Turkish is the official language of Turkey, uniting not just its citizens, but also a diaspora of Turkish-speaking peoples throughout Asia. The Turkish language originated in the highlands of the Altay Mountains of Central Asia and is heavily spoken in lands stretching from Turkey to China, including Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Northern Cyprus. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman language was a mélange of outside influences heavily infused with Arabic, the language of religion and law; Persian, the language of art and diplomacy; and French, well, just because it's French. Pure Turkish, spoken primarily in the home, was considered inappropriately informal and familiar for public use.
Atatürk was convinced that pride in one's language was critical in instilling a sense of nationalism in a people, and one of his landmark reforms was to uplift Turkish to its rightful and preeminent role as a national language. He began by purging foreign influences from the Turkish language and introducing the Latin alphabet. Words of Arabic origin still maintain a tremendous presence in daily usage, especially concerning religious matters, and knowledge of some foreign languages will nevertheless come in handy in places like the kuaför (coiffeur), the asensör (elevator, in French), or the likör (liquor) store. English is slowly creeping into the language, particularly in the area of technology, with words like telefon, Internet, and the less high-tech seks.
Turkish is an agglutinative language, which means that words (and sometimes whole sentences) get formed by tacking stuff on to the root. Each suffix has some grammatical function but also provides for a discreet amount of flexibility in shades of meaning. To make matters worse, the suffix must follow rules of spelling and phonetics, so that there are eight ways of expressing the word "of."
In 1924, when Atatürk introduced the mandatory use of the Latin alphabet, Turkish became a phonetic language and is pronounced exactly as it is written, making it relatively easy to read. Is it hard to learn? Compared to what? Will a novice's pronunciation be any worse than an American's attempt at getting his lips around French? Probably not. But Turks are so uncommonly adept at languages that in all likelihood your contact with Turkish will be kept to a minimum. In most major tourist areas and many secondary ones, the local merchant population speaks English, along with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and even Russian.
Even so, it's absolutely the minimum of courtesy to put yourself out there in an attempt to communicate a few words in the native language of the country you are visiting, and knowing a few basics will help you feel less isolated and helpless.
Local Lingo -- Walking through a bazaar or past a restaurant entrance may elicit a "buyurun" or "buyurun efendem," both of which are expressions of courtesy. Buyurun has no English equivalent; it's used as an invitation to "Please feel free" (to look, to come in), or as a "You're welcome," much like the Italian prego. Efendem is a highly polite gender-neutral form of address that also means "Pardon?"
a like the "a" in father
â like "ya" (the circumflex adds a diphthong)
e like the "e" in bed
i like the "i" in indigo
i like the "e" in the
o like the "o" in hope
ö like the German "ö" or like the "u" in the English word further
u like the "u" in super
ü like the French "u" or like the "u" in the English word funeral
c like the "j" in Jupiter
ç like the "ch" in church
g like the "g" in gather
g is silent and indicates that the preceding vowel should be elongated (dag becomes "daaah," meaning "mountain")
h is always aspirated (pronounced without the "h," the proper name Mahmut means "big elephant"!)
j like the "s" in pleasure
s like the "s" in simple
s like the "sh" in share
ci, ci, çi, çi, cu, cü, çu, çü -- indicates the seller of something
i, i, u, ü -- indicates "of something" (an "s" is added after a vowel)
ler, lar -- makes a word plural
li, li, lu, lü -- indicates the presence of something; "with"
siz, siz, suz, süz -- indicates the absence of something; "without"
Useful Words & Phrases
Check, please! -- Hesap, lütfen!
Cheers! (drinking) -- Serefe!
Closed -- Kapali
Do you have any dishes without meat? -- Etsiz yemek var mi?
Excuse me -- Pardon (French pronunciation) or Afadersiniz
Gate (travel) -- Kapi
Goodbye -- Güle güle (said by the one staying); Allahai -- Smarladik (said by the one leaving)
Goodbye -- Hosça kalin (an all-purpose goodbye)
Good day -- Iyi günler
Good evening -- Iyi aksamlar
Good morning -- Günaydin
Good night -- Iyi geceler
Hello -- Merhaba
How are you? -- Nasilsiniz?
How much? -- Kaç para? (literally, "how much money?") or Ne kadar?
I'm fine, thank you. -- Iyiyim, tesekkür ederim.
Is there . . . ? -- Var mi . . . ? (question of availability)
Is there any meat stock in this dish? -- Içinde et suyu var mi?
No -- Hayir (higher)
One ticket, please -- Bir tane bilet, lütfen
Open -- Açik
Please -- Lütfen
Pleased to meet you -- Memnun oldun
Thank you (formal) -- Tesekkür ederim (try to remember: "tea, sugar, a dream")
Thank you (casual) -- Sagol
Thank you -- Mersi
There isn't any; no; none -- Yok
Very beautiful -- Çok güzel (said also when the food is good)
Welcome! -- Hos geldiniz! (response: Hos bulduk)
Well done! -- Bravo! or Aferin!
Where? Where is it? -- Nerede?
Where's the toilet? -- Tuvalet nerede?
Yes -- Evet
Glossary of Terms
Acropolis -- Highest part of a Greek city reserved for the most important religious monuments
Ada(si) -- Island
Aga -- Arabic title given to commanders in the Ottoman military
Bahçe(si) -- Garden
Bayanlar -- Ladies
Baylar -- Gentlemen
Bayram -- Arabic term meaning "feast" denoting several of the Muslim holidays
Bedesten -- Covered inn or marketplace
Bey -- Turkish title of courtesy following a man's first name meaning "Mr.," as in "Mehmet bey"
Bulvari -- Boulevard
Büyük -- Big
Caddesi -- Avenue
Caldarium -- Hottest section of a Roman bath
Caliph -- Literally "successor" to the prophet Mohammad; in the past, the title was held by the religious leader of the Islamic community and was known as "commander of the faithful"
Cami/camii -- Mosque; derived from the Arabic jama meaning "place of reunion"
Caravansary -- A fortified inn; Turkish spelling is kervansaray
Çarsi(si) -- Market; bazaar
Celebi -- Nobleman
Çesme -- Fountain
Cikis -- Exit
Cumhuriyet -- Republic
Cuneiform -- Linear script inscribed into tablets; used by the ancient Mesopotamians and in Asia Minor
Deniz -- Sea
Dervish -- A member of a mystical order of Islam
Divan -- Word used to refer to the Ottoman governmental administration
Dolmus -- Minibus, minivan, or any car that operates as a group taxi
Döviz -- Foreign currency
Eczane -- Pharmacy
Efendi -- Turkish title of courtesy following a first name meaning "sir" or "ma'am"
Emir -- Arabic title for a military commander or governor of a province
Ev/evi -- Home, house
Fatih -- Conqueror
Frigidarium -- The cold room of a Roman bath
Gar -- Station
Gazi -- Literally, "warrior"
Giris -- Entrance
Gise -- Ticket window
Hadith -- Traditions based on the words or actions of Mohammed
Hamam(i) -- Turkish bath
Han(i) -- Inn or caravansary
Hanim -- Address of respect meaning "lady"
Harem -- Women's quarters of a house (literally, "forbidden")
Havaalan(i) or hava liman(i) -- Airport
Hegira -- Literally, "the emigration"; see hicret
Hicret -- The date in 622 when Mohammad left Mecca for Yathrib (Medina) to escape local hostilities; this event marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
Hijab -- From the Arabic hajaba meaning "to conceal"; used to mean any modest covering worn by a Muslim woman
Hisar -- Fortress
Iconoclasm -- 8th-century Christian movement that opposed all religious icons
Imam -- Literally, "leader"; an educated religious guide
Iskele(si) -- Wharf, quay, or dock
Janissaries -- The select corps of the Ottoman army
Jihad -- Literally, "struggle" or "striving" (Arab; in Turkish: cihad)
Ka'aba -- Muslim sacred shrine in Mecca
Kale(si) -- Castle or fortress
Kat -- Floor (of a building)
Kervansaray -- See caravansary
Kilim -- Flat weave rug
Kilise -- Church
Konak/konagi -- Mansion
Koran -- The holy recitations of the Prophet Mohammed; Muslims believe that these revelations are the direct words of God
Küçük -- Small
Kule -- Tower
Külliye(si) -- Religious and social complex consisting of mosque, school, and buildings for public use
Kümbet -- Literally, "cupola" or "dome"; synonym for türbe
Liman(i) -- Port
Mahalle(si) -- Neighborhood
Medrese -- Muslim theological school
Mescit -- Small prayer space; mini-mosque
Mevlana -- Title of respect meaning "Lord" (Arabic)
Meydan(i) -- Public square
Meyhane -- Tavern, pub, or rowdy restaurant
Mihrab -- The niche in a mosque oriented toward Mecca
Minaret -- The towers of a mosque from which the müezzin chants the call to prayer
Minbar -- Pulpit
Müezzin -- The Muslim "cantor" of the call to prayer
Necropolis -- Ancient Greek or Roman cemetery
Oculus -- Round "skylight" in the top of a dome
Oda(si) -- Room
Otogar -- Bus station
Pansiyon -- Pension, guesthouse
Pasa -- Title given to commanders in the Ottoman army (close to general) and to governors of provinces
Ramadan -- Islamic month of ritual fasting; Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) follows the lunar calendar so that the festival is not confined to one season
Sadirvan -- Literally, "reservoir"; used for ablution fountains
Sarap -- Wine
Saray(i) -- Palace
Sarcüteri -- Delicatessen
Satrap -- Persian governor of a province
Sehzade -- Crown prince
Selamlik -- In a traditional Turkish house, the part reserved for the men and the reception of guests
Sema -- Mystical dance of the Mevlevi order of the dervishes
Seraglio -- Sultan's palace
Sokak/sokagi -- Street
Stele -- Ancient tombstone
Sublime Porte -- Originally the main door of the palace where meetings of the divan were held; the term was eventually used to refer to the government, and the entire Ottoman Empire in general
Tepidarium -- The tepid room of a Roman bath; used for relaxation
Tugra -- Sultan's imperial seal
Türbe(si) -- Turkish monumental funerary tomb
Ulu -- Great
Yali -- Traditional wood Ottoman house, usually a secondary residence, built on the sea
Valide Sultan -- Turkish title equivalent to Queen Mother
Yol(u) -- Road (karayolu: highway or autobahn)
Yurt -- Nomadic tent, traditionally made of felt
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.