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Origin of the Turkish Language – A Native Speaker Explains

In this writing, I will explain the origin of the Turkish language, the closest languages to Turkish, and answer the most common questions about the Turkish Language.

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.

Yet, Turkish is not related to Middle Eastern or European languages and has a vast history and relation to languages spoken in Central Asia.

To summarize shortly.

The Turkish language originated in Middle Asia or, in other words, Central Asia. The earliest written tablets of the Turkish language are located in present-day East China or Mongolia.

The closest languages to the Turkish Language are Turkic languages like Azerbaijani, Turkmen, and Kazakh. All Turkic languages share some degree of mutual intelligibility.

The Turkish language is also in the Altaic language family, with other Turkic languages, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese, all sharing grammatical similarities.

I love to answer these questions because the beautiful Turkish language has a vast history and many interesting facts to share.

Turkish Language Fact Sheet

OriginMiddle Asia (more precisely, modern-day Mongolia and East China)
Language FamilyIn Turkic Language Group in the Altaic Language Family. Have similarities with Uralic Languages.
Turkic Languages (High or Some 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 Uralic languages share common ancestry with Altaic Languages. Source)Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian 
Official LanguagesThe Turkish language is the official language in Turkey, and North Cyprus. Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Iraq Kirkuk region 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 Turkish Speakers88 million Turkish natives speak Turkish (Turkey Turkish or Istanbul Dialect). Source
Number Turkic SpeakersOver 200 million speakers.
World Rank according to the number of speakersTurkish (Istanbul Dialect) ranks as the 20th most spoken language in the world.

1. Where Does the Turkish Language Originate from?

The Turkish language originated from modern-day Mongolia and East China with all Turkic Languages.

Göktürks (6th to 8th century) and Uyghur Khaganate ( 7th and 8th) were the first Turkic empires that used old Turkish, in other words, proto-Turkic language.

The earliest Turkic writing discovered are Orkhon inscriptions, monuments erected by early Turkic (Gokturk) between 732-735 AD.

Orkhon monuments are located in the steppes of Mongolia and were written by Göktürks with the Old Turkic alphabet in the early 8th century.

I read the Orkhon inscriptions’ original text written in the Latin alphabet. I was amazed to read this ancient language and see the similarity with modern-day Turkey Turkish.

The monument tells the Turkish race’s legendary origins, history, the Chinese subjugation of Turkish people, and their liberation from the Chinese nation.

All Turkic Languages share some degree of mutual intelligibility, which I will talk about further below.

Although Hungarian is not mutually intelligible with Turkic languages, it is occasionally accepted as a Turkic language by Hungarian and Turkic countries.

Turkic countries and ancestors of Hungarians accept the Huns as their ancestors who originated from the same place as Turks just a few centuries before the first Turkic Empires.

As the Altaic language family theory suggests, the first Turkic language is derived from an older language which is also the ancestral language of Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Turkic languages.

Additionally, going further back in time, some linguists believe an older language exists that is the origin of Altaic languages as well as Uralic languages like Finnish and Estonian.

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.

1.1. Ural Altaic Language Family 

Map of the Altaic, Turkic, and Uralic languages Source

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

The Ural Altaic Language Family was the leading theory taught in Turkish schools and is officially recognized by Hungary, Turkey, and other Turkic countries.

Yet, I should mention that some European scholars criticize the Ural Altaic Family theory.

Yet, Turkish shares some grammatical features with Uralic Languages (Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian languages).

This theory is widely criticized. Hungary, on the other hand, is a different story.

Hungarians are descendants of the Huns, who were one of the Turkic Tribes. For these reasons, Hungary is a member of the Council of Turkic countries, and Hungary accepts Hungarian to be a Turkic Language.

Yet, Hungarian is the least similar language to Turkish among Turkic Languages and has no mutual intelligibility.

1.2. Altaic Language Family

Turkic (Blue) Mongolic (Green) Tungusic (Red) Japonic (Purple) Koreanic (Yellow) Ainu (Brown) Source

Altaic language theory and Transeurasian Language theories are more widely accepted than Ural-Altaic Theory.

According to these language theories, the Turkish Language and all Turkic Languages are related to Japonic, Koreanic, Tungusic, and Mongolic Languages.

Evolution of Altaic Languages Source

These languages definitely have similar grammatical, logical, and structural features.

Yet, it is debatable whether these languages share a common ancestry or whether the similarities are the results of cultural exchanges between these languages. source source2

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

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

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

Suggested Reading: Languages Similar to Turkish

1.3 Turkic Languages

Turkic Languages come from the Proto-Bulgaric-Turkic language, the Turkish people’s original language 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

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.
  • The 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.

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?

1.3.1 Is Turkish A Language or a Dialect of Turkic Languages?

Turkic Languages Map. Source

Most Turkish people, like me, believe that Turkic languages are the same language and Turkic languages are just 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.

When spoken, Turkic languages have lower mutual intelligibility due to accents, but in written form, mutual intelligibility between Turkic languages dramatically increases.

For example, an American can have a harder time understanding Aussie accent speakers, yet in written form, there will be much higher mutual intelligibility.

After centuries after the departure of Turkish people from Central Asia, the language’s grammatical structure is the same.

The backbone of the Turkish language, the Turkish verbs are mostly similar to Turkic languages.

Due to their nature, Turkish verbs are least affected by cultural exchanges and are rarely loanwords from other languages.

The similarity between Turkic Languages is similar to that between Shakespearean-era English, modern-day English, and Australian English. They are different in many aspects, yet the essence of the language is the same.

Turkish verbs are regular, use the same agglutination pattern (with similar and identical prefixes), and verbs are still close to their ancestral forms.

The most similar language (dialect) Turkish spoken in Turkey is Azerbaijani Turkish.

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. Check my article on Turkic Languages to learn more.

1.3.2 Mutual Intelligibility of Turkic Languages

Robert Lindsay prepared the diagram below to demonstrate common words (cognates) in Turkic languages and their relations.

Percentage of the same ancestry words. Source

As seen in the chart, it is very obvious that Turkic languages share a common heritage.

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

According to Lindsay, if two languages are 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 not a linguist, but as a native speaker, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Lindsay.

The Turkish language is about the verbs and not about the words. By adding suffixes to verbs, you can create sentences with one word.

For this reason, a cognate study would not reveal much about the mutual intelligibility of Turkic languages.

I am a native Turkish speaker with no language training in any Turkic language. 

Yet, it is easy for me to open Kazakh news websites and read Kazakh news even though they use slightly different alphabets and sounds.

I may not understand the text thoroughly, but I will have a good idea of what’s happening. 

The written form of Turkic languages is much more intelligible, but spoken language is harder to understand due to accent differences.

Can Uighur, Turks, and Uzbeks understand each other

Mutual intelligibility between Turkic languages can be increased drastically with some personal practice.

Uyghur people living in the Turkestan region of China can speak and understand Turkish with 15% mutual intelligibility at first instance. 

Yet, given a few days or weeks, the mutual understanding of Uygur speakers rises around 75% for Turkish. This is also true for Turkish natives with the Uyghur language. Source

2. 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.

Turkish 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’s population speaks Turkey (Turkish), and %2,5 Turkic Languages.

3. How many people speak Turkic Languages?

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

Check my guides to learn the similarities and differences between Turkish and Arabic, Turkish and Greek, and Turkish and Persian.

4. Ottoman Turkish vs Modern Turkish

Poem about Rumi in Ottoman Turkish, From Mevlana Museum in Turkey

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 was written with the Arabic Alphabet.

Ordinary Turkish speakers struggled to understand, read, and speak 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.

Suggested Reading: Why is Turkey considered European? Explained With Unknown Facts