that the richness of language
that existed in Ottoman Turkish was lost. This also cut off the new generation of Turks
from their literary heritage, which has been considered a tragedy by many scholars.
The same was true for the alphabet. Mustafa Kemal wanted to change the alphabet
from Arabic letters to Latin letters, based off of the French alphabet originally. However,
many proponents of Islam were not only opposed to the change because they believed the
Arabic alphabet superior, they were also worried that Turks would no longer be able to
read the Quran. It was a genuine concern considering that most people learn only one
alphabet in a life time and most modern day Turks cannot read the Arabic letters.
However, Mustafa Kemal was adamant about the necessity for a new alphabet, using the
Latin letters. He started writing letters in Turkish, using Latin letters phonetically based
off of French, as early as 1914. He knew that the alphabet was an essential piece of
moving away from the Arabic influence on Turkish. Not only was the alphabet reform a
tool in moving away from Arabic, it was also a practical step to increasing literacy. The
Arabic alphabet was not suitable for the Turkish language, as Geoffrey Lewis, an expert
on the Turkish language, says, “Its intrinsic beauty aside, there is nothing to be said in
favour of the AraboPersian alphabet as a medium for writing Turkish.” (Lewis 27)
Writing and reading in Turkish was simply impossible without knowing Arabic and
Persian in the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal, as well as many other reformers at the
time knew that something had to be done about the alphabet. Although Mustafa Kemal
started out in favor of a more French style of writing Turkish, in the end the French style
took too many letters and the Alphabet Commission developed new letters specifically
for Turkish sounds.
When Atatürk, as he became known, had come to power he created the Alphabet
Commission under the Language Commission. The Alphabet Commission worked for a
few years to come up with a suitable Latin based alphabet for the Turkish language. They
rejected the idea of a transliterated alphabet due to the inconsistency in spelling and
pronunciation of words in Ottoman Turkish. If a transliteration system was adopted then
words would revert back to their Arabic and Persian pronunciations and lose the
Turkicized pronunciation they had developed. Therefore the commission decided to base
the spelling on the Istanbul pronunciation and speech patterns. They had some difficulty
with palatalized sounds such as k, g and l before back vowels. The Portuguese solution of
adding an h after the k, g or l was proposed. There was also a proposal to use the letter q
to represent the palatalized k. Atatürk’s friend, Atay, described his reaction to this
suggestion as follows,
“Atatürk said, 'What difference will one letter make? Lets have it.' Had we
done so, we would have kept the Arabic word from being Turkicized. I
didn’t say anything at the table. When I went to see Atatürk next day I
explained the problem to him again. He did not know the manuscript
capitals; he simply wrote them like the small letters only bigger. He took a
sheet of paper and wrote the initial letter of Kemal, first with an enlarged
version of q then with an enlarged version of k. He didn't like the first at
all. So we were spared q. Thank goodness he didn't know the script capital
Q, which was more flamboyant than K.” (Lewis 34)
It is both amusing and disturbing to think that the fate of a letter was decided not on
thoughtful consideration, but rather on such an arbitrary basis. However, that is how
Atatürk ran the language reform and the entire country. Once he decided on an action he
did not delay in the execution. Once the Language Commission submitted a final draft of
the proposed alphabet in 1928, true to character, Atatürk did not delay in implementing it.
When told that the plan the Language Commission had drafted was to take five years at
the minimum and fifteen years at the maximum, Atatürk famously said, “Either this will
happen in three months or it won’t happen at all.” (Lewis 34) Even the most radical of his
companions could not believe he meant to completely change the alphabet in three
months. But true to his word Atatürk impressively pulled off a successful alphabet
overhaul in a matter of months. He did not want newspapers to be printed with half
Arabic script and half Latin script saying “even when the newspapers are down to only
half a column in the old writing, everyone will read that bit in the old writing. If anything
goes wrong in the meantime, a war, a domestic crisis, our alphabet too will end up like
Enver's; it will be dropped immediately.” (Lewis 34) When Atatürk first introduced the
new alphabet to University teachers and literary figures there was a debate that lasted five
hours, which concluded with the following resolution:
“To deliver the nation from ignorance, the only course open is to abandon
the Arabic letters, which are not suited to the national language, and to
accept the Turkish letters, based on the Latin. The alphabet proposed by
the Commission is in truth the Turkish alphabet; that is definite... The laws
of grammar and spelling will evolve in step with the improvement and
development of the language and with the national taste.” (Lewis 34 and
To this day the alphabet reform carried out under Atatürk is one of the most impressively
successful and shockingly immediate. At least one alphabet reform had been attempted
during the Ottoman Empire, which had failed miserably, which makes Atatürk’s success
even more notable. However, with Atatürk’s arbitrary decision to leave the letter “q” out
of the Turkish language, one has to wonder what other arbitrary decisions he made with
the alphabet reform. The Language Commission worked on the new alphabet for a few
years, but it is not clear if anyone on the commission was formally trained in linguistics
and therefore qualified for the task. There are some significant consequences that could
occur from a lack of thorough analysis when completely altering the alphabet of a
language. The consequences had the potential to be even more serious in the case of
Turkish because the transition from the old alphabet to the new was not a matter of
transliteration, but rather an entirely new creation based upon the pronunciation of a
certain group of people, namely the people who lived in Istanbul. The potential
consequences to the language will be discussed further in the next chapter.
The language reform, however, was not only a complete overhaul of the alphabet
but also of the vocabulary and grammar of the language. The focus was on removing
foreign elements and creating a pure Turkish language. However, Ottoman Turkish was
so filled with Arabic and Persian vocabulary and grammar that the removal of all
elements from these two languages was impossible. To truly extract all of the Arabic and
Persian would be to reintroduce Orkhon Turkic, which had not been spoken by anyone in
hundreds of years. However, the language reform carried out by Atatürk was still quite
drastic, attempting at first to remove as many Arabic and Persian words as possible.
There were originally differing views on how the language reform should be carried out.
The less drastic proposal was to Turkicize the Arabic and Persian words, but to keep
them in the language. The more drastic approach, adopted by Atatürk, was to remove the
Arabic and Persian words and either find old Turkish words to replace them or create
new words. However, after giving a speech in ÖzTürkçe (pure Turkish) Atatürk, realizing
how foreign it sounded, gave up his pursuit to completely purify the Turkish language.
The speech could not be understood by anyone and Atatürk himself could not deliver it
without a feeling of awkwardness that was uncharacteristic of his speeches. He could see
that abandoning the commonly used words would only create confusion. Henceforth he
concentrated his efforts on creating technical terms in ÖzTürkçe and left the common
words alone. However, not everyone agreed with him and many kept up the effort to
completely purify Turkish. With words such as "ey and yani, that mean “thing” and “I
mean,” coming from Arabic it is hard to imagine how they thought complete purification
could be successful.
A brief mention also has to go to one of Atatürk’s most radical ideas: the Sunlanguage theory. Atatürk was always very personally involved in the language reform
and linguistics became a hobby that he pursued for the majority of his life. However, as
mentioned previously, Atatürk had no formal education in linguistics and simply used his
imagination when deriving words. Atatürk began to really enjoy finding foreign words
that sounded like Turkish words and explaining how those words must have come from
the Turkish language. This led him to the infamous Sun-language theory. The basic idea
of the theory is that all languages originally come from Turkish. Therefore there was no
longer a need to purge the language, because all of the Arabic and Persian words
originated from Turkish anyway. Eventually even Atatürk came to see the impossibility
of this theory and although he never denounced the theory he certainly stopped pursuing
it as adamantly. It is also possible that he never actually believed it, but created it simply
to end the purge of Arabic and Persian words from the Turkish language without
admitting that he had been wrong to pursue a complete purge. The introduction of the
Sun-language theory did mark the end of Atatürk’s support of purging common Arabic
and Persian words from Turkish. However, he continued to support the invention of
technical words. The Language Society, that had been creating the new ÖzTürkçe (pure
Turkish) words refused to stop deriving and creating new words for everything, not just
technical words. The Sun-language theory itself began to die out near the end of
Atatürk’s life and came to an abrupt end following Atatürk’s death. A professor who had
been teaching the Sun-language theory and who abandoned it after Atatürk’s death was
asked why he had stopped. He answered “Güne8 öldükten sonra, onun teorisi mi kalır?”
which means, “After the sun has died, will his/its9 theory stay?” (Lewis 73). In the end
Sun-language theory is a perfect display of Atatürk’s combination of enthusiasm and lack
of knowledge when it came to linguistics. He was very interested in and excited about
language, but clearly did not have enough knowledge to do a proper linguistic analysis.
Atatürk brought about an impressively swift and successful language reform,
among his many other reforms, during his time as president of the newly formed
Republic of Turkey. It is debatable whether his purge of words from Arabic and Persian
origin had a positive or negative effect on the language. It certainly cut off the modern
generation from its rich literary history. On the other hand it arguably helped to bridge
the gap between the people on top and everyday people on the bottom. It is clear,
however, that Atatürk’s reformation of the alphabet successfully made the Turkish
language much more intuitive to read and write. This, in addition to Atatürk’s educational
reforms, led to a staggering increase in literacy in only a few years. Atatürk may have
made arbitrary and rushed decisions along the way, but it is undeniable that his tactics
showed results. Whatever his faults may have been he succeeded in taking an Empire that
was falling apart and building out of it a stable, growing country that has withstood the
test of time. He also took the Turkish people from being viewed by others and themselves
as lesser than their Arab neighbors to being proud to call themselves a Turk. One of
+!Due to the lack of natural gender in the Turkish language onun could be translated as
“its,” “his,” or “hers.” In this case “its,” or “his” would be appropriate translations as
“sun” is clearly referring to Atatürk and therefore not feminine.!
Atatürk’s most famous sayings, that is memorized by every Turkish child in schools
today, is “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene,” which means “How happy to the one who says ‘I
am a Turk.’” Through the language reform, as well as his nationalistic attitude, he gave
the Turkish people back their pride.
Chapter VII
The need for an alphabet reform was evident to most people in the Ottoman Empire
far before Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came to power. As has already been mentioned the
Arabic alphabet is ill suited to the Turkish language. To summarize, the Arabic language
is based on a root system. One root in Arabic creates a wealth of words. For example the
root [k], [t], [b] roughly meaning “writing” can create words meaning writer, letter, book,
library, office, dictation, typewriter and many more. These roots are made up of
consonants and the short vowels between are not written as they can be guessed from the
context in Arabic. Turkish does not use this root system and needs vowels to be written
out. Therefore, using the Arabic alphabet to express the Turkish language lead to many
ambiguities, especially when it came to the vowels. Lewis points out:
“All [Arabic] letters, including alif, the glottal stop, are consonants, some
representing sounds not existing in Turkish and one, k, which may
represent Turkish g, k, n, or y... The Arabic letters alif, wäw, and yâ10
were employed in Arabic and Persian to show ä, ü and ï respectively. In
Turkish they were used to indicate a/e, o/ö/u/ü, and i/ay/ey respectively.
An initial a or e was indicated by alif (henceforth shown as ?), medial or
final a also by alif and e by h, which is similar to the function of English h
in 'Ah!' and 'Eh?': kaynana 'mother-in-law' was written qyn?n?, yaparsa 'if
$F!N (yâ) OK (wäw) O$ (alif)!
he does' as y?p?rsh... Many equivocal readings were possible. Thus ?wlw
in an Ottoman text may be read as Turkish ulu 'great' or ulu [A]11
'possessors', ölü 'dead', evli 'married', avlu 'courtyard', avlı 'stocked with
game'... while kl can be gel 'come', gül 'smile', kel 'scabby', kel [A]
'lassitude', kül 'ashes', kül [A] 'all', gil [P]12'clay', or gül [U] 'rose'. Only the
context and a sufficient grasp of the vocabularies of Turkish, Persian, and
Arabic can make clear which of the possible readings is intended.” (Lewis
This example perfectly illustrates the complications of using the Arabic alphabet to
express the Turkish language. It would seem reasonable for a single word to have three or
perhaps four meanings, but when one word can have ten different meanings--that goes
beyond a minor annoyance and becomes a barrier to communication. The ambiguous
vowels made it difficult for a highly educated individual to read the language, but for an
uneducated individual, who only knew common Turkish, it was simply impossible to
ascertain the meaning. In the article 'Turks' in the thirteenth edition of Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Sir Charles Eliot says “The result is that pure Turkish words written in Arabic
letters are often hardly intelligible even to Turks and it is usual to employ Arabic
synonyms as much as possible because there is no doubt as to how they should be read”
(Lewis 28). In other words, even Turks could not understand their own language written
with Arabic letters and simply used many Arabic words instead. If even Turks had more
difficulty reading and writing in their native tongue than in Arabic and Persian, one has to
$$!/4![A] indicates that the word comes from Arabic!
$%!/![P] indicates that the word comes from Persian!
ask oneself why that may be. The simple answer in this case was, of course, the alphabet.
It is interesting also that although words were never pronounced in the original
Arabic manner, they were still spelled with the original Arabic spelling. Ottoman Turkish
spellings were always retained as in the original language; however, the pronunciation
was adapted to Turkish sounds. This created a disparity between spelling and
pronunciation that could rival, if not beat, that of the modern English language. The
reason for retaining the Arabic spellings when words were borrowed is the same as the
reason for adopting the Arabic alphabet as the writing system. Arabic is the holy
language, because it is the language that the Quran was written in. Persian borrowings
also retained their original form because the Persian language was respected above the
Turkish language. Thus, through the Arabic and Persian languages, the first languages to
so intensely invade the Turkish language, disharmony in foreign root words became a
common occurrence in the Turkish language. This new occurrence eventually became a
rule in Turkish. The rule to this day is that borrowed words are to be left in their original
form, with or without vowel harmony. However, starting with the last vowel in a foreign
root the Turkish suffixes are to follow vowel harmony.
A new alphabet was designed over the course of a few years under Atatürk’s
personal supervision. Atatürk famously took the alphabet and language reform on as a
personal hobby during his years as the president of Turkey. The new alphabet was to be
based on the Latin alphabet, as a part of Atatürk’s overall goal of bringing Turkey closer
to the West. Atatürk had first been planning a French style of writing for years before his
presidency. He wrote letters to friends using French orthography to phonetically write
Turkish. Eventually he shifted his alphabet of choice away from French orthography to
the Turkish orthography used today. The French alphabet is quite similar to the current
Turkish alphabet, but the rules of spelling are not identical. Using French orthography
Atatürk wrote the Turkish words that are currently spelled as göre (according to) and
çocuk (child) instead as gueuré (according to) and tchodjouk (child). The alphabet reform
was meant not only to make Turkish easier to read and write for the common person, but
also to connect Turkey to the West and sever Arabic and Persian ties. The alphabet
accomplished the latter goal by spelling words as they were pronounced in Turkish rather
than their Ottoman spellings, cutting off ties with the origins of Arabic and Persian
loanwords. Often the new spellings made the word unrecognizable to speakers of the
original language. Even if the Arabic alphabet had been retained and additional vowels
had been added and the spelling revised, as some more mild reformers desired, the words
would have still been cut off from their Arabic and Persian origins. The Ottoman Turkish
pronunciations for Arabic and Persian words were often significantly different than their
spellings that came from the original language. A reform of spelling alone would have
cut Turkish off from Arabic and Persian to a certain degree. The addition of extra vowels
would have set it apart even farther. Although there is no argument that the new, Latin
based alphabet cut Turkish off more severely from its Arabic and Persian filled past, it
can be argued that even without the Latin alphabet the separation would have occurred.
The new alphabet also made Turkish look much less intimidating to Western
nations who also used the Latin alphabet. On 31 August 1928, The Times of London
wrote the following about the new Turkish alphabet:
“The advantages of the change can scarcely be appreciated by those who
have not struggled with the difficulties presented to the student of Turkish
by the Arabic letters... No alphabet is less fitted to express the melodious
Turkish speech, which has relatively few consonants and an astonishing
wealth of vowels and diphthongs .. . Conservatism, the religious
associations of Arabic which gave a sanctity to the letters in which the
Koran was written, and the oriental delusion that writing should not be
made too intelligible in content or in form explain the long domination of
the Arabic letters over the Turks... By this step the Turks, who for
centuries were regarded as a strange and isolated people by Europe, have
drawn closer than ever to the West. It is a great reform, worthy of the
remarkable chief to whom the Turkish people has entrusted its destinies.”
(Lewis, 38)
The Alphabet Commission designed an alphabet fairly similar to the Western alphabets it
was trying to model its own after. However, the new letters that they came up with have
come up against some legitimate criticism. The letter <@> was originally meant to replace
two letters in the Arabic alphabet, ghayn <?> and käf <D!M!where it had the sound of [j],
as in the words transliterated as dkl and ckr from the Arabic letters, and de!il (is not),
ci!er (liver) in the new. The letter <@> now “serves to lengthen a preceding back vowel,
as in kâ!ıt ‘paper’ (Persian kägid), pronounced /kyät/, and a!a ‘master’, pronounced /R/;
while between front vowels, as in de!il and ci!er, it is pronounced like y. So @ preserves
some features of Ottoman spelling,” however that was not the desired outcome (Lewis
36). This also preserves some of the undesirable ambiguity of Ottoman spelling and
sometimes confuses native speakers who are accustomed to a phonetic system of writing.
In fact due to the phonetic nature of the alphabet in modern Turkish, Turks are taught in
school to simply read and write words as they say them. This leads to some confusion
with elements such as the <@> or the palatalized vowels inherited from Arabic and
Persian. Although the Alphabet Commission mandated that a hat should be put over all
palatalized vowels, therefore clarifying their pronunciation, many Turks do not write the
hats over their palatalized vowels. Many modern Turkish papers also do not find it
necessary to include the hat above these vowels. However, with new generations growing
up with a phonetic system of writing and a lack of visual distinction between palatalized
and non-palatalized vowels, there is a growing trend of mispronunciation. The majority
of the current generation of Turks do not pronounce palatalization in back vowels,
because there is no indicator to tell them they should if a hat is not written above the
vowel. Language changes are natural, of course, but this change seems to be specifically
driven by a lack of proper spelling, not simply from a natural evolution of language. This
has lead to a growing number of complaints from conscientious Turkish citizens who
would like their language to be pronounced correctly. Often the complaints are directed
toward TV and radio announcers who should know the official pronunciations. However,
it is interesting to note that confusion rarely, if ever, occurs in the pronunciation or
spellings of native Turkish words. As often is the case in Turkish, the confusion stems
from foreign words, often from Arabic and Persian origin. !
The letter <ı> has run into problems not with pronunciation but with its visual form.
Lewis lays out the problem with the letter ı below.
“As for V, when the Alphabet Commission hit on the idea of manufacturing
it by removing the dot from i, they never stopped to ask themselves what
the dot was doing there in the first place. The answer became apparent as
soon as people began using the new alphabet: its function was to
distinguish its bearer from the up- and downstrokes of my m, n and u. To
see this for oneself, one has only to compare mınımum with minimum in
joined-up writing.” (Lewis 37)
Although issue may seem trivial, it dives deep into the question of the formation of the
new Turkish alphabet. There were three linguists, three educators, and three writers who
formed the original Language commission. In addition, Atatürk himself was quite
involved and made many of the final decisions. The script itself was created by an
Armenian, Hagop Martayan Dilaçar. Atatürk appreciated his contribution and suggested
him the last name Dilaçar (tongue opener), which he gladly accepted. This small group of
people attempted an incredible task: to create a new alphabet. Although, all things
considered, they did an impressive job, one has to remember that they were only nine
men with Atatürk watching over and weighing in on everything they did. It is not
surprising that they did not consider every detail, and they made some mistakes.
However, while it is not surprising, it is not to be taken lightly. These men were creating
an alphabet that would be used for at least a century to come and quite likely for many
more centuries in the future. Their oversights created a ripple effect that still impacts the
Turkish language today.
It is clear from the new alphabet that not only Atatürk, but all who were in power,
were trying to leave behind as many Arabic elements as possible. One of the clearest
examples is the abandonment of the Arabic spellings of words. But also significant is
Atay’s story about why the letter <q> was left out of the alphabet. Atay felt relief at the
abandonment of [q] because he claims: “Had we [kept the q], we would have kept the
Arabic word from being Turkicized” (Lewis 34). Atay shows his concern toward any
Arabic elements being left in the Turkish language. However, while the desire for
extracting Arabic and retaining Turkish was a high concern, the new alphabet and system
of spelling only represented the Istanbul dialect of Turkish. Istanbul was the capital and
centre of education in the Ottoman Empire and therefore Istanbul Turks most likely
spoke a more Ottoman Turkish than the rest of the empire. This idea that Istanbul Turks
spoke a more educated Ottoman Turkish is drawn from statements such as “Even of
literates in Istanbul, perhaps one in ten is incapable of getting as much as he would like
from a normally phrased note or even from a State law, the guarantor of his rights”
(Lewis, 13). The statement implies that if the literates of Istanbul could not understand
Ottoman writing, then no one could. However, even if Istanbul Turks did not speak a
more Ottoman Turkish, with the lack of a standardization of the Turkish language due to
a lack of education in it, Turkish in the Ottoman Empire varied greatly from region to
region. By not making any effort to include other regions and dialects in the official
Turkish of the new Republic of Turkey, Atatürk was, in a sense, replacing one elite
language with another. Of course the new alphabet was still easier to read and write due
to its phonetic quality, and it is certain that Istanbul Turkish was still much closer to other
dialects throughout the country than Ottoman Turkish. However, despite the efforts at
standardization through education, the different dialects in Turkey still remain quite
distinct nearly a century after language reform. Atatürk was not creating an alphabet and
language reform that represented all of Turkey; he simply picked the dialect of the capital
and forced it on everyone else.
Although the new alphabet was a success in Westernizing the country, drastically
increasing the literacy rate and cutting ties with Arabic and Persian, there are many
aspects of it that are legitimately criticized. The letters <@> and <ı> could have been
handled better, and the confusion over how to display palatalized sounds has now led to a
complete lack of their visual existence in the majority of Turkish literature. This lack of
display in turn has led to mispronunciations and the language has fallen back into a sense
of ambiguity, though ever so slightly. The new alphabet has also raised the Istanbul
dialect above other dialects by modeling the new alphabet and spelling after the
pronunciation found in Istanbul. While this was most definitely more practical and
efficient, it has also misrepresented Turkish as a whole. Despite the standardization
efforts of current education, many distinct dialects remain in Turkey, and speakers often
feel oppressed for not speaking the standard dialect. Considering Atatürk’s desire to
throw off the bondage of Ottoman Turkish because it was not the language of Turks
spoken all around Turkey, it is surprising that he did not do more to incorporate dialects
from all around the country in his new official language of the Republic.
Chapter VIII
Taking into consideration the history of the Turkish people, the history of the
Turkish language, and the reforms brought about by Atatürk it is appropriate to think also
to the future. Looking to the past can help us to understand what is happening now and
also predict what may happen in the future.
The rise of the Turkish people, as a civilization, is inseparable from the rise of the
Ottoman Empire. During the Ottoman Empire the identity of Turks was as Muslims, not
as Turks. Of course, Turks were not the only ethnic group living in the Ottoman Empire
at the time. This Muslim identity continued until, during the later years of the Ottoman
Empire, a nationalism, a pride of Turkish identity arose. Atatürk embraced this
nationalism and it directed many of his reforms as well as his decision to secularize the
government. It was this decision, for a secular government, that caused him the most
trouble and lead to the most opposition during his presidency. To this day there has
always been a Kemalist party, named after Atatürk and an Islamist party in Turkish
elections. These two parties represent the ever present struggle in Turkey between
Turkish nationalism and Islamic universalism. The Islamist party, always the underdog,
finally won the election in 2002. The reason for the victory was the abuse of power by the
Kemalist party at the time. They had remained in power for a long time and the Turkish
people were feeling oppressed. Thus, the current Prime Minister Recep [email protected] came to
power. This same prime minister has remained in power ever since. Although he claims
to promote the idea of a secular government many of his policies and laws point toward
an Islamization agenda for the country. The country as a whole has been lead down the
road of Islamization, against the wishes of the people. The very prime minister who
spoke out against an oppressive government when he first came to power has created an
oppressive government himself. This can easily be seen by the protests happening right
now in Taksim square.
This Islamization naturally also led to Turkey turning its face from the Western
world to the Arab world. Turning back to the Arab world leads to a natural tendency to
use the Arabic words that fell out of use during Atatürk’s reform. The prime minister
himself has a love for Arabic words, most likely due to his religious beliefs. It has been
only a century since Atatürk overhauled the language and removed many Arabic words.
These words fell out of common practice, but existed still in the minds of the older
generation and also in writing. Thus, with a return to Islam and the Arab world, these
words have begun to resurface and gain popularity. It is also very important in Islam that
the Koran be read in Arabic and not in another language. Therefore, a return to Islam
would naturally lead to more exposure to the Arabic language. However, as the Taksim
square protests show, not all Turks are ready for a return to the Arab world and a
marriage of religion and government. In fact one of the specific protests against the
demolition of the Taksim park was because a mosque was to be built in its place. The
government and the people of Turkey at the moment want to move in opposite directions
in terms of Islam and Arabic. The government is pushing for a return to the past and the
people are pushing to move further forward. Only the future can tell which side will win
the battle. Either the government will continue in its path toward Islam and the Arab
world, or it will move back toward secularism and the Western world.
Atatürk is still, as his name itself indicates, the father of the Turks. He has not been
forgotten and it does not seem that he will be soon. His views on the issue of an Islamic
government cannot be mistaken. Lindsey Hilsum of channel four news tells of a young
woman protesting in Taksim: “‘He insulted Atatürk!’ she said when I asked why she was
calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tayyip [email protected]” Hilsum goes on to say:
“Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was a secularist determined to –
as he saw it – liberate Turkey from its conservative Muslim past. The young people on
the streets of Turkey’s cities are his political grandchildren.” The Turkish government
would first have to kill the revered memory of Atatürk before they could ever convince
the people of Turkey to return to an Islamic government. It would seem that [email protected] has
a complete lack of appreciation for the man who founded the country that he now runs.
Hilsum says “Last week the prime minister [[email protected]], whose AK party is rooted in
political Islam, spearheaded through parliament a new law banning the sale of alcohol at
night and near mosques. When challenged, he said that the original law had been
conceived by ‘a pair of drunks,’ meaning Atatürk and his successor Tsmet Tnönü.”
[email protected] makes his feelings about Atatürk’s policies and in fact his character very clear
through such a statement.
The young people of Turkey are battling the old. The conservatives are battling the
liberals. The secularists are battling the Islamists. The battle must end at some point and
when it does the fate of Turkey will be decided. It will either become a more secular
nation, looking toward the Western world or it will become a more Islamic nation,
looking back toward the Arab world. No matter which direction Turkey takes, the inner
identity battle between Turkish nationalism and Islamic universalism will continue in the
heart of the nation and in the hearts of the Turkish people.
Works Cited
Erdal, Marcel. A Grammar of Old Turkic. Boston: Brill, 2004. Print.
Hagopian, V. H. Ottoman-Turkish Conversation-grammar: A Practical Method of
Learning the Ottoman-Turkish Language. Heidelberg: J. Groos, 1907. Print.
Lewis, Geoffrey. The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Mailhot, Frederic, and Reiss, Charles. "Computing Long-Distance Dependencies in
Vowel Harmony." Biolinguistics.eu. 2007. Web.
Mango, Andrew. Atatürk. Woodstock: Overlook, 2002. Print.
Pitman, Paul M. Turkey: A Country Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Gov. Print. Off., 1988.
Sezer, Engin. "Vowel and Consonant Disharmony in Turkish." Disharmony in Turkish.
By George N. Clements. N.p.: Cornell University, 1982. Print.
Syrayama De Pinto, Marco. Arabism in Modern Standard Turkish: A Study on the Arabic
Loanwords and the Turkish Language Reform. N.p.: Verlag Dr. Muller
Aktiengesellschaft & KG and Licensors, 2010. Print.
Tekin, Talât. A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1968.
Tosun, Gülsat. "Vowel Harmony in Turkish and Turkmen." Harvard Faculty of Arts and
Sciences. Harvard, 1999. Web.
Redhouse, James W. A Simplified Grammar of the Ottoman-Turkish Language. London:
Trübner, 1884. Print.
De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Baskin, Wade. New York:
Philosophical Library, Inc., 1959. Print.
Göksel, Aslı and Kerslake, Celia. Turkish: A Comprehensive Grammar. New York:
Routledge, 2005. Print.
A CD is included at the end of this thesis for the purpose of having audio
examples of the pronunciations of Turkish sounds and words. The author has recorded
the audio on this CD and the voice on the CD also belongs to the author. For the reader’s
convenience a list of the track numbers that correspond to the page numbers, and table
numbers (only when applicable) has been included below.
Track 01
Pg. 10 (Table 1)
Track 15
Pg. 54 (Lewis 73)
Track 02
Pg. 11 (Table 2)
Track 16
Pg. 55 (famous saying)
Track 03
Pg. 11 (Table 3)
Track 17
Pg. 57 (Lewis examples)
Track 04
Pg. 12 (Table 4)
Track 18
Pg. 59 (two examples)
Track 05
Pg. 13 (list of words)
Track 19
Pg. 60 (examples)
Track 06
Pg. 15 (Mailhot examples)
Track 20
Pg. 72 (Table 1)
Track 07
Pg. 16 (invariable suffixes)
Track 21
Pg. 73 (Table 2)
Track 08
Pg. 27 (an example...)
Track 22
Pg. 73 (Table 3)
Track 09
Pg. 28 (compound words)
Track 23
Pg. 73 (Table 4)
Track 10
Pg. 31 (top of pg., example)
Track 24
Pg. 74-75 (Table 5)
Track 11
Pg. 32 (example)
Track 25
Pg. 78 (modern Turkish pos.)
Track 12
Pg. 34 (example: book)
Track 26
Pg. 81 (Turkish cases)
Track 13
Pg. 38 (poem)
Track 27
Track 14
Pg. 46 (about Namık Kemal)
Track 28
Pg. 83 (modern Turkish PP)
Table 1. CD Tracks
Below are some tables with extra examples of vowel harmony in Turkish. The
examples start with one-syllable words and increase to two syllable and then either three
or four syllable words. The examples are also divided into separate tables based on the
features of vowel harmony that they are agreeing with. The last table, table five, gives an
example of one of the longest words in Turkish. This example is given to show that
vowel harmony stays true even in the longest words, assuming that there are no foreign
elements, compound words, or invariable suffixes.
Front, unrounded vowel harmony
Base word
English Base + suffix English Base + suffix + suffix
My houses
My cats
My words
Table 1. Front, Unrounded
Back, unrounded vowel harmony
Base word
English Base + suffix English Base + suffix + suffix
My names
My men
My cars
Table 2. Back, Unrounded
Front, rounded vowel harmony
English Base + suffix
Base + suffix +
My lake
My lake’s
My death’s
My evil
My evil’s
Table 3. Front, Rounded
Back, rounded vowel harmony
Base word
Base + suffix
Base + suffix +
[email protected]
[email protected]
Table 4. Back, Rounded
In the table below the Turkish word is given first and then the English translation
is provided right below. The Turkish words and English translations follow this example
throughout the table. The English translation is always below the Turkish word.
Front, unrounded vowel harmony in one of the longest words in Turkish
Maker of unsuccessful ones
One who is not able to make one easily a maker of unsuccessful ones
Those who are not able to make one easily a maker of unsuccessful ones
Those who we cannot easily make a maker of unsuccessful ones
From those who we cannot easily make a maker of unsuccessful ones
Supposedly from those who we cannot easily make a maker of unsuccessful ones
9/.H-4K!531!2-!"26!G./0";!-."7"4C!Q->1#[email protected]!291!6388"E16!29/2!8-??->!/7.11!>"29!291!
You (pl.) are supposedly from those who we cannot easily make a maker of
unsuccessful ones
As if you (pl.) are supposedly from those who we cannot easily make a maker of
unsuccessful ones
Table 5. Long Turkish Word
The modern Turkish language is a member of the Oghuz family, which is a member
of the larger Turkic family of languages. The earliest examples of Orkhon Turkic, the
ancestor of the modern Turkish language, date back to the 7th-13 centuries. There are a
remarkable number of similarities between modern Turkish and Orkhon Turkic. Without
going into a deep analysis of the Orkhon Turkic language, this section will give the
reader a general understanding of the roots of the modern Turkish language by discussing
Orkhon Turkic’s phonology and morphology.
A distinguishing, though not as rare, feature of Old and Modern Turkish is the lack
of grammatical gender. A lack of grammatical gender means that nouns are not
categorized according to certain morphological features, and adjectives do not need to
agree with nouns grammatically on the basis of these features. Orkhon Turkic also does
not have natural gender. Without natural gender there is only one word for “he,” “she,”
and “it.” A feature of modern Turkish that was lacking in Orkhon Turkic is nominal
plurality. Although runic Orkhon Turkic did have plurality for people, it did not have
plurality for non-human nouns. Therefore there was only one word for both “horse,” and
“horses.” However, slowly the plural form –lar, which was used for people, spread to all
nouns and in modern Turkish is used in the form of –lar or –ler on all plural nouns.
A brief comparison of the possessive endings, personal pronouns and cases of
both languages should give the reader some visual examples of how similar the modern
Turkish language has remained true to its roots.
Orkhon Turkic Possessive16:
1st person
2nd person
3rd person
same as singular
Modern Turkish Possessive18:
1st person
2nd person
3rd person
-("19, i, u, ü)m
-(", i, u, ü)n
-(s) "/i/u/ü
my hand
your hand
his/her/it’s hand
1st person
2nd person
3rd person
-(", i, u, ü)-m"z/miz/muz/müz
-(", i, u, ü)-n"z/niz/nuz/nüz
our hand
your (plural) hand
their hands
Looking at the Orkhon Turkic possessive endings and comparing them to the
Modern Turkish possessive endings it can be seen that the consonants are remarkably
similar. The vowels are also quite similar; however Modern Turkish has more vowel
options in the endings than Orkhon Turkic. The reason for the additional vowels in
Modern Turkish most likely has to do with vowel harmony. As mentioned above Modern
Turkish has an additional feature of roundness in its vowel harmony, which is most likely
$(!The Ottoman Turkish Possessive endings are given in the next chapter for comparison
$)!The endings have been separated from the root, bolded, and underlined to show more
clearly the word with and without the ending.
$*!Both the Orkhon endings and the modern Turkish endings have been written with the
International Phonetic Alphabet for the sake of comparison. However, in place of the
phonetic symbols [y] and [œ] the letters < ü> and <ö> have been used.
$+!Although different symbols are used, the phoneme ["] is only a back version of the
central vowel [W]. The two sounds are very similar and the modern Turkish ["] may be
considered an evolution of the Orkhon [W], not a completely different sound.!
the reason for the additional round vowel options for the possessive endings.
Orkhon Turkic Cases:
Before giving the exact case endings, it is important to explain what the cases in
Orkhon Turkic actually are. The definitions for these cases have been taken either exactly
or closely from “A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic” by Talat Tekin and “A Grammar of Old
Turkic” by Marcel Erdal. The nominative case, as in most languages is indicated by a
lack of a suffix and predominantly indicates the subject of a clause. The nominative case
can also function as the predicate noun of a clause, as an adverbial complement with a
postposition, as an adverbial complement indicating the place or the time of an action or
as a possessive attribute of another noun, which has the possessive suffix of the third
person. The genitive case functions as a definite possessive attribute. The accusative case
functions as a definite direct object. The dative case, sometimes referred to as the dativelocative case, expresses movement or direction. The dative case creates adverbs out of
nominal stems or roots that indicate a place or a direction. However, unlike the directive
case the dative case is only used when the goal is achieved whereas the directive case
simply expresses general movement. The locative case, sometimes referred to as the
locative-ablative case, is an adverbial compliment indicating the location of an action; the
state or condition of an object or person while the action takes place, denotation of the
start of an action and for comparisons. The ablative case expresses movement from
somewhere, someone or something. In other words, it expresses “source.” In modern
Turkish it can also mean “because of.” The directive case functions as an adverbial
complement indicating the object toward which the action is performed. The equative
case functions as an adverb of comparison, equality, and the like. The instrumental case
indicates the tool of an action, the idea of companionship with someone, the manner in
which an action is performed and the time of an action. The comitative case is a rare case
and answers the question “together with whom?” It specifically gives the meaning
“together with.” Below are the the exact endings for these cases in Orkhon Turkic20.
Genitive: -(n)WG, -(n)iG
Example: bilgä qaAan-WG bodonW (“Bilgä Kagan’s people)
Accusative: -A, -g (on pure stem +pl stem nouns), -n (on possessive stems)
Example: qaAan at-WA bunta biz birtimiz (“it was we who gave (him) the title kagan)
Dative: -qa/-kä, -a/-ä, -Ga/-Gä
Example: qaAan-qa qWrqWz bodunW iXikdi (“the Kirgiz people submitted to the kagan)
Locative: -da/-dä, -ta/-tä
Example: qara köl-tä süGüshdümiz (“we fought at the Black Lake”)
Ablative: -din, -dan/-dän, -tan/-tän
Example: tasdWn-tan (“from the outside”)
Directive: -Aaru/-gärü, -Garu/-Gärü, -aru/-ärü, -ra/-rä
Example: ötükän yWs-Aaru uduztum (I led (the army) in the direction of the Ötükän
Equative: -Xa/-Xä
%F!The Ottoman Turkish cases are given in the next chapter for comparison purposes.!
%$!There is no example for the Nominative case because it is the base form and does not
take any endings.!
Example: süGüküG taA-Xa yatdW (your bones were heaped up like a mountain)
Instrumental: -n22
Example: oqun (with an arrow)
Comitative: -lWAu/-ligü
Example: qorWAu ekY üX kisi-ligü täzip bardW (their protector fled together with a few
Modern Turkish has many of the same cases as Orkhon Turkic, with a few
exceptions. The nominative, genitive, accusative, dative, locative, ablative, and
instrumental cases are the same in meaning; therefore there is no need to explain them
again. The exact endings are shown below23.
Genitive: -(n) in/un/"n/ün/im24
Example: /onun evi güzel/ (His home is nice.)
Accusative: -(y)i/u/"/ü (on pure stems) -(n)i/u/"/ü (on possessive stems)
Example: /evini dün gördüm/ ( I saw your home yesterday.)
Dative: -(y)e/a (on pure stems) -(n)e/a (on possessive stems)
Example: /evine ne zaman geleyim/ (When should I come to your home?)
Locative: -(n)de/(n)da, -te/ta (/n/ added only onto possessive stems)
Example: /evinde kaç ki8i var/ (How many people are in your home?)
%%!Usually there is a vowel between the last letter of the root and the -n in the
instrumental case. This vowel adheres to vowel harmony.!
%&!<91!H-51.4!<3.="69!145"476!/45!1E/H:?16!/.1!4-2!8.-H!/[email protected]!291K!/.1!8.-H!291!
%'!-im is only used for the first person pronouns, for the English word “mine” and “ours.”!
Ablative: -(n)den/(n)dan, -ten/tan (/n/ added only onto possessive stems)
Example: /evinden mi geliyorsun/ (Are you coming from your home?)
Instrumental25: -(y)la/le
Example: /arkada8"nla oynad"ktan sonra eve gel/ (When you finish playing with your
friend, come home.)
It can be seen that as with the possessive endings, many of the endings have not
changes significantly from Orkhon Turkic. The genitive case has more vowel options,
once again most likely due to vowel harmony, and [G] has changed to a simple [n]. The
only significant change to the accusative case is the addition of vowels after the
consonants. The distinction between pure stems and possessive stems, however, has
remained. The dative case has dropped the plosive [q] and [k] sounds and adapted a
system closer to the accusative case. The dative case in modern Turkish also uses a
different consonant depending on whether the stem is pure or possessive. Most likely this
happened throughout the years as a form of assimilation from one case to another. The
same is true with the locative and ablative cases. The locative and ablative cases have
also picked up on this system of distinction between pure stems and possessive stems by
adding a [n] for possessive stems. The instrumental case is the case that has shown the
most striking change from Orkhon Turkic to modern Turkish. The modern Turkish
ending comes from the Turkish word ile meaning “with.” The word ile comes from Old
Turkic and at some point took over the instrumental case. In fact the instrumental case in
modern Turkish can be written as a suffix as shown above, or as a separate word.
%L!Not everyone agrees that Turkish has an instrumental case.!
However, even when it is said as a separate word it is thought of as a suffix and expected
to follow vowel harmony. Therefore words like onun that have back vowels sound
unpleasant and awkward with the word ile because it has front vowels. The word ile is
therefore only used rarely and with front vowel words in modern Turkish.
One last area to look at in Orkhon Turkic and modern day Turkish is the personal
pronouns. A list of the personal pronouns, with their cases, in both languages is below.
Personal Pronouns26 in Orkhon Turkic27:
1st p.28 singular
bän, män
bäniG, mäniG
bini, mini
baGa, maGa
mintin, minidin
2nd p. singular
1st p. plural
2nd p. singular
1st p. plural
2nd p. plural
Personal Pronouns in modern Turkish:
1st p. singular
2nd p. plural
When comparing the personal pronouns in these two languages it can be seen that
%(!The equative, instrumental, and comitative cases do not have pronoun forms. In
Orkhon Turkic nouns have more cases than pronouns.!
%)!The Personal Pronouns of Ottoman Turkish are given in the next chapter for
comparison purposes.!
the nominative case has not significantly changed. The genitive case has changed from
[G] as the last sound to [m] as the last sound. However, it has stayed in the nasal family,
so it has also not changed significantly. The accusative case has changed from having an
[i] as the second sound to having [e] as the second sound. The modern Turkish sound [e],
as opposed to the Orkhon Turkic [i], is regular with the overall pattern of the personal
pronouns. Therefore it would seem that the accusative case simply assimilated in sound
to the overall pattern of personal pronouns. The dative case, however, has retained its
distinctive <a> in the second position of the word. This is especially interesting because
according to vowel harmony rules in modern Turkish <a> is a back vowel and all of the
other cases have the front vowel <e>. Therefore there is a lack of vowel harmony
between the genitive case and all of the other cases for personal pronouns.29 The locative
case has retained the front vowel feature, but similarly to the accusative case seems to
have assimilated into the general pattern followed by the rest of the personal pronouns,
excepting the dative case. The locative case has also abandoned the [m] at the beginning
for the [b]. It would seem that between the two forms for the first person singular
pronouns the form beginning with [b] won over the form beginning with [m], as there are
no forms that begin with [m] in modern day Turkish. The central vowel [ä] at the end of
the locative case has also been dropped in favor of the more harmonious front vowel [e].
There is also a minor shift from a [t] to a [d] in the middle of the word. It is a minor shift
because both letters are coronal plosives and differ only in that [d] is voiced and [t] is
%+!Although the letter <a> is a back vowel according to vowel harmony rules in modern
Turkish, [a] is actually a central vowel. This discrepancy will be discussed further in the
chapter “Vowel Harmony.”!
voiceless. While quantitatively the changes in the locative case may seem significant,
qualitatively they are not that impressive. The differences show more of a shift that
naturally occurs over time than an unexpected change. The ablative case is similar to the
locative case in terms of the changes it has undergone. The initial [m] shifts to a [b] and
the [i] in the second position shifts to an [e]. These are both natural assimilatory changes
that have been seen in the cases already discussed above. However, the shift from a [t] to
a [d] does not occur, because there is no need. While there is one case of a [t] in the first
person singular, there is also an option with a [d] in the first person singular and every
other form includes only a [d]. Therefore the majority sound was already a [d] and not a
[t] in Orkhon Turkic. Also, both vowels shifted from [i] to [e], rather than the shift from
the central vowel [ä] to the front vowel [e]. This indicates that in the ablative case the
shift was not for vowel harmony, as both vowels were front, but rather another case of
assimilation to the surrounding cases. The directive case no longer exists in modern
Turkish and the Instrumental case did not hold sway over personal pronouns in Orkhon
Turkic, so there is no way to compare those two cases.
The overarching theme when comparing Orkhon Turkic to modern day Turkish is
continuity. The number of similarities between the two languages far outweighs the
number of differences. Not only that, but the differences are not drastic, for the most part
the differences are in pronunciation or due to gradual assimilation. There are, of course,
some more significant changes, such as the loss of three cases30, the loss of the distinction
between [a] and [ä], now represented simply by the letter <a>, pronounced as a central
vowel and the shift of the central vowel [W] to the back vowel ["], although the letter <ı>
in Turkish is sometimes still pronounced as [W]. The vowel shifts may be explained by a
shift toward front and back vowel harmony. In Orkhon Turkic the [W] and [ä] were both
central phonemes and the [a] was a front phoneme. This created an unequal balance of
four front vowels, two central and therefore ambiguous vowels, and only two back
vowels. The shift in vowels dropped one front vowel [a] and shifted the central [W] to a
back ["], and therefore created a more balanced system of four front vowels, one central
vowel, and three back vowels. However, although the modern Turkish <a> is
phonetically categorized as a central vowel it functions as a back vowel when it comes to
vowel harmony. Therefore it is generally considered a back vowel. This distinction evens
out the numbers to four front vowels and four back vowels, creating a beautifully
balanced, non-ambiguous vowel harmony system.31 These changes, although substantial
are to be expected with time and considering the hundreds of years between Orkhon
Turkic and modern Turkish are still surprisingly minor.
&F!Depending on if the instrumental case is counted as a case in modern Turkish, an
argument could be made that either three or four cases have been lost. However, the
Instrumental case is included in this paper as a part of modern Turkish. Therefore the
number of lost cases is counted as three.!
&$!While this does appear to create a beautifully balanced system, the intricacies of vowel
harmony in modern Turkish are much more complicated and are discussed in greater
detail in the chapter “Vowel Harmony.”!
Ottoman Turkish has a slightly misleading name for those who are not familiar with
the language. It immediately brings the modern Turkish language to mind. However,
while the Ottoman language is based solidly on Turkish and originated from Old Turkic,
it also includes so many Arabic and Persian elements that it is aptly categorized as a
separate language. In the Ottoman Empire the languages spoken by the muslims in the
Balkans were Albanian, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish. In Anatolia they
were Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic and Caucasian languages. Ottoman Turkish was only the
language of the bureaucracy.
In order to allow the reader to see a comparison between the Orkhon Turkic
language, the Ottoman Turkish language and the modern Turkish language below are
given the Ottoman Turkish and modern Turkish equivalents of the Orkhon Turkic
suffixes given previously. These suffixes include the possessive endings for 1st, 2nd and
3rd person, the noun cases and personal pronouns. The Arabic spelling for the possessive
endings is given first, followed by the IPA spellings and then the modern Turkish in IPA.
Ottoman Turkish Possessive in Arabic letters:
&%!Some of the basic information about the Ottoman Turkish language, such as suffixes,
found throughout this section comes from “Ottoman-Turkish, Conversation-Grammar: A
Practical Method of Learning the Ottoman-Turkish Language,” by V.H. Hagopian.
However, the expansions on the basic knowledge are not from the book.!
Ottoman Turkish Possessive33:
1st person
2nd person
3rd person
-("/i/u/ü) m
-("/i/u/ü) n
-(s) "/i/u/ü
-("/i/u/ü) m"z/miz/muz/müz
-("/i/u/ü) n"z/niz/nuz/nüz
-("/i/u/ü) m"z/miz/muz/müz
-("/i/u/ü) n"z/niz/nuz/nüz
Modern Turkish Possessive:
1st person
2nd person
3rd person
-("/i/u/ü) m
-("/i/u/ü) n
-(s) "/i/u/ü
From the chart above it can be seen that the possessive endings have not changed
from late Ottoman Turkish to modern day Turkish. The chart above was taken from a
book on Ottoman Turkish grammar written in 1907 and therefore only five years before
the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This is ideal to show the Ottoman Turkish language at
it’s most developed point before the language reform that was carried out soon after the
fall of the Empire. While it can be seen that the endings have not changed in
pronunciation there is a drastic difference in spelling. Where the modern Turkish suffixes
can be spelled in eight ways, with the exception of the third person plural forms, while
adhering to vowel harmony, the Ottoman Turkish only has one spelling for each suffix.
The reason for this is that the only variable pieces in the suffixes are the vowels and short
vowels are not written in Arabic script. Therefore, while the modern Turkish spelling
distinguishes between the eight different spellings of the first person singular possessive,
Ottoman Turkish does not. The Ottoman Turkish spelling system, once again, requires
&&!The International Phonetic Alphabet has been used to display the Ottoman Turkish and
Modern Turkish Possessives. However, <ü> has been used in place of [y].!
much more of the literate individual than the modern Turkish phonetic system.
Ottoman Turkish Cases34:
Example: HKD /gö35l/ ("lake")
Genitive: formed with the suffix F -(n)"ñ/iñ/uñ/üñ/im
Example: FJ$7$) /paZan"ñ/ ("the pasha's")
Accusative: formed with the suffix M -(y)"/i
Example: J$7K$; 7I2K*D /[avZan" getürmiZ/ ("he apparently/supposedly36 brought the
Dative: formed with the suffix -(y)a/e
Example: LJ$H?K$ /o\lana/ (“to the boy”)
Locative: formed with the suffix L0 –de, –da.
Example: L(*DI /mektebde/ ("at school"), L07$( /baZda/ ("at the start")
Ablative case: formed with the suffix J0 -den, -dan
Example: J0J$H?K$ /o\landan/ (“from the boy”)
Instrumental case37: formed with the suffix LH -le
Example: LHD36 /sizinle/ (“with you all”)
&'!The examples are given in Arabic script, as it was written during the Ottoman Empire,
in phonetic characters to show how the word was pronounced in Ottoman Turkish and
also in English. The suffixes are also underlined for convenience.!
&L!Once again the letter <ö> will be used in place of the phonetic symbol [œ].!
&(!Here the suffix /miZ/ is an example of the inferential tense and is impossible to translate
exactly without context. (The inferential tense takes four forms: /miZ/, /m"Z/, /müZ/, and
&)!Not everyone agrees on whether Ottoman Turkish or modern Turkish have the
instrumental case.!
Modern Turkish Cases38:
Example: /göl/ (“lake”)
Genitive: -(n) in/un/"n/ün/im39
Example: /paZan"n/ (“the pasha’s”)
Accusative: -(y)i/u/"/ü (on pure stems) -(n)i/u/"/ü (on possessive stems)
Example: /tavZan"40 getirmiZ/ ("he brought the rabbit")
Dative: -(y)a/e (on pure stems) -(n)e/a (on possessive stems)
Example: /o\lan"n kitab"na/ (“to the boy’s book”)
Locative: -(n)de/(n)da, -te/ta ([n] added only onto possessive stems)
Example: /okulda/ ("at school"), baZda ("at the start")
Ablative: -(n)den/(n)dan, -ten/tan ([n] added only onto possessive stems)
Example: /o\landan/ (“from the boy”)
Instrumental: -(y)la/le
Example: /sizinle/ (“with you all”)
The overarching theme when comparing Orkhon Turkic to modern day Turkish is
continuity. The number of similarities between the two languages far outweighs the
number of differences. Not only that, but the differences are not drastic, for the most part
the differences are in pronunciation or due to gradual assimilation. There are, of course,
&*!The examples are given only in phonetic characters and in English.!
&+!-im is only used for the first person pronouns, for the english word “mine” and “ours.!
'F!In this example the [n] in /tavZan"/ comes from the Turkish word for rabbit itself:
/tavZan/ not from a possessive stem.!
some more significant changes, such as the loss of three cases41, the loss of the distinction
between [a] and [ä], now represented simply by the letter <a>, pronounced as a central
vowel and the shift of the central vowel [W] to the back vowel ["], although the letter <ı>
in Turkish is sometimes still pronounced as [W]. The vowel shifts may be explained by a
shift toward front and back vowel harmony. In Orkhon Turkic the [W] and [ä] were both
central phonemes and the [a] was a front phoneme. This created an unequal balance of
four front vowels, two central and therefore ambiguous vowels, and only two back
vowels. The shift in vowels dropped one front vowel [a] and shifted the central [W] to a
back ["], and therefore created a more balanced system of four front vowels, one central
vowel, and three back vowels. However, although the modern Turkish <a> is
phonetically categorized as a central vowel it functions as a back vowel when it comes to
vowel harmony. Therefore it is generally considered a back vowel. This distinction evens
out the numbers to four front vowels and four back vowels, creating a beautifully
balanced, non-ambiguous vowel harmony system.42 These changes, although substantial
are to be expected with time and considering the hundreds of years between Orkhon
Turkic and modern Turkish are still surprisingly minor.
It can quite clearly be seen that the cases have not been seriously altered from
Ottoman Turkish to modern Turkish. Both languages have the nominative, genitive,
'$!Depending on if the instrumental case is counted as a case in modern Turkish, an
argument could be made that either three or four cases have been lost. However, the
instrumental case is included in this paper as a part of modern Turkish. Therefore the
number of lost cases is counted as three.!
'%!While this does appear to create a beautifully balanced system, the intricacies of vowel
harmony in modern Turkish are much more complicated and are discussed in greater
detail in the chapter “Vowel Harmony.”!
accusative, dative, locative, ablative and debatably instrumental cases. The nominative
and genitive cases did not change. The accusative case in Ottoman Turkish does not
include the variant suffixes –u, –ü as it does in Modern Turkish. In the locative case the
variant suffixes –te, –ta do not occur as they do in Modern Turkish. Likewise in the
ablative case the variant suffixes -ten, -tan do not occur in Ottoman Turkish. Lastly the
instrumental case in Ottoman Turkish does not include the variant suffix -la, which
modern Turkish requires for the sake of vowel harmony.
Ottoman Turkish Personal Pronouns in Arabic script:
Modern Turkish Personal Pronouns:
1st p sing.
2nd p sing.
1st p pl.
2nd p pl.
The Ottoman Turkish and modern Turkish forms are once again pronounced
identically. Therefore, the Latin script for the Ottoman Turkish has been omitted to avoid
needless repetition. In the possessive suffixed, the noun cases and the personal pronouns
it can be seen that very little has changed in the pronunciation of words from Ottoman
Turkish to modern Turkish, however the spellings have changed drastically. One of the
reasons for the drastic changes in spelling is the new alphabet. The current, Latin
alphabet, fits the Turkish language better than the previous Arabic alphabet.