Subtitled: The Vowels are Out to Get You
Dear Language Nerd,
So I’m an English speaker visiting Turkey, and I’ve picked up a few words of Turkish, but somehow they don’t seem to square with anything I see written. Is it just me, or is the Turkish alphabet way more different from ours than it looks at first glance?
Hey, count your blessings – less than a hundred years ago, Turkish was written using the Arabic script, so it was a whole lot peskier! (For the cause of this change and also relevant name changes, see: exciting new Turkish republic.) Nowadays, learning to read Turkish when one’s native language is English, which also has a Latin-lettered alphabet, is not the adventure that learning to read, oh, Korean might be — but it has its tricky bits. Most of the letters make the same sounds they do in English.
Of course, this just gives the ones that don’t an opportunity to sneak up on you.
First let’s just pop through all the good li’l consonants that line up fine with English pronunciation:
G – always pronounced hard in Turkish, never j-like, including before “i” and “e.” So Turkish gel (“come”) is pronounced like the old-tymey slang for “girl,” not like a hair product.
R – not exactly the same as our R, but I swear, it seems like no two languages use exactly the same R. This one is a little flapped, like if you started a Spanish trilled R and cut it off, and at the end of words gets some aspiration action going on (so it sounds a bit like “-arsh”).
Look at all those lovely letters that cause no problems whatsoever! Cookies for you, dear ones.
So who are our interlopers? Well, first and most important, there’s C – and you thought C was so quiet and unassuming! Hah! The letter C in Turkish is pronounced like an English “j” as in “jump.” The letter J, on the other hand, is pronounced /ʒ/. That extremely classy symbol stands for the kind of fuzzy-z sound we make in the middle of “pleasure” or the beginning of “genre” or the end of “rouge.” Other languages that have this sound tend to use it a bit more systematically than we do, and Turkish is one of them.
The other two notables are Ş and Ç, which to me are a bit easier since they look different from our letters. They stand for our <sh> and <ch>, respectively (or, if you prefer, /ʃ/ and /tʃ/).
Most of the vowels have forms we can recognize in English. We have a lot of the same sounds floating around, and we even pronounce them with the same letters… some of the time.
A as in “father,” though often de-emphasized, then more like “u” as in “truck”
E as in “beg”
İ (with lowercase i) as “ee” in “feet” – this one’s in the Turkish spelling of “İstanbul.” There’s a separate upper and lowercase “dotless I,” which we’ll get to in a sec.
O as in “port”
U as “oo” in “foot”
What’s difficult is remembering that these vowels have these sounds all the time – so the Turkish word “care” is pronounced “jah-reh.”
There are three more vowels unfamiliar to us Englos:
Ü is the same as in German. It’s a high front rounded vowel, which I know sounds like a lot of jibberish, so here’s what we’re gonna do. Say the word “me” – meeeeeeeeeee – see how your lips are kind of flat? Pucker them up into an O shape, still saying that eeee. Except now it’s üüüü. BAM.
Then there’s our dotless buddy I (lowercase ı). We’re gonna do the opposite exercise from the Ü to get at this one. Say the word “boot” – booooooooot – see how your lips are puckered? Relax them.
Alright, last set of lip exercises. Ö is also the same as in German. Make an “eh” sound, like in “beg.” Now we’re going to do something unusual for vowels. Usually we only talk about rounded and unrounded, but this sound is compressed – tense your lips and pull them in. This is kind of awkward, because we normally don’t think about our lips this much in regular conversation, so if you like you can cheat a bit. Say “bird,” but stop before you get to the R. That’s close enough to be going on with.
One final letter: Ğ, called “yumuşak g.” This is down here with vowels instead of up with its look-a-lot-alike cousin G because this one makes no sound itself. It’s usually just a connection between two different vowels, since Turkish has a real phobia around two vowels hanging out next to each other. Between two front vowels it’s a sort of Y sound and between back vowels it’s a sort of W, but don’t worry about the vowel details. They’ll come naturally, since we sometimes do the same thing in English without thinking about it (there’s a little Y between the words in “free ice” and a little W in “blue eyes” – say ‘em a couple times and you’ll see what I mean). When the yumuşak g isn’t between two vowels, it’ll usually be after one, and that just means that that vowel is lengthened.
Got it? Awesome! So, let’s just figure out all that vocabulary and grammar business next…
The Language Nerd
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My main reference today was the excellent book Colloquial Turkish: The Complete Course for Beginners, by Jeroen Aarssen and Ad Backus, which my parents just sent me because they are the best. Also useful were this guide from Princeton (the internet: my favorite way of accessing expensive schools’ handy knowledge), and I refreshed my old phonology courses via Wiks.