By John Angliss

12 September 2014 - 14:22

'The flexibility of the language allows for many things to be expressed more concisely than English.' Photo (c)  hijukal, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'The flexibility of the language allows for many things to be expressed more concisely than English.' Photo ©

hijukal, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Literary translator John Angliss explains why the unusual structure of Turkish, and Turkey's considerable regional influence, makes the language such a delight to learn.

Turkey has considerable cultural clout

Turkey is a country big enough -- and confident enough -- to often stand on its own. A population of 76 million means that, if it entered the EU, it would be the second largest member country after Germany. This size and scale means that Turkey is less dependent on the outside world than most European countries. Fewer Turks learn English, as their national language can get them a long way, fewer of them have passports or travel abroad, and foreign media and the English language are not as omnipresent as in Turkey's smaller European neighbours.

The flip-side of this is that Turkey has a thriving modern culture of its own. It produces TV soaps that are watched from Greece to Kazakhstan, has a cinema industry capable of making everything from award-winning high-brow classics to low-budget farce, and produces pop music so catchy that the tunes have sometimes been borrowed by pop stars in the west.

Turkey's uniqueness is also reflected in a very different national debate. Acclimatising your ears to the Turkish language, you hear different assumptions about contemporary political issues, about which international actors are most trustworthy, and about the relationship between the individual and the state. All this is crowned by strong investigative journalism, meaning that newspapers sometimes read more like detective novels.

Turkish literature is rarely translated into English – and it's worth reading

That is before you consider the advantages of being able to delve into a literature which has barely ever been published in English (French and German speakers are only a little better off). Sabahattin Ali's timeless story of lost love in Weimar Berlin, The Fur-Coated Madonna, Yusuf Atılgan's very Turkish existentialist novels, the legendarily 'untranslatable' word-games of Oğuz Atay (although, given that Joyce's Ulysses has been translated into other languages, it may be worth giving it a go) and the poetry of Turgut Uyar and Cemal Süreya stand out as classics, to say nothing of what has come out in the last 30 years.

To get a taste of what you're missing, I'd recommend looking at The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, a work from 1962 which only came out in English in December last year, and the two novels Waste and Shadowless by Hasan Ali Toptaş, an author described as 'the Turkish Franz Kafka', which I had a part in translating and which should come out early in 2015.

Speaking Turkish helps the UK do business in Turkey 

Turkish is also a good choice for those looking to do business. Although Turkey might not have the economic power of Germany or the population of China, it is a country where English is not necessarily needed to rise to the top. Whilst a growing population of graduates do speak excellent English, a grasp of the Turkish language would give you much better access within the business world. If the British government's pledge to double trade with Turkey is any indicator, learning Turkish could be an excellent niche business decision.

Turkish grammar allows for elegant flexibility

Turkish is alien to most speakers of Indo-European languages like English. It has a different structure and requires new learners to stop and think a little before they speak.

At the same time, it is beautiful. The flexibility of the language allows for many things to be expressed more concisely than English. For example, 'Bal dök de yala!' is a saying that might be literally translated as 'Pour honey and lick [it up]!' and means, 'that floor is so clean, you could eat off it'.

This flexibility can also be used to hide a crucial element of a sentence until the last moment, as in this two-line poem by Nevzat Çelik entitled 'Valentine's Day':

'Bir elinden satın aldığım çiçeği

Verdim öteki eline çingene kızının.'

'From one hand I bought the flower

I put in the other hand of the gypsy girl.'

By contrast, as Turkish allows the building up of words through suffixes, a complex concept might sometimes be expressed in a single word. 'Gerçekleştirilemeyenlerdir' is a possible one-word sentence starting from the adjective 'gerçek', meaning 'real'. It's translatable in English as 'those are the things which could not be put into practice [realised]'.

Unlike in German, another language famed for its long words, it is rare for different entire words to be added together in Turkish. Instead, a single word, say 'ev' (house) is laden with suffixes that describe it. So 'evimdekilerden' means 'some of the ones in my house'. A Google search of the phrase brings up -- quelle surprise -- a picture of cats as the first result, accompanied by the words 'bunlar da benim köy evimdekilerden' ('these are some of the ones [cats] in my village house').

Knowledge of Turkish makes it easier to learn other languages

But many of the elements that are new to English speakers will not be new to speakers of other languages throughout the world. Turkish shares its subject-object-verb structure (He me loves) with other languages from German to Japanese. It also has vowel harmony in common with Hungarian, Korean and others. Vowel harmony is when the vowels in suffixes change according to vowels in the headword. Hence, the word ev-im-de, 'in my house', contains all vowels which require the tongue to be at the front of the mouth, whereas yan-ım-da, 'at my side' or 'next to me', contains all vowels which require the tongue to be at the back of the mouth. Most Turkish suffixes change in this way to save your tongue some effort, and some suffixes additionally alter vowels according to whether your mouth needs to be rounded or not. This is similar to English, where we say 'impossible' not 'inpossible' because an 'm' sound is easier to make than an 'n' sound before a plosive 'p'.

Just as learning about gender in your French class can help you with other languages which have gender (Turkish doesn't), a knowledge of Turkish allows you some familiarity with lots of other new grammatical features you may come across in other places.

Spelling in Turkish is straightforward

One thing that learners of Turkish will not be troubled by is spelling. Once you have learnt the way the letters are pronounced, there are a mere handful of words which are not written exactly as they are spelt. Many of those, in fact, are English words. French was the language most in vogue in the first half of the 20th century, but French words tended to get the phonetic treatment: hence 'randevu', 'kalite' and 'egzistansiyalizm', for 'rendezvous', 'qualité' and 'existentialisme'. A Turkish neologism was quickly found to replace the last word on this list, 'varoluşçuluk', literally 'existence-person-ness'.

However, some recently adopted English words have retained their spelling, and more or less their pronunciation, for the time being, at least among those with a few words of English. One interesting example is words like 'film' and the internet term 'spam', which retain their English spelling despite being unpronounceable to many Turks, who need to add an additional vowel in pronouncing them: 'filim' or 'sipam'. It has become a minor faux pas to spell out these additional vowels, as it is tantamount to announcing that you are unaware of their origins and don't know foreign languages. This in turn has resulted in the removal of vowels in imported English words which look like they have been Turkified: the Pilates course at my local gym, for instance, is announced with a big sign that says 'Plates'.

Words deriving from Arabic are also occasionally pronounced a little differently, especially by those who speak the language, but this will barely affect the learner.

Learning Turkish in the UK is easier than you might think

Turks and Turkish Cypriots in Britain are concentrated in England, and primarily in London. If you start learning Turkish in London, like I did, you begin to hear the language on the street a lot more regularly than you'd expect. Because a Turkish learner is a rare thing, and perhaps because of the well known hospitality of Turkish people, you'll find that you'll be bombarded with questions, advice and help from the moment you dare try the language out.

You'll find out about the rich calendar of Turkish cultural activities in London, including contemporary drama in the language and events at the newly opened Yunus Emre Cultural Centre. Outside of London, don't despair. If you're a student, your university may have a Turkish society or Turkish students to practise with, and if not, there are a lot of language exchange websites such as and, where Turks learning English will be more than happy to help you learn.

Understanding Turkish gives you a ticket into another world

When I started out learning languages at school, I had a very narrow conception of what a language was and what it meant. It seemed to me to be an obstacle; a barrier to communication that just required me to learn a new code to hear the same things from different people (who nonetheless could probably speak English fluently should they choose). But I was wrong.

Turkish forces you to think differently, as it uses different semantic categories and uses verbs in different ways, as evidenced by the frequency with people in Turkey ask me 'How do you say this in English?' and I have to reply, 'We don't say that in English!'. Among the most difficult phrases to translate are stock phrases. Just as a Frenchman may well be stuck for words when seeking to avoid 'bon appetit', Turks are baffled that we don't have equivalent stock phrases to interrupt someone busy working ('may it come easily!'), to congratulate someone on something exceptional they have made or said ('health to your hands!/health to your mouth!'), and similar phrases for when wishing someone recovery from an illness, hearing of a death or hoping that an endeavour they undertake will go well.

More than that, learning a language like Turkish gives you much more direct access to the thoughts and feelings of individuals living in a different place. Although we live in a globalised world, we are still very far from having a single global perspective. While learning Turkish, you'll never lack for Turkish friends eager to help you learn, you'll never cease to be fascinated by the unique structure of the language, and you'll never, ever regret having done it.

John Angliss was the winner of Young Translator Prize organised by the British Council in Turkey. Download the full Languages for the Future report, which highlights ten languages that Britons should learn, including Turkish. 

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