Turkish Language History

Anyone learning Turkish is likely interested in discovering the history of the Turkish language. The language in Turkey first emerged in the Ottoman Empire, but its origins are thought to be some 2,500 years ago. Turkish words and the Turkish alphabet subsequently evolved, developing into the Turkish language we know today. However, to truly appreciate how far the Turkish language has come, it’s vital to understand its current position in the world.

Today, over 83 million people speak the Turkish language, many of whom are native speakers. This puts Turkish as the 15th most-spoken language globally. It is the official language in Turkey and Cyprus, and the Turkish language also holds minority status in Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, and Iraq. Additionally, a sizable population are learning Turkish—the 5th most common language learnt as a foreign language worldwide!

Turkish is also the most spoken of all Turkic languages, a group of 35 closely related languages spoken by Turkic people. Around 40% of Turkic speakers speak the Turkish language, and those that cannot are still able to understand many Turkish words due to an overarching vocabulary. However, the same cannot be said for reading and writing. While the Turkish alphabet is used for writing Turkish words, several alphabets are used by other Turkic languages.

As you can see, the Turkish language is prominent today. But how did this language become the dominant language in Turkey? And how has the Turkish alphabet, vocabulary, and pronunciation changed over time? From its humble beginnings to ranking 15th out of the 7,000+ living languages in the world, the history of the Turkish language is undeniably fascinating. And if you’re interested in learning Turkish history, you’re in the right place.

Origins & Roots of the Turkish language

The Turkish language emerged in the Ottoman Empire, but the origins of the Turkish language date back far further. The language was derived from Proto-Turkic, the ancestor of all Turkic languages. Estimates suggest this ancestral language dates back to Asia 2,500 years ago! However, Old Turkic is the first attested form of Turkic, with the earliest known records dating back to the 7th century.

These Old Turkic inscriptions were found in modern-day Mongolia. Throughout the early Middle Ages, immigrants migrated to what is now Turkey from Central Asia, bringing the language with them. By the time these Turkic immigrants reached Anatolia in the Seljuk dynasty, Oghuz Turkic was the predominant dialect. This is the direct ancestor of the current language in Turkey – the same version taught when learning Turkish today.

Adopting Islam in the 10th century, the Seljuq Empire also acquired Arabic. However, Turkish continued to be the official language and the common tongue. Nevertheless, this Arabic influence altered the Turkish vocabulary, with many Turkish words taken from Arabic and Persian. This also explains why the Turkish language was written using the Turkish alphabet but using the Arabic script.

Modern “Turkish Language”

It took some time for Modern Turkish to emerge from its ancestral language. In 1277, it was ruled that Old Turkish language should be the official language in Turkey. The same year, a dictionary containing Turkish words was published to facilitate learning Turkish. Ottoman Turkish had developed from Old Turkish by the 16th century, becoming a literary language primarily spoken by the elite.

The Ottoman Empire was rapidly contending with other European states for global renown in the years preceding the 19th century. Beginning in 1839, the Ottoman Empire enacted the Tanzimat reforms, a series of changes that greatly Westernised it. As a result, people started utilising more western vocabulary, particularly French words.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, several significant changes to the Turkish language occurred. To help improve literacy for people learning Turkish, the Turkish alphabet replaced the Arabic script in 1928. The Türk Dil Kurumu was also founded in 1932, whose role was to replace foreign loanwords with their Turkish equivalents. Despite their success, many loanwords still exist in Modern Turkish, primarily from Arabic, Farsi, German, French, and English.

Alphabets & Writing System

Just as the Turkish language has evolved over time, so has the Turkish writing system. The oldest records of Old Turkic are written in the Orkhon script – the earliest Turkish alphabet. This writing system is comprised of five vowels and synharmonic consonant sets, giving the Old Turkic alphabet some characteristics of an abugida.

By the time Ottoman Turkish was established in the 15th century, the Orkhon script was replaced with the Ottoman alphabet. The Orkhon script is a Turkish form of the Perso-Arabic script. This writing system was used for well over 1,000 years. However, it was poorly suited to writing native Turkish words as some Turkish sounds were not found in Arabic. Furthermore, the invention of the printing press in the 19th century made the writing system even more flawed in writing the Turkish language.  

The Turkish language was changed to a Latin-based Turkish alphabet in 1928 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This script is still used today. It contains 29 letters – 8 vowels and 21 consonants – seven of which (Ç, Ş, Ğ, I, İ, Ö, Ü) have been modified to reflect Turkish sounds better. This alphabet has made it much easier for people that are learning Turkish and helped modernise the language in Turkey.

Turkish Language Dialects

The language in Turkey and the version taught when learning Turkish as a second language is known as Standard Turkish. This version of the Turkish language is based on the dialect of Istanbul. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in the 20th century and created the modern Turkish alphabet, he chose the Istanbul dialect to become the national language.

Nevertheless, many Turkish vernaculars exist within the country, divided into three primary dialect groups: East Anatolian Turkish is spoken east of the Euphrates; West Anatolian is spoken west of the Euphrates; and North East Anatolian is spoken along the Black Sea coastline. Within these groups are more than 200 individual dialects with variations in vocabulary and pronunciation.

Turkish language dialects also exist in countries outside Turkey that used to be part of the Ottoman empire. For example, Balkan Turkish is spoken in Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, and Romania. Meanwhile, Cypriot Turkish is spoken in Cyprus and Syrian Turkish in Syria. These more isolated dialects have taken Turkish words from Greek, Italian, English, and other languages but remain mutually intelligible with Standard Turkish.

Turkish Translation Services

The Turkish economy is overgrowing, and the language in Turkey is becoming essential for businesses of all shapes and sizes. As such, more companies are learning Turkish, and Turkish translations are becoming popular among global organisations.

Renaissance Translations has years of experience providing professional Turkish translations. Our team of linguists are all native speakers of the Turkish language, with expert knowledge of Turkish words, the Turkish alphabet, and Turkish culture. We are also experienced in handling a wide range of content types, from large marketing campaigns to sensitive legal documents.

We also offer a variety of other language services aside from translation, including proofreading, localisation, voiceovers, and more. To learn more, contact our friendly team or request a quote online.