To teach is to learn twice

I am sure that you are all dying to learn about Turkish grammar at this exact second, and I know that I need a refresher. Therefore, please allow me to introduce you to the Altaic language family, vowel harmony, agglutination, case endings, and word order.

Classification. When I mention to someone that I am studying Turkish,  I usually add that Turkish is distantly related to Korean and Japanese. As usual, the reality is more ambiguous than fun facts make it sound.

Turkish belongs to the Altaic language family, a grouping of languages that are genetically related, according to hypotheses. Depending on whom you ask, this family subsumes only Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic families or it may include those as well as Japonic and Korean languages. The dispute revolves around whether the similarities in the languages are due to a shared proto-language or to geographical interaction.

Whether or not Proto-Altaic language exists, there seem to be deep structural congruencies between Japanese and Turkic. The image above shows that Japanese and Uyghur (a Turkic language spoken in Eastern China) match word-for-word even if the words themselves are different (syntax is less prone to linguistic change over time than vocabulary is). So I think that when I tell you that the two languages are “distantly related” I am not lying overly much.

Vowel harmony. There are eight vowels in Turkish arranged in two groups, ince ünlüler “thin vowels” or “front vowels” and kalın ünlüler “thick vowels” or “back vowels.” I remember them as the “a-undotted vowels” and the “e-dotted vowels.”

In Turkish, a word will contain either front vowels or back vowels, but never* both. Vowel harmony makes words easier to produce and perceive, and it also gives a mellifluous sound quality to spoken Turkish.

How does it work? Take the noun kedi “cat,” and take the plural suffix -ler/-lar. Notice that the last vowel in kedi is i, a front vowel (the first vowel is also front, but it’s the last one that matters). So we choose the back version of the plural suffix, which is -ler, and add it to kedi, thereby producing kediler “cats.” There’s another type of vowel harmony utilizing “rounded” and “unrounded” vowels, but you get the idea.

I should add that there are a bunch of words, loanwords, and suffixes that do not follow vowel harmony. Arabic borrowings in particular elude vowel harmonization — vaat “promise” -is vaatler “promises,” not *vaatlar.

Aggultination. An agglutinative language is one in which you form words by adding affixes to the base of a word. English is agglutinative in a few cases, such as the plural marker -(e)s or the past tense marker -ed, but Turkish uses agglutination much much more extensively. In the above sentence, the word seviyorum is composed of a base (sev- “to love”) plus two suffixes to  mean “I am loving” or “I love.” What English expresses in two or three words Turkish expresses in one.

Because of agglutination, Turkish is capable of astounding conciseness, often expressing an idea in half the number of words that it would take in English — Yazıma bakan profesör Ülkü Hanım “The professor who looked at my paper is Ms. Ulku.” According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest unbroken word/sentence in the known world is this 50-letter Turkish one with 12 suffixes:


Meaning “Are you in the group of persons that we could not Czechoslovakianize?” One Turkish word to express a twelve word English sentence! I call that badass.

Case endings. During high school many of us study Latin in order to learn big SAT words like pugnacious, laudable, and discordant. It’s not the Latin roots that are so troublesome; the most vexatious part was the grammar, where you have to decline nouns forms in nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, etc. etc. That stuff might not have helped you get a 770 Verbal score, but it’s relevant when studying other languages, such as Turkish, which also uses case endings to convert words from one grammatical function to another.

This chart represents an entire semester of Turkish study. Gaze deeply and be enlightened.

A particularly tricky application of cases in Turkish is the two-part genitive in which both the possessor and the thing being possessed must have matching suffixes. It’s unfamiliar to English speakers and pervasive in all levels of the language. But like the overwhelming majority of Turkish grammar, the two-part genitive is predictable and regular and therefore not tricky… as long as you have like five months to fully internalize the rule.

Leyla (benim) arkadaşım. “Leyla is my friend.”

(Benim) kutuphaneye gideceğim zaman sana haber veririm. “When I go to the library I will let you know.”

Word order. As one of my professors always said, Turkish is like Yoda-speak — Ben eve gittim. “I home-to went.” Like for Master Yoda, the default word order for Turkish is SOV (subject-object-verb).  The upshot of this syntax is that sentences are sometimes composed exactly the reverse of the way we compose them in English.

Kösedeki masada yazımı okuyan kadınla konuştu.

That-is-in-the-corner table-at paper-my that-is-reading lady-with talking-she-was.

Meaning, “S/he was talking with the lady that is reading my paper at the table in the corner.”

That’s all for now. Görüşürüz!


4 thoughts on “To teach is to learn twice

  1. Lucy July 24, 2013 / 12:11 am

    Reblogged this on Luce Ends and commented:
    I’m trying to learn some Turkish, since I feel like it doesn’t make sense to go to a country for four months and not take the opportunity to learn as much of the language as possible, and as I begin to pick up the grammar, it takes me back to my Latin-learning days. I know some people find the structure of Latin confusing or frustrating, but I always liked it! I think that once you learn the proper endings and everything, it makes Latin a particularly easy language to read and understand. I think I might end up feeling the same way about Turkish, even if the really long words with completely unfamiliar pronunciations make my head swim a little at first!
    I came across this post when I Googled “Turkish grammar chart,” remembering how helpful charts of all this sort of stuff were when I was learning Latin, and I thought it was a nice read! I hope you enjoy 🙂
    This is too fun,


  2. georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever March 15, 2015 / 5:08 pm

    This is a nice write-up, and a great blog in general! Would you mind if I used your “vowel harmony” picture? I’m writing my own post on this topic and it could use some decoration.


    • C. Puls March 16, 2015 / 3:44 pm

      Yes, you may use the vowel harmony image along with an attribution link back to this blog ( Thanks for visiting and reading!


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