Turkey is a vast country and one of the only states in the world that spans over two continents, bridging the gap between the European Balkans and the Middle Eastern Asia. It’s a country of over 80 million people and the vast majority of them speak Turkish.
Due to the size of Turkey and the many different regions that it contains as well as the borders that it has with both European and Asian countries as well as the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea coastline, one would assume that a large number of languages were spoken.
There are, indeed, several languages spoken in Turkey. But maybe not as many as one could have guessed. Much of this is due to the unification and standardization of the Turkish language which has come to dominate all other tongues.
Despite this fact, Turkish isn’t the mother tongue of the whole Turkish population. While practically all Turks speak Turkish, only about 85% of the population report that their mother tongue is Turkish.
Next is the Northern Kurdish language known as Kurmanji with around 12% and then a small portion of Turks, mostly living in Turkey’s southern regions speak Arabic (1,5%). Finally, around 1% of Turks speak the Zaza language.
These four mother-tongues are the primary languages of some 99,5% of Turks. The rest make up over 20 minority languages with very few native speakers.
Languages in Turkey that are widely spoken
As mentioned, the main language spoken in Turkey is Turkish. Turkish is the most populous language in the Turkic language family. The Turkic people as well as the original language came from Mongolia from where it spread to the west. The Turkic language family is unrelated to most other European and Middle Eastern languages and apart from Turkish, it includes languages such as Azerbaijani, Tartar, Kazakh and several others.
Secondly, Kurmanji or Northern Kurdish is spoken in South-Eastern Turkey (as well as Iran, Iraq and Syria). The Kurmanji language, as well as Kurdish in general, are Indo-European languages belonging to the Iranian branch of the language tree. Turkish and Kurdish are, in other words, completely unrelated. To listen to an example of Kurmanji see this video.
Languages in Turkey that are spoken by minorities
Obviously, all other languages than Turkish are minority languages in Turkey. Kurmanji is, however, spoken by several million Turks, so I’ve decided to include it in the “widely spoken” category above. But one might as well call it a minority language, because Turkish is clearly the dominant language of Turkey.
Among other minority languages we find Arabic. Arabic should probably be considered both an ethnic Turkish language, but also a foreign language. The Arabic language is the liturgical language of Islam, and while few Turks are fluent, the great majority know to recite at least a few verses of the quran. Arabic is also spoken as an ethnic, or native language by some Turks.
The Turkish Arabs are primarily located in the southern part of Turkey close to the borders of Syria and Iraq. The Arabic that they speak also resembles the dialects of the Levant, such as Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian Arabic. Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family. I haven’t been able to find an example of Levantine Arabic from Turkey, but here’s an example from Syria, which should be relatively close.
The Zazaki language is another language, like Kurdish, which is related to Iranian. While it’s not exactly a dialect of Kurdish, the close interaction between Zazaki speakers and Kurdish speakers throughout the centuries has meant that the two languages have come to resemble each other a lot. For a sample, watch this youtube video.
Finally, there’s a long list of minority languages that are less populous in Turkey, but nevertheless mother tongues of various populations.
While this list is surely incomplete, I’ll try mentioning them here, grouping them into language families.
Ossetian (Iranian, Indo-European)
Greek (Hellenic, Indo-European)
Ladino / Judaeo-Spanish (Romance, Indo-European)
While I assume that this list isn’t fully extensive, it’s quite interesting that all of these languages represent less than 0,5% of the Turkish population.
Foreign languages spoken in Turkey
While the above deals with Ethnic languages of Turkey as well languages of immigrant groups, it doesn’t focus on second languages.
I haven’t been able to find a lot of data, but according to this Wikipedia article approximately 17% of Turks speak English.
4% of Turks are reported to speak German and 3% speak French.
So you’d assume that traveling in Turkey would be difficult if you don’t speak the Turkish language. This isn’t the case, however, because English is widely spoken by people who work in the tourist industry. And I might add to that the friendliness of the Turkish people makes it easy to communicate even if you don’t share a language.
Historical languages in Turkey
The linguistic history of Anatolia and the Turkish territory predates the Turkish state by far. The Hittie language which was a bronze-age Indo-European language extinct today, was spoken in the region. It is the oldest Indo-European language for whom we have any evidence today. It was spoken as far back as the 16th century BC, or over 3500 years ago.
Hittie gradually evolved into other Anatolian languages which became extinct with the arrival of the Hellenic people, whose language later developed into Greek. Then followed the Latin language spoken in the Byzantine empire, which held on in various forms until the Turkic migration (and invasions) in the 11th century
The Turkic language at the time was the basis for what later turned into modern Turkish.
There are obviously other languages that have influenced the Turkish language throughout history. The most noteworthy must be Arabic, the liturgical language of Islam that brought many loan words, but also French, which was relatively common in the later stages of the Ottoman empire.
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