Learning Turkish

This section contains a little theory to explain some of the main features of the Turkish language. Words and expressions from the Turkish phrases on Surface Languages are analyzed and explained. This will make it easier to learn and understand the phrases, and also to begin to see how the written language works.


The first and most characteristic feature of Turkish is that it is an agglutinative language. This means that it has a tendency to ‘agglutinate’ or stick together speech elements which might be expressed in English by separate words such as prepositions or modal verbs. This process is not unknown in English: a past happening can be indicated by adding –ed or –d to a regular verb: enjoy → enjoyed; an abstract noun can be created by adding a suffix such as –ness to an adjective: good → goodness; compound nouns can be created by agglutination: anti-dis-establish-ment-arian-ism.

This process is widespread in Turkish. Affixes attached in sequence to the end of a word do the work of grammatical features. They build up nouns and supply verbs with tense and person. For example:

anlamıyorum 'I don’t understand' is derived from anlamak 'to understand' through its verb root vr anla-, to which are added the negative suffix –m(ı), and the first person present continuous tense indicator tp –(i)yor, and the first person marker pe -(u)m.

anlamadım 'I did not understand' - has the same verb root, anla-, the negative marker –m(a) , the definite past marker –d(i) , and the first person indicator, -(ı)m.

Participles can be used to express what would require a relative clause in English: ‘the man whose father is speaking’ becomes 'father-his now speaking man' babasını şimdi konuşan adam. In this phrase adam 'man' is qualified by babasını 'father-his' konuşan 'speaking' şimdi 'now'.

So ideas that English expresses in a phrase or sentence can be conveyed in Turkish by single words made up of smaller units each with a specific grammatical function. Recognizing these units and the part they play is crucial (see below under Suffixes for a list of some of the commoner suffixes).

Vowel Harmonization

The second important point is that vowel harmonization is a prominent feature of Turkish, in other words vowel sounds are frequently under the control of a vowel occurring earlier in a word or phrase. This means that, for example, that misiniz, a common word used in questions, can confusingly be spelt mısınız, musunuz or müsünüz according to the context.

Word Order

Look for the verb at the end of sentences: the usual order is subject-object-predicate. Very often a sentence will start with its object because the subject is incorporated in the verb:

Bir yastık daha verir misiniz? – Literally, ‘One pillow more do you give?’

Biz bunu sipariş etmemistik – Literally, ‘We this order did-not-make’.


These come before the noun they refer to. They do not have to agree with the noun and there are no genders in Turkish. If the adjective has a plural ending, it is being used as a noun: kısa 'short', kısalar 'short ones'


Turkish verbs are very regular in the way they form their tenses. They consist of three fundamental elements: verb root, tense particle(s) and personal endings. Using anlamak again: its first person present is formed as anla- vr, -(i)yor tp, and –um (pe) – 'I understand'. Anlamak itself is the infinitive form, to understand. Infinitives end in -mek or –mak and their verb roots are usually one or two syllables in length (this infinitive is the form to look for in a dictionary).

A very common verb usage is one in which a noun is followed by an auxiliary verb such as etmek 'to do' or olmak 'to be, become'. The usual expression for ‘thank you’, teşekkür ederim, follows this pattern (ederim is first person singular of the present aorist of etmek) and it illustrates another feature of this construction, which is that the noun in the compound is nearly always imported from another language, usually Arabic. In this case teşekkür is from an Arabic infinitive meaning ‘to render thanks’


Noun Plurals : noun plurals end in –ler or –lar.

Past Tense : -di is incorporated between verb root and personal ending to create a past tense equivalent to English as in ‘have gone’, ‘went’, etc.

'Buradan çok memnun kaldık’ – ‘Here very pleased we stayed’. Kaldık from kalmak (to stay), kal- (vr) -dı , and –k (pe).

Question Markers : There are a number of ways of asking questions in Turkish involving -m(i). This suffix is used to ask a question requiring ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as an answer, as in:

Bir yastık daha verir misiniz?’ – where vermek means ‘to give’; verirsiniz ‘you give’; verir misiniz ‘do you give?’ from ver- (vr), -(i)r (tp), -m(i) (qm –question marker), and –(i)siniz (pe).

In a yes/no question involving a past tense, -mi is written separately :

‘Bir yastık daha verdik mi?’ –‘ Did you give us another pillow?’

Negative Suffixes : If you wanted to say ‘You did not give us another pillow’, you could say ‘Bir yastik daha vermedik’, using the suffix –me .

Other suffixes : Some of the commoner possibilities follow. Remember that they are all subject to vowel harmonization (see above). Some will add or drop a consonant depending on whether they follow a vowel or consonant, and this consonant may itself be modified.

Locative (in, at, on) –de : süt (milk) → sütte (in the milk)

ev (house) → evde (in the house; at home)

Genitive (of) –(n)in : evin (of the house); otel (hotel) → otelin (of the hotel)

With and Without - li and –siz : sütlü (with milk); sütlü kahve (white coffee); şeker (sugar); şekersiz (without sugar).