Is Turkish a Language? Origins of the Turkish Language


It amazes me how my international friends are surprised to learn that the Turkish language has many similarities with Japanese, Korean and Mongolian, and even Hungarian. 

For Europeans and Americans, it is common to think that Turkish is a dialect of Arabic. Someone even asked me if Turkish is a language? I love to answer these questions because the beautiful Turkish language has a vast history and many interesting facts to share.

Turkish is a language that originated in Middle Asia, and it belongs to Turkic languages in the Altaic language family. Turkish is one of the oldest languages in the world. Also, the Turkish language is the most spoken 20th language in the world, not counting the mutually intelligible Turkic languages. Turkish as spoken in Turkey, has around 88 million native speakers.

It is a popular debate if Turkic languages should be considered dialects of each other or separate languages. For this reason, the Turkish language is also called Turkey Turkish or Turkish (Istanbul dialect.)  

If you accept Turkic languages as one whole language, then the Turkish language has  200 million native speakers, and it is the 10th most spoken language in the world.

In this writing, I will explain all the Turkish Language, origins, facts, and answer the most common questions about the Turkish Language.

Things to know about Turkish Language

OriginMiddle Asia
Language FamilyTurkic Language Group in the Altaic Language Family. Have similarities with Uralic Languages.
Turkic Languages (High Degree of Mutual Intelligibility)Turkmen, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Uyghur, Tatar, Kazakh, Kyrgyz languages, and other Turkic languages.
Altaic Languages (Share the same origin and similar grammar structure- Source)Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese.
Uralic Languages (Relatively similar grammar. Ural-Altaic Language Family theory proposes that these languages share common ancestry with Altaic Languages. Source)Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian 
Official LanguagesThe Turkish language is the official language in Turkey, North Cyprus. Some regions in Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Iraq Kirkuk accept Turkish as the official regional language.
Minority LanguageTurkish is the minority language of native populations in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Bosnia. Also, Turkish is widely spoken by the Turkish diaspora in Germany, Austria, Holland, and other European countries.
Number of Speakers88 million Turkish natives speak Turkish (Turkey Turkish or Istanbul Dialect). Source If you include all mutually intelligible Turkic language dialects, there are over 200 million speakers.
World Rank according to number of speakersTurkish (Istanbul Dialect) ranks as the 20th most spoken language in the world.

1. Turkish language origin – Where Does Turkish Language Originate from?

Modern-day Turkish spoken in Turkey originated from Middle Asia. Turkish is a Turkic language in the Altaic language family. In other words, Turkish evolved from the ancient Altaic language as Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and other Turkic languages.

Yet another theory suggests that Altaic languages also share common ancestry with Uralic languages. Ural-Altaic theory suggests the Turkish language is related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian languages.

If you are interested in learning the Turkish language, this is the book that most of my friends use. You can check the book on Amazon.

1.A. Ural Altaic Language Family 

Ural Altaic Language Family was the leading theory taught in Turkish schools in my youth, yet lately, it is heavily criticized by academic circles in the west. Nonetheless, the Ural Altaic theory is officially recognized by Hungary, Turkey, and other Turkic countries.

The Ural Altaic Language family proposes that Ural and Altaic language families share the same ancestral language and origin.

Map of the Altaic, Turkic, and Uralic languages Source

One cannot stop asking if Turkish as an Altaic family member is similar to Uralic Languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian languages).

Is Turkish similar to Hungarian?

Hungarian and Turkish have similar linguistic features in terms of suffixation, agglutination, and sentence structure. Besides, there are 4000 Hungarian and Turkish shared words. Hungary recognizes Hungarian as one of the Turkic languages, and Hungary is a part of the Turkic Speaking Countries Assembly.  Source 1 Source 2 Source 3

Turkish and Hungarian historians state that the founding nation of Hungary was the Hunnic Empire, and a majority of Turks and Hungarians historians agree that they share the same genetic ancestry.

Another historical fact to note is that most parts of Hungary were under Turkish (Ottoman) rule between 1541-1699, and there were multiple cultural exchanges throughout history. Some of the shared words are a heritage from this era. 

Is Turkish similar to Finnish and Estonian?

Finnish and Estonian have similar grammar rules to Turkish. Agglutination, suffixation, vowel harmony are shared features of Turkish, Finnish and Estonian. While I have no first-hand experience, my search through forums revealed many learners of these languages, confirming some degree of similarity.

Contrary to common belief, the Turkish language is not originated in the Middle East, and Turkish is not similar to Arabic. You can check my article about Turkish vs Arabic, if you wish to learn more about this subject.

1.B. Altaic Language Family

Altaic language theory is more widely accepted than Ural-Altaic Theory. Altaic Languages are Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and other Turkic languages.

Turkic (Blue) Mongolic (Green) Tungusic (Red) Japonic (Purple) Koreanic (Yellow) Ainu (Brown) Source
Evolution of Altaic Languages Source

Is Turkish similar to Japanese? 

Japanese linguists widely reject Japanese Altaic roots and the Japanese language’s relation to the Korean language. Yet, Japanese have some similar features with Turkish and other Altaic languages.

Japanese has agglutination (you can add prefixes to verbs), sentence structure (Subject-Object-Verb), and other grammar similarities.

I am not an expert, but my Turkish friends had an easier time learning Japanese than their European peers. My friends agree that there are similarities in grammar structure.

Turkish speakers also have an easier time with pronunciation of Japanese words because the sounds used in Japanese are similar to Turkish sounds. 

Yet, the ancestral connection is not yet proved, and academics did not reach a consensus on the Japanese language’s relation to Altaic languages. Source

Is Turkish similar to Korean?

The Korean language can be more similar to Turkish than Japanese, yet similarities lie primarily in the grammar structures of these languages.

Korean and Turkish share similar grammatical structures like agglutination, sentence structure, the syntax of adjectives, and nouns, vowel harmony.

Is Turkish similar to Mongolian?

The Mongolian language is the closest language to Turkic families. There are strong similarities between the Mongolian language and Turkish and other Turkic languages. Mongols even used the old Turkic (Uighur) alphabet to write Mongolian until 1946. Source

Yet, the Mongolian language is distinct from Turkic languages, and there is no mutual intelligibility between languages.

Are Altaic Languages Mutually Intelligible? 

Sharing ancestral connections does not grant any mutual intelligibility between Altaic languages. Altaic languages have separated long ago, and they do not have many shared words. 

Yet, Altaic speakers can learn other Altaic languages easier because their language structure has similar grammar designs and Altaic languages have a comparable way of communicating thoughts.

Suggested Reading: Languages Similar to Turkish

1.C Turkic Language

The original language of Turkish is a Turkic language. Like most Turkish people, I believe that Turkic languages are the same language and Turkic languages are dialects of each other. For this reason, the Turkish language is often referred to as Turkey Turkish or Turkish (Istanbul dialect.)  

The main Turkic languages (dialects) are Turkish, Turkmen, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Uyghur, Tatar, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz. These languages are very similar to Turkish spoken in Turkey. The most similar language (dialect) Turkish spoken in Turkey is Azerbaijani Turkish.

In the map below,

  • Dark blue areas are the countries with an official Turkic language.
  • Light blue areas are autonomous regions with an official Turkic language.
  • Red dots represent countries where a minority population (of at least 50 thousand) speaks a Turkic language.

Only the native population is taken into consideration.

Turkic Language Map

Turkic Languages Map. Source

Turkic Languages come from the Proto-Bulgaric-Turkic language, which was the original language of the Turkish people around 1000 B.C. In time this language evolved to form Turkmen, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Uyghur, Tatar, Kazakh, Kyrgyz languages, and other Turkic languages.

History of Turkic Languages diagram prepared by linguist Robert Lindsay. Source

The earliest Turkic writing discovered is Orkhon inscriptions which are monuments erected by early Turkic (Gokturk) between 732-735 AD. Orkhon monuments are located in modern-day Mongolia. The monuments were written in an alphabet specific to Turkish.

Replica of Bilge Khagan’s memorial complex in Gazi University, Ankara. Source

I read the Orkhon inscriptions’ original text written with the Latin alphabet. I was amazed to read this ancient language and see the similarity with modern-day Turkey Turkish. The monument tells the legendary origins of the Turkish race, their history, the Chinese subjugation of Turkish people, and their liberation from Chinese people.

Turkish is the official language of Turkey but more languages are spoken in Turkey. I suggest you should check What Languages Do Turkish People Speak? and What Languages are Spoken in Istanbul?

Mutual Intelligibility of Turkic Languages

Robert Lindsay prepared the below diagram to demonstrate common words (cognates) in Turkic languages and their relations. As seen in the chart, it is very obvious Turkic languages share a common heritage.

Robert Lindsay also stated there is limited mutual intelligibility between Turkic languages depending on the number of cognates.

Percentage of the same ancestry words. Source

I am not a linguist, but as a native speaker, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Lindsay. According to Lindsay, if two languages cognates below 60%, there is essentially zero intelligibility, and as a Turkish speaker, I have no chance of understanding Uyghur and Uzbek. Yet, this is not true.

I am a Turkish native speaker, and I have no language training for any of the Turkic languages, yet it is easy for me to open Kazakh news websites and read Kazakh news. I may not understand the text thoroughly, but I will have a good idea of what’s happening. 

The biggest challenge between mutual intelligibility is the alphabet difference.

Can Uighur, Turks, and Uzbek understand each other

Turkish people have some degree of mutual intelligibility of Turkic languages. I am also inclined to believe Turkish is not a separate language and a dialect of Turkic languages. Verbs are pretty easy to understand because Turkic verbs are the backbone of the Turkish Language.

Mutual intelligibility between Turkic languages can be increased drastically with a bit of personal practice. Uygur, who are natives of the Xinjiang region in China, speak a Turkic Language.

Uygur can speak and understand Turkey Turkish with 15% mutual intelligibility at first instance, yet given a few days or few weeks, mutual understanding of Uygur speakers raises around 75% Turkey Turkish. This is also true for Turkish natives with the Uyghur language. Source

Hilal Oytun Altun‘s study suggested creating a uniform alphabetical form and pronunciation for 1000 commonly used Turkish words.

I also believe these small steps towards increased uniformity will significantly increase mutual intelligibility between Turkic Languages.

Check my article on Turkic Languages to Learn More.

Is Turkish a Dialect of Turkic Languages?

Turkish verbs are regular, use the same agglutination pattern (with similar and identical prefixes), and verbs are still close to their ancestral forms. For this reason, a cognate study would not reveal much about the mutual intelligibility of Turkic languages.

Think of it this way, if you encounter a language that uses the same verbs as English and grammar structure. Still, different words and slightly different spelling, would you call this language a different language, or is it English?

The similarity between Turkic Languages is the same as Shakespearean era English, Modern Day English, and Australian English. They are different in many aspects, yet the essence of the language is the same.

If you wish to know about the similarity between Persian and Turkish, please check my article on Persian vs Turkish Language

3. How many people speak Turkish? How widely spoken is Turkish?

Turkey Turkish or Istanbul Turkish is spoken by 88 million Turkish natives as well as the Turkish diaspora. The Turkish language is also a minority language in Bosnia, Romania, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Iraq.

Northern Cyprus also uses Turkish as its official language. Yet, Turkish is mutually intelligible with Turkic languages. Source.

Also, there are some variations between spoken Turkish in Turkey. Istanbul, the Black Sea, and Eastern Turkish are the three main dialects spoken in Turkey. Eastern Turkish dialect sounds very similar to Azerbaijani Turkish.

The Turkic language with the greatest number of speakers is Turkish. Turkish (Turkey) native speakers make up 40% of all Turkic speakers. Source

About 1% of the world population speaks Turkey (Turkish) and %2,5 Turkic Languages.

4. How many people speak Turkic Languages? How widely spoken is Turkish?

The total number of Turkic speakers is over 200 million. Turkic languages are spoken as a native language by 170 million people and 30 million second-language speakers. Source

SUGGESTED READING: Turkish and Greek Languages: 6 Things to Know

5. Is Ottoman Turkish still spoken? Is Ottoman Turkish similar to Modern Turkish?

In the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922), Turkish scholars and the government were using a different language than the regular Turkish people. The Ottoman Empire’s official language was called Ottoman Turkish.  

Yet, Ottoman Turkish used by the empire’s elites was not the same language as the native Turkish population used. 

The Ottoman language had 80% Arabic and Persian loanwords, and it was written with Arabic Alphabet. Ordinary Turkish speakers had a tough time understanding, reading, and speaking Ottoman Turkish.

The reform taken by the Turkish Republic around 1920-1930 and acceptance of the Latin alphabet helped the Turkish Language return to its original form and become closer to Turkic languages. Ottoman Turkish is now an extinct language, only used by scholars in their academic studies.

Efe Genit

I am a father, a passionate traveler, and a Turkish lawyer. You can enjoy my guides and tips about Turkey that only Turkish locals would know.

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