Let’s Talk Türkçe (That’s Turkish for “Turkish”)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Zack talks Turkish.


Açgözlü. /ʌtʃgɜzlu/ adj. Language: Turkish. Meaning: Greedy—literally, “hungry eyed.” Gotta love the creativity of compound words. 

I’m Zack, from California. I’m 25 and I’ve been living and working in Istanbul, Turkey for the last three years as a video editor. I learned a couple words of Turkish while I was on exchange in Holland, and came on vacation to visit my good friend from exchange here in Istanbul. I started learning the language, met a girl, and just kept extending my stay. I work freelance on a mix of commercial and documentary works. Here’s a link to some of the fun stuff I’ve been working on!

Turkish is an Altaic language primarily spoken in Turkey, although due to immigration, it is now very widespread. There are roughly 71 million speakers worldwide. 

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it? I’ve been teaching myself Turkish for almost 3 years now. I studied from a book for the first 6 months or so, and the rest I’ve picked up while socializing exclusively with Turks and desperately trying to scrape by in the professional world.

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) 7. I can hold a conversation on most topics comfortably. But I need to ask clarifying questions sometimes, and I have a hard time understanding older people (who often speak an altered dialect), or people with thick accents. I can read quite fluently, but I wouldn’t trust myself to make official translations into Turkish. Though I could comfortably translate from Turkish to English (which I have to do a lot in my job as an editor, making subtitles and such).

3. Rate difficulty in learning this language on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following categories: 

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 2. Turkish is awesome from the standpoint of appropriate usage. There are no gendered pronouns or conjugations. There is a formal register, but it’s the same as that used for “you (plural).” People use honorifics such as “abi (older brother), hoca (teacher), teyze (auntie)” sometimes to add rank signifiers, but they don’t interfere with the sentence. Swearing is a national past-time, with really fantastically creative ways to curse at people, as well as some really solid standby curse words that fit perfectly in your mouth when you get angry. It’s very acceptable to curse among friends, but in public quite taboo – and unthinkable to direct at a stranger unless you seriously want to get hurt. Turkish people are generally quite polite, but when the social contract is broken by swearing, being rude, etc, all bets are off, and situations quickly devolve into violence.

Foca, Turkey: Let's Talk Turkish

In Foca, near Izmir, Turkey

     b. Grammar 3. Turkish grammar is really easy in that it has all regular verbs, and uses agglutination – which is like lego for words [editor’s note: agglutination means adding prefixes and suffixes onto the root, instead of having multiple words to convey the meaning.] This means that even if you don’t understand what someone did, you understand who did it and when. That being said, the logic of Turkish is completely different. Verbs come at the end, many things that one might say in English have no 1:1 translation, so you have to think in Turkish to speak it.

     c. Pronunciation 3. Pronunciation is very similar to Spanish, perhaps a bit easier (for me) because the trilled ‘r’ (my greatest language weakness) is not necessary. That being said, mispronouncing a ‘u’ as a ‘ü’ can change the meaning in some cases, so you need to have a good accent. Having a good ear will help you get the pronunciation right, but it isn’t as specific and nuanced as Mandarin.

     d. Vocabulary 4. Vocabulary is hard to learn from English because there are about 15 homonyms total with English. Most words will have an Arabic, Farsi, or Turkish root, so they’re completely different from their english equivalents.

It also has a huge vocabulary because there is often an Arabic-rooted word for something that there is also a Turkish-rooted word for. More often the Turkish rooted word will be preferred, but older people/ official writing will sometimes use the more Arabic-rooted words.

     e. Spelling 0. During the founding of the Turkish Republic at the turn of the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk did away with the Arabic alphabet and put in place a perfectly phonetic system using the roman alphabet. As a result pronunciation and written Turkish are always in agreement. This makes it way easier to learn from a book, because there’s little to no guesswork. They use an additional 3 vowels ‘ı, ü, ö’, and 3 extra consonants (ç for ‘ch’, ş for ‘sh’ and ‘ğ’ which is relatively silent) for added clarity. So you don’t end up with nightmare spellings like “thoroughfare.”

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This question is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;) 

Turkish comic | A Thing for Wor(l)ds

So here’s a comic by Uğur Gürsoy. The captions are:

“Mom! I’m going to take a quick shower and then go outside like a real man, bye bye!”

“Do what you like (I don’t care), come on!”

“Ah fuck me, I’m a prisoner to a plastic duck again…”

“I’m gonna burn you, dude”

I cannot describe the way in which this comic is funny. It definitely is funny, but the funniness is so purely Turkish, that it doesn’t translate well. I’ll try to explain the funniness of the last line, but it’s not going to work. “Yakicam lan seni” has this implicit connotation in the way it’s organized that the speaker is tougher than they are, and it contrasts with this kid who’s failed to take a short shower and instead has taken a long bath. He’s trapped himself with a childhood comfort, which is a kind of recurring theme in Turkey. A lot of young Turkish people live at home. There’s this theme of the guilty pleasure of the comfort of the family home, so there are these layers of culture and language working together to make this joke really funny. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense in English, especially when you read it as an American.

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

I really enjoy learning languages. I spent 4 years in French, 3 of those I was also studying Japanese. I learned a bit of Dutch and German while on exchange in Holland. So it’s been a mix. Turkish was definitely one of those languages I learned out of necessity. I found myself in Turkey because I was going to wait out my 90 days so that I could re-enter Europe on a tourist visa, and I realized very quickly that I would become bored if I didn’t wrap my head around the language, so I picked up a grammar book and started studying. Then I met a girl, and the urgency increased to learn the language. Then my money ran out, so I had to work, which forced me to learn even more. Then I decided to stay, so I needed friends, an apartment, a visa. At this point, about 2% of everything I say is in English in an average month.

Cesme, Turkey: Let's Talk Turkish

In Cesme, Turkey, with my girlfriend, Elif

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad.

Turkish has allowed me access to a bunch of people that I never could understand without language skills. I tried recently and unfruitfully to introduce a Turkish friend of mine (with limited English skills) to a fellow expat I’d started working with. I couldn’t figure out a single way that they could connect. They talked a little bit about cameras, because all the vocabulary was English, and hand gestures got them pretty far. But overall it didn’t take. It’s interesting to think that I could probably never properly introduce some of my friends here to my friends back home. They would never get each other. I realized that I would be very lonely here, or else part of a foreigner enclave if I didn’t have a handle on the language.

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?

The Facts:

Turkish has no irregular verbs. The spelling is purely phonetic. It’s spoken by 1% of the worlds population, which is about 10 times the number that speak Swedish, Czech, and !Xhosa. Turkey is an important country geopolitically, often acting as an interface between Europe and the Middle East. If you speak Turkish, you can also understand Azerbaijani relatively easily. With a bit of studying, you could probably also understand Turkmenistani, Uyghur, and a little bit of Urdu.

But the biggest thing that I like about Turkish is that Turkish people appreciate the effort. It’s like the opposite of French. In Turkey if you make an effort to learn Turkish, people will appreciate it, and help you on your way. They’re very forgiving and kind about their language, very open to foreigners, and very gentle with their guidance. It’s very, very hard to learn a language, and it can be hair-ripping-ly, tear-jerking-ly frustrating, and I think that I was able to not give up because I always had such great support from everyone I ever met in Turkey, appreciating the effort to understand their language and their culture better. This makes a huge difference between having a basic understanding and having a deep understanding. It’s the carrot that drives you to push through the hard times.

Buyukada, Turkey: Let's Talk Turkish

On Buyukada, one of the prince islands in Istanbul.

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language, and why.

This is a fun one, a sentence is a single word. “Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?” which translates to: “Were you one of our people whom we were unable to turn into Czechoslovakians?”

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English, and approximately what it means.

Gönül – it means “heart” but not the anatomical heart. It can be translated to heart and it still works, but I think it’s interesting that they used “Kalp” (an arabic word) for the anatomical heart, but “gönül,” a really clearly Turkish word, to mean the “heart” that fills with joy, desires, and performs other metaphorical tasks.

Another one that you could use would be “Eyvallah.” This is from Arabic, but is used here in Turkey to mean (depending on context): yes, no, thank you, no thanks, you’re welcome, correct, if you say so.

3. A gesture in this language that differs from English (if there is one).

In Turkey, to say “no” or “no thanks,” you tilt back your head and make a tsk-ing sound. This confused me a lot at first, because in the States, anything with a vertical head motion means yes. Let’s just say a lot of people ended up politely drinking tea when they didn’t want to.

4. Best expression? 

There’s a great expression in Turkish which is “cebinde akrep var,” literally: “There’s a scorpion in his pocket.” It’s a phrase you use to describe someone who is stingy. I just really like the image. “Guys, seriously, I would love to help pay for gas, but gestures at pocket shrugs. I’m sure you understand.”

And in conclusion….

O kadar uzun zamandır İngilizce yazı yazmadım ki bir sürü gramer ve yazım hatası yapmış olabilirim.

“It’s been such a long time that I’ve written something in English that I’ve probably made a bunch of grammar and spelling mistakes.”

A huge thank you to Zack for sharing his Turkish wisdom with us! If you’d like to read more from language learners, check out some other interviews from the Let’s Talk series.

Are you a foreign language learner? Email me at athingforwords (at) gmail (dot) com to be part of the series!

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  • Kafkacı

    I’m a great fan of Turkish and Turkish culture. But I wish the life was not stuck into apartments and narrow streets in that country. In 20th century, the country had definitely experienced a very wrong construction policy. That led to a culture with apartments and crowd, which again led to lack of proper communication among people. (source: a native turkish)

  • Dave Johnson

    Great article Zack. I’ve been in Istanbul for about three years too. Your insight on the language is spot on.

  • Wow, Turkish sounds really interesting to learn and it seems like he got a really good grasp of it. It is cool that he speaks about 2% English now and the rest Turkish. I never got that advanced when I lived in Korea :(

  • OccupyTurkey

    “There are roughly 71 million speakers worldwide.” … Pardon me, but Turkey’s population is almost 77 million according to census 2013. And also considering close dialects such as Iraqi / İrani / Syrian Turkmens Turkish, Azerbaiijanian, and Turkish people spread over EU and US etc (almost 3 million live in Germany) , we basicly can say, there are roughly 100 million speakers worldwide :)

    • Kafkacı

      There are probably 77 million people with Turkish as “mother-tongue”. Number of speakers is for sure higher, topping to 90 million maybe.

  • Olivia

    I thought it was Turkish when I saw that word on twitter and I’m probably way too happy that I was right! Haha.

    Despite saying I want to learn the language of literally every new country I visit, Turkish is one that I’ve still got that feeling about. I’ve been thinking about diving into it more and more lately. If nothing else it would give me an excuse to get back to Turkey, one of my favourite places!

    • If you’re interested, here’s the book I used while studying grammar.
      I know it looks cheesy, and kind of flimsy, but it’s sparse in just the right way, but it covers pretty much everything you would need to know about Turkish grammar to hold a conversation.

      There’s also a Turkish section up on duolingo, which can help you build vocab while you check out the grammar. I’d also recommend Pimsleur to workshop your accent, if you’re in a place that you can’t practice by listening to native speakers. It kind of fakes the immersion for your brain.

      • Great tips. I thought duo lingo only had the basics like French, Italian, Spanish? I’ll have to check that out!

    • I agree, Turkey is definitely one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. And favorite places always inspire me to know more about the language!