The History Of The Turkish Language - Where Did It Come From? (Turkish Language Origin)

avatarMille Larsen
9 mins read

The Turkish language is spoken by more than 75 million Turks in the world today. It's the language spoken in Turkey and has for centuries functioned as a link between Europe and the Middle East.

Once, however, it was the language of an Empire. If history had turned out just slightly different, much of Europe could be much more influenced by Turkish today, or certain countries could even be Turkish speaking.

But what's the origin of the Turkish language? Where did it come from, and what took part in shaping it throughout history?

Proto-Turkic, was spoken 3000 years ago in modern day Mongolia where namely the Chinese language lefts its mark. The Turkic people gradually moved west-ward during the middle ages and with the Turkic Sejluq expansion, Turkic became influenced by Persian and Arabic. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish adopted European, namely French vocabulary, and the language reforms of Ataturk, Turkish moved away from its Persian and Arabic influences and became the Turkish language we know today.

Proto-Turkic, The Earliest Ancestor Of Modern Turkish

While linguists are debating the actual origin of the Turkish language, the most prevalent theory is that the Turkic language evolved in Mongolia and Southern Siberia between 2500 and 3000 years ago.

In this period, the Proto-Turkic speaking people of Mongolia came into contact with various local languages and even gained some loan-words from Chinese. The Turkish word for book "kitap" is one such, It comes from Proto-Turkic "bitimek" which in turn comes from the Chinese "pi-ti", meaning brush or writing instrument.

It is theorized that Proto-Turkic can be traced further back to the Altaic language family, which, some say, is a common ancestor of Turkish, Korean, and Japanese. In later years, however, linguists have agreed that while these languages might have come into contact with one another, they are most likely not related.

The Earliest Traces Of The Turkic Language In Mongolia

Although Turkic languages were present in Mongolia much further back, the first example of the language in written form dates from the early 8th century and is found on the Orkhon steles, two monuments erected by the Göktürk rulers at the time.

The inscription on the steles were written in the Old Turkic script, an alphabet that resembles Germanic runes despite the two scripts being unrelated.

At the time the Turkic language spoken in Mongolia resembled the modern Turkish language we know today very little. The Turkic people clearly had a bond with the Chinese Tang Dynasty.

The inscriptions on the Orkhon steles speak of a period when Turks were held as slaves by the Chinese and later, of diplomatic relations and cultural exchange. The steles even contain translations in Chinese, which further speaks of a close relationship between the two peoples. It also explains why Chinese loan-words were present in the Turkic language.

The Turkic Language's Move From Central Asia To Anatolia

During the middle ages the Turkic people grew gradually more influential and powerful, and their territory grew, especially to the west, while simultaneously losing their old territory in Mongolia to the Tang Chinese.

From the 9th century, Arabic historians begin mentioning the Oghuz people who now occupied territory between the Caspian and Aral seas known as Transoxiana.

in the 11th century, the Oghuz Turks adopted the Arabic script and converted to Islam. The new relationship with the Muslim Arabs had a profound impact on the Oghuz Turk way of life and this had a profound impact on the language.

It's important to note, however, that despite Turkish being written in the Arabic script and having a large lexicon of Arabic loan-words, Turkish is in no way related to Arabic.

With the formation of the Sejluq empire, the Turks embraced Persian culture. The Persian language became the official language of government, which had an important impact on the evolution of the Turkish language as well.

The Turks' Arrival In Anatolia And The Ottoman Turkish Period

During the 11th century, the Turks gradually migrated towards Anatolia, a territory controlled by the Byzantine empire. It wasn't before 1453 when Constantinople was conquered, however, that the empire was defeated by the Turkish Sejluqs.

The Turkish, spoken in high society in the Sejluq dynasty, was what we call "Ottoman Turkish". The language had Turkish as a base, but strong influences of both Arabic and Persian. It was a refined language used for creating poetry and literature, but not one that everyday Turks could understand.

The people spoke "kaba Türkçe" or "rough Turkish" which was a language much closer to the roots of the Turkic language. It was this "rough Turkish" that later served as a basis for the modern Turkish language when reforms were made in the 20th century.

The Ottoman Empire And Its Influences On The Turkish Language

At the full extent of the Ottoman empire, it stretched from the Caspian Sea in the East to Algeria in the West.

While Ottoman Turkish was the official language of the empire, many languages were spoken locally. These were anything from Bulgarian, Albanian, Kurdish, Berber, different dialects of Arabic, Greek, Italian, and several other languages.

Although these were the languages spoken by most people, the elite spoke Ottoman Turkish, which was a version of refined Oghuz Turkish with a lot of vocabulary and grammar implemented from Arabic and Persian.

It's interesting that Ottoman Turkish remained more or less untouched by local languages. This might be due to the Ottoman elite living quite isolated from the population of their colonies.

In the 19th century, however, French started to become extremely common in the Ottoman Empire, especially among Jews, Christians, and the Turkish elite.

At one point, French was reported as being spoken on most official streets in Istanbul, and to many people, it had become an everyday language. French was in many ways considered a language of the future and science, and many Turkish universities and schools began offering their programs in French.

Likewise, new laws and even the Turkish constitution was, above anything else, translated into French.

At the same time, several French-language newspapers saw the day across the different countries in the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike many of the languages spoken in the Ottoman Empire, French has left a clear mark on the modern Turkish language. From the 1800s and onward, more than 5000 French words entered into the everyday Turkish language, and unlike many of the loanwords from Arabic and Persian, most of these are still in use today.

Read also: Which Languages Are Spoken In Turkey?

The End Of The Ottoman Empire And The Language Reforms

The Ottoman Empire ended in 1921, shortly after the Empire's defeat in the First World War in 1918. There's no denying that Turkish society, culture, and self-worth took a blow with this event, and in many ways, one could say that Turkey found itself in an identity crisis.

The loss of its empire, however, lead Turkey to a new form of nationalism. Instead of focusing outward on colonies and foreign territories, Turkey was now forced to look inward.

This new change of perspective lead the way to important changes on all levels of Turkish society. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the new Turkish Republic was one of the driving forces in rolling out numerous reforms affecting a large number of different aspects of Turkey's politics.

Among the most well-known reform-topics were the language reforms carried out in the 1930s.

In this period, Turkey adopted a new Turkish alphabet that was based on the Latin script. This new script was better suited for the Turkish language than the previously used Arabic script since it allowed to better represent the Turkish vowel system.

Likewise, the Turkish Language Association was established with the goal of developing the Turkish language. The result was that foreign loan words (of mostly Persian and Arabic origin) were gradually replaced with Turkish equivalents.

Some of these Turkish words were new creations, whereas others were words that used to exist in popular Turkish, but hadn't been used for centuries.

Arabic and Persian grammar structures borrowed into the Ottoman Turkish were also changed so that the everyday language would rely on Turkish and not foreign structures.

The language reforms in Turkey, along with educational reforms, helped improve Turkish literacy significantly and it allowed the new Turkish Republic to regain its identity as Turks, not Ottomans after the loss of the empire.

The Turkish Language Of The Future

Turkey is becoming an increasingly important factor in the world, both politically and economically.

In many ways, Turkey is the liaison between Europe and the Middle East, which makes it important politically for both sides. At the same time, the Turkish economy is on the rise, meaning that the country, its people, and its language become gradually more interesting for investors worldwide.

Turks are learning English today more than ever, but more importantly, it would seem that the world is learning Turkish. Turkish influence on its neighboring countries is growing and the Turkish language is becoming a more important factor there.

At a grander scale, the Yunus Emre Institute, a Turkish foundation originally founded in 2007, aiming to advocate for Turkish culture and language, is popping up in more and more locations around the world.

While Turkish isn't seeing the same growth as Arabic and Chinese, it's a language that more and more people study internationally. With more Turkish speakers in the world, one can only assume that international relations between Turkey and other countries will become stronger.

If you'd like to learn the Turkish language, I recommend that you go and read my article "How To Learn Turkish By Yourself".