[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 p19-24]
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Spelling Reform and Turkish.

Nur Kurtoğlu-Hooton.

Nur Kurtoğlu-Hooton has taught English in Turkey in language schools, secondary education and at university, including four years teacher training experience in TEFL. She is currently a teacher of English and Turkish at the Brasshouse Centre and a part-time teacher trainer at Aston University (Birmingham).


This paper aims to inform the reader about the historical evolution of the Turkish language. Reference is made to the Spelling Reform and to the rules of grammar with a view to providing the reader with an insight into the Turkish language itself.


"Turkish" is the official spoken and written language of the Republic of Turkey. It is an agglutinative language, uses a Latin alphabet, conforms to the rules of vowel harmony, and has a phonetic orthography. One needs to look at these characteristics separately to be able to understand the Turkish language in more depth.

1.1. The Orthography.
1.1.1. Agglutination.
Crystal (1991:13) states that different languages display the characteristics of agglutination in different degrees and gives Turkish as an example of a language that displays agglutination to a great extent. Agglutination in Turkish is due to the wide use of suffixes which are affixed to root words to form nouns, adjectives and verbs. The following examples show how new words in Turkish can be obtained from root words which can themselves be adjectives, verbs or other nouns:

koş - mak = to run the root word koş is a verb;
-mak is a suffix which denotes
the infinitive form of the word.
Verbs in Turkish either take
-mak or -mekwhen infinitive,
and any root word that is a verb is used
on its own as the imperative mood
of the second person singular.
koş - u = race (running) u is one of the suffixes which change
some verbs into nouns.
koş - u - cu = runner -cu is a suffix which denotes profession.
koş-u-cu-luk = racing -luk is a suffix which denotes the formation of an abstract noun.
ev = house 
ev - li = married (literally translated as 'with house')
ev - li - lik = marriage (state of being with a house)
-li = a suffix which means 'with';
-lik = a suffix which denotes the formation
of an abstract noun.
acı = bitter, sour, (spicy)
hot / pain, ache, sorrow
this root word is on its own an adjective
and also a noun depending on the context.
acı - ma = the state of pitying somebody (used as noun or adjective).
acı - mak = to pity -mak denotes the infinitive form.
acı - lı = having a bitter taste;
(spicy) hot; sorrowful
-lı = a suffix which means 'with'.

1.1.2. Vowel Harmony.
The above examples not only show how agglutination works in Turkish, but also indicate that there is vowel harmony in the language. Vowel harmony works on the back vowel-front vowel criterion. When the first syllable of a word in Turkish contains a back vowel (see table below for Turkish back vowels), the syllable/s - suffix/es that follow are expected to have a back vowel, too. When it contains a front vowel, however (see table below for Turkish front vowels), the rest of the word is expected to have a front vowel as well. The words acılı /adʒələ/ and evli /evlı/ (both mentioned above) are examples of vowel harmony. Acılı contains the back vowel A in its first syllable and is followed by two suffixes which both contain the back vowel ı. Evli contains E in its first syllable, so the suffix which follows it contains another front vowel. There are only a few exceptions to the rule of vowel harmony in Turkish. However, loan words used in Turkish do not necessarily conform to this rule.

Table 1.

Open/Half-openClosed Half-openClosed
BackA /a/ı /ə/ O /o/U /u/
FrontE /e/ i /ı/Ö /œ/Ü /y/

1.1.3. The Alphabet.
A Latin alphabet was adopted by the Republic of Turkey with the Spelling Reform in 1928. A great majority of the population at the time was illiterate, owing to the difficulty of the Arabo-Persian alphabet that was previously used. Between 1927-1928, language experts gathered to discuss what letters in the Latin alphabet were in accordance with the rules and the structure of the Turkish language. The following alphabet of 29 letters was announced to the public on 9 August 1928. To show their sound values, the letters are given with their equivalences in the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.

Table 2.

/ə/ (as I in cousin)
15+14 = 29 letters.

* Discussed in this section below

Most of these letters are easily pronounced by foreign learners of Turkish but several can cause problems. Of the eight vowels in Turkish (A, E, ı, i, O, Ö, U, Ü), the pronunciation of ı, for example, can be very difficult, though not impossible, for foreigners to distinguish. Foreign speakers tend to pronounce this vowel like an 'U' /ʋ/ in some words. This makes the unrounded vowel sound rounded, as in the following examples: acılı /adʒələ/ (spicy hot) becomes /adʒʋlʋ/, ayıp /ajəp/ (shame, shameful) becomes /ajʋp/. The vowel ı may also be pronounced by foreign speakers as a sound between an i / ɩ/ and an Ü /y/ (thus becoming a front vowel) as in the following examples: pahalı /pahalə/ (expensive) becomes /pahalı/ or /pahaly/. The pronunciation of the front vowel Ü /y/, as opposed to its back vowel counterpart U /ʋ/, is also not very easy. Most foreign learners, especially those whose languages do not include the letter Ü, tend to pronounce the word üzüm (grapes), for example, as /ʋzʋm/ instead of its correct pronunciation /yzym/.

Among Turkish consonants, the so-called soft G (ğ) and R cause the greatest difficulty in utterance. The soft G has been the centre of debates among linguists as to whether it can be counted as a separate letter. For example, Hildreth (1972:71) comments on the Turkish orthography stating that ğ
has no sound at all between certain vowels or may have the sound of 'y' between certain vowels, and after some vowels before a following consonant.
However, it would be wrong to say that ğ has no sound at all between certain vowels, as this letter has a specific function each time it is used. Lewis (1991:5) states that ğ
is a concession to the traditional spelling of Turkish in the Arabo-Persian alphabet, G and GH. Medial or final GH becomes ğ.... This ğ whether in borrowings or in native words, though audible as a 'Northumbrian burr' of varying intensity in dialect, serves in standard Turkish to lengthen the preceding vowel, a following vowel being swallowed up.
He goes on to say that between O and A, or O and U, it may be heard as a weak 'v' or 'w' and adds that ğ in conjunction with front vowels is heard as a weak 'y'. While all these statements do have a grain of truth in them, the letter ğ does more than serve to lengthen the preceding vowel. The following list of examples of words with ğ aims to clarify the function of ğ in each case:

Table 3.

without ğ
with ğ
How g% changes
sound of word
arı /arə/ (bee)ağrı (pain) /a:hrhə/ - A lengthened,
R aspirated, while upper
and lower lip move
toward one another.
erik /erɩk/
eğri (crooked, bent) /ejrɩ/ ğ heard like weak Y.
 eğe (file
- kind of tool)
First E aspirated, thus /ehe/.
ılıman /ələman/ (mild) ığrıp (kind of
fishing net)
/ə:rəp/: first ı is more voiced followed by ğ.
il /ιl/ (city)iğne (needle) /i:hne/ - i is lengthened and aspirated.
 oğlak (ram) /o:lak/ - O lengthened
as lower lip moves forward.
 oğul (son) /o:hʋl/ - O lengthened
and aspirated as lower lip
moves forward.
öksüz /œksyz/(orphan) öğretmen (teacher) /œ:retmen/ Ö lengthened
and R after ğ more voiced.
un /ʋn/ (flour) uğultu (humming noise) /u:uhltʋ/ - second U
lengthened and a kind of
following aspiration.
 uğraş (a struggle) /u:hraʃ/ - U lengthened,
lips rounded.
ün /yn/ (fame) züğürt (spendthrift) /zyyhrt/ second Ü with
following aspiration.

Last but not least, the consonant R can also cause problems for learners of Turkish. In initial position the letter R has the sound /r/, in medial position it produces a rolling sound. When R is in final position, foreign learners hear it as /ʃ/. It is, however, not a /ʃ/ sound but an R that produces a heavy aspiration or even a whisper - more like a fricative or even a 'laryngeal'.

1.2. Intonation and Stress.

In Turkish, "most words of more than one syllable are stressed on the final syllable, but there are exceptions to this generally accepted rule" (Bayraktaroğlu & Bayraktaroğlu, 1991:8). While 'intonation' is of the utmost importance in many languages like Chinese or Russian, in Turkish, it is more important to pronounce the stressed and unstressed syllables with equal intervals. For example, the question Nasılsınız? (How are you?) is pronounced with equal intervals, no matter where the stress is placed by the speaker:
NA - sıl - sı - nız?
Na - SIL - sı - nız?
Na - sıl - sı - NIZ?
This brings us to what Lewis (1991 : 24) rightly states:
Sentence-accent or intonation is partly emotional, depending on the feelings and emphasis which the speaker wishes to convey, and partly syntactical and automatic. The general rule is that a rise in pitch denotes that the thought is not yet complete, whereas a fall in pitch marks its end.
The Meydan Larousse Encyclopedia (Vol. 12: 350) states that Sentential Intonation is usually on the verb of the sentence. It would go without saying, however, that the context plays a determinant role in intonation.

1.3. Pronunciation in Turkish.

Turkish has its own grammar rules and orthographic system. Nevertheless, many foreign loan words have become part of the Turkish language, too. The two lists below provide the reader with examples of loan words from English and French together with the way they are spelt in Turkish. Their 'Turkish' versions are in accordance with the Turkish spelling rules; thus they have a phonetic orthography and are easy for Turkish language learners and users to master.

English loan wordsTurkish spelling Turkish pronunciation
court (tennis)
effect (as in sound effects)
exhaust (pipe)
ferry boat
goal (in football)
/fιlm/ or /fιlιm/

*These spellings and/or pronunciations appear to be based on French rather than English usage.

French loan wordsTurkish spelling Turkish pronunciation

1.4. The decision-making authority on language matters.

Grammar and spelling rules in Turkish are determined by an authority called the 'Turkish Language Society'. The Turkish Language Society (Türk Dil Kurumu) was established by Atatürk (founder of the Turkish Republic and the first president of the country) on 12 July 1932 under the name 'Turkish Language Investigation Association' (Türk Dili Tetkik Cemiyeti). The Association changed to its present name in 1936.

At the time it was established, its aim was to bring out the richness of the Turkish language itself and to give it its due standing among the languages of the world. In order to achieve these aims, firstly all the elements foreign to the Turkish language were to be eliminated. Although loan words (from Persian and Arabic ) were and are still widely used, their alternative 'pure' Turkish words were introduced as well. These words, as Lewis (1991: xxi) puts it,
... were old words that survived in spoken Turkish; some were obsolete words resurrected, some were borrowed from other Turkic languages, some were deliberate inventions.
Thus one has the choice between using loan words or their pure Turkish alternatives. One might want to use the word tayyare (aeroplane) - an Arabic word - or its alternative uçak - a pure Turkish word derived from the word uçmak(to fly). The choice is solely a matter of preference although younger generations have a much stronger tendency to use the 'pure' Turkish words.

Another aim of the Association was to eliminate the discrimination between the language used by the ordinary people in the street and the language used by the administration and the intellectuals.

The third aim was to announce the necessity for the creation of a national language whose elements were Turkish.

The Turkish Language Society regularly publishes an official dictionary called imlâ Kılavuzu (Spelling Guide). Kuşcu (date unknown) in his Türkçe Sözlük ve Yazım Kılavuzu (Turkish Dictionary and Spelling Guide) provides a list of Turkish spelling rules that was published by the Association in 1985. Some of the 75 articles are now discussed for their potential relevance to spelling reform in other languages.
(It may be added here that in spoken Turkish it is not uncommon to come across Istambul or istambul.)
(However, Turkish speakers often insert an unstressed vowel sound between the two consonants. The examples below show that it is customary, though there may be exceptions, to pronounce Western loan words with consonant strings with an /ι/ in the middle.

For example: pro-fe-sör /pιrofesœr/, tren /tιren/, gram /gιram/, gra-mer /gιramer/, stres /sιtιres/, psi-ko-lo-ji /pιsιkoloʒι/, ks /lyks/ or /lykys/, film /fιlm/ or /fιlιm/, e-lek-trik /elektιrιk/, or-kes-tra /orkestιra/.

(All such loan words, however, are written in such a way that the consonant strings remain together and are not separated. The word 'stres' is an interesting example in that it contains a three consonant string. The only consonant strings in native Turkish words occur syllable-finally after a vowel, as in the examples üst [upper surface, top] and Türk [Turkish]. These are not pronounced with an intervening vowel.
(It may here be added that this rule is not in common practice. Many examples that do not conform to this rule can be found. The letters Q, W and X are not used in Turkish, nor are they spelt in their foreign forms. Maske [masque], sandviç [sandwich], egzoz [exhaust], ekspres [express].)

1.5. Other Characteristics.

Due to the constraints of this paper, only some of the other distinctive characteristics of Turkish will be mentioned here. There are no articles in Turkish. There is no gender distinction, i.e. the word o is used to mean 'he', 'she' or 'it'. The context usually helps the 'addressee' to understand for whom or what the word o has been used. The agglutination described above in section 1.1.1. is due to the wide use of suffixes. Prefixes only exist in some borrowed words. The word namerd borrowed from Persian (used in Turkish as namert) is such an example. Na indicates a negative prefix (like the prefixes 'non-', 'un-', 'dis-', 'mis-' in English). Mert means 'brave'; thus namert means 'not brave, coward/cowardly'. The word biçare, borrowed from Persian, is another example which contains a prefix. The prefix bi- means 'without' and the word çare means 'help', 'remedy', 'cure'; thus biçare meaning 'helpless'. The Turkish form of the same word is constructed with the Turkish suffix -siz which has the same meaning as the Persian prefix bi-. Thus the same word becomes çaresiz in Turkish and is used much more commonly than its Persian form.

One needs to look at the historical development of the language to see how Turkish was influenced by other languages and cultures, to what extent foreign loan words are used in Turkish, and to what extent they can be considered as part of the Turkish language.


As stated in Lewis (1991: xix), Turkish is
a member of the south-western or Oghuz group of the Turkic languages, the others being: the Turkic dialects of the Balkans; Azeri or Azerbaijani, spoken in northwest Persia and ... Azerbaijan; the Quashqai of south Persia; the Turkmen or Turcoman of ... Turkmenistan.
In the tenth century the Turkish people began to migrate into western Asia and it was in this century, too, that they started to convert to Islam and adopt the Arabo-Persian alphabet.

Lewis (ibid: xx) goes on to describe the historical changes in the eleventh century when the Turkish people were under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty:
... when ... they overran Persia, Persian became the language of administration and literary culture. Persian had by this time borrowed a great many words from Arabic. These, together with a host of Persian words, were now at the disposal of educated Turks who felt free to use any they wished as part of their vocabulary. The bulk of these Arabic and Persian borrowings were never assimilated to Turkish phonetic patterns. More, with the foreign words came foreign grammatical conventions.
By the eleventh century, the development of Persian literature had slowed down because of the spread of Arabs into Persia. However, it soon regained power as the Turkish sultans attracted the well-known Persian poets and writers to their palaces and protected them. Turkish poets and scholars, too, used Persian in their works of art, thus contributing to the development of Persian literature.

By the end of the twelfth century, the Arab influence in the fields of science and literature gradually lost its power, giving way to Persian which spread over Anatolia (roughly the territory of modern Turkey). In the thirteenth century Persian developed as the language of the administration and of science and literature.

In 1299, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire was established in Anatolia, 'Turkish' became the language used by the New Troops, or Yeniçeri Corps/Janissary (Yeniçeri Ocağı - 'yeniçeri' meaning 'foot soldier') and by the Convent Sect/Chapel of Dervishes (Tekke). The administration, however, supported the development of classical literature and used an artificial language mainly influenced by Arabic and Persian. This language soon became so distinct from the spoken language that even those people who knew Turkish, Arabic and Persian had great difficulty in understanding it. Turkish, however, continued to develop as a spoken language and was also used in the literature written for the ordinary people rather than for the administrators, i.e. the sultans.

The beginning of the 19th century saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This led to the Tanzimat Movement (the political reforms of Sultan Abdülmejid in 1839). It aimed at re-establishing an administration and also becoming westernised. Even before the Tanzimat Movement, towards the end of the Ottoman Empire period, a cultural relationship between the Turkish and the French had started. With the Tanzimat, western ideas developed more quickly. Levend (1972: 80) states that young people who travelled to France or who learnt French in their home country, learnt the principles of the French Revolution and wanted to spread these in their home country. Using the Arabo-Persian alphabet, however, was the biggest obstacle to intellectual development. Many attempts were made to simplify the Turkish language and the press played a crucial role.

A letter written at the beginning of the 19th century by a Turkish captain to his wife deserves mentioning. As stated in (Türk Dil Kurumu'nun 40. yılı - 40th anniversary of the Turkish Language Society - 1972: 29), the letter consisted of an end note which was written in Turkish, with Latin transcription, rather than in the Arabo-Persian alphabet. To quote from that source: "'düşünmelidir ki' was written as duchunmélidir qui; and 'heyeti umumiyesinden' was written as héiéti oumoumiyésindène..."; this showed strong French influence.

Another incident worth mentioning dates back towards the end of World War I, when Mustafa Kemal (who in 1935 assumed the surname 'Atatürk' - 'Father of the Turks') came across a Turkish grammar book written by the Hungarian linguist Németh (Türkische Grammatik, Leipzig 1916). The Turkish texts in the book were written in a Latin alphabet. The same source pointed to the existence of three types of Turkish: one used in official matters and in literature, another used by the Turkish middle class, and thirdly, the language of the ordinary people and villagers. When Atatürk read this information, he was infuriated and stated that this discrimination had to end and thus enable everybody to understand the language of the press.


The Ottoman sultanate was formally abolished in 1922. A year later, on 29 October 1923, Turkey was declared a secular republic. The debates concerning westernisation and the adoption of a Latin alphabet had already started much earlier at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Those against a spelling reform argued that Koran could not and should not be written in Latin letters. They feared that the adoption of a Latin alphabet would soon wipe away and bury all past achievements. They also considered the adoption of a Latin alphabet as the adoption of a French alphabet, and they objected to it.

The main objective of those for the spelling reform, however, was to construct a Latin alphabet in line with the structures of the Turkish language. They argued that the Arabic script was not suitable for Turkish. They also maintained that the illiteracy rate was very high due to the difficulty of learning the Arabo-Persian alphabet.

Despite all the debates for and against the spelling reform, the National Assembly (established on 23 April 1920) agreed on 3 November 1928 to carry out the Reform. Soon an 'alphabet mobilisation' was started. Schools were set up to teach the new alphabet; language lessons were broadcast on the radio; Turkish grammar books were published. At the time many sceptics believed that the adoption and correct use of a new alphabet would take many years. Atatürk, however, argued that the people had to do their best to learn the alphabet so that the literacy rate would increase rapidly. Laws were passed to ensure that companies and public and private institutions used the new alphabet in correspondence. The deadline for the elimination of the Arabo-Persian alphabet was announced to be 1 January 1929. This meant that all the legal documents written after this date would have to be in the new alphabet. Books that had been in use until the Reform were all abolished and books that used the new alphabet were published. The result of the official adoption of the new alphabet and orthography was, as Hildreth (1972:71) states:
Whereas, up to 1928, only 9% of the total population were literate, far more men than women, by 1935, the overall literacy rate was 20%, males 30%, females 10%. By 1940, literacy thruout the country was 22%; by 1960, 59% (women 43%, men 75%).... the large gains with modernization are directly attributable to Turkish spelling reform.


The development of the Turkish language has over the centuries been mainly influenced initially by Arabic and Persian, and later, especially after the Tanzimat period, by French. Although the Spelling Reform was carried out in 1928, the foundations of reform date back to the Tanzimat period. The implementation of the Spelling Reform and the achievements of the Turkish Language Institute have been a catalyst in drastically improving the literacy rate and in giving Turkish its due standing among the other languages of the world. The vowel harmony of the language serves to provide a melodious effect, agglutination enhances the creation of new words and the orthography enables learners and users of the language to spell any Turkish word known or unknown correctly. [See spel-bites.]


Bayraktaroğlu, A & Bayraktaroğlu, S (1992) Colloquial Turkish, London and New York: Routledge.

Crystal, D (1991) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Crystal, D (1990) The Cambridge Encyclopedia, Cambridge University Press.

Ergin, M (1988) Üniversiteler için Türk Dili, Türk Dil Kurumu.

Hildreth, G (1972) 'The Story of Spelling Reform in Turkey' in Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1972, republished in ed. Newell Tune Spelling Reform: A Comprehensive Survey of the Advantages, Educational Benefits, and Obstacles to Adoption, North Hollywood, CA.: Spelling Progress Bulletin, 2nd edition, 1982.

Kuşçu, H (date unknown) Altın Sözlük: Türkçe Sözlük ve Yazım Kılavuzu Sabah Gazetesi.

Levend, A S (1972) Türk Dilinde Gelişme ve Sadeleşme Evreleri (The Developmental and Purification Stages of the Turkish Language), Türk Dil Kurumu, pp1-14; 80-83; 392-405.

Lewis, G L (1991) Turkish Grammar, Oxford and New York: OUP.

Mardin, Y (1976) Colloquial Turkish, Istanbul: HaşetKitabevi.

Meydan Larousse Encyclopedia (Grande Larousse Encyclopédique 1960) Vol. 12, Meydan Yayınevi Istanbul, 1969, pp349-351.

Özön, Nijat (ed) (1986) Güzel Türkçemiz, Milliyet Istanbul.

Türk Dil Kurumu'nun 40. yılı (1972), Türk Dil Kurumu, pp27, 29-46.

Türk Dil Kurumu'nun 51. yılı, (1983) Türk Dil Kurumunun Kuruluş ve işlevi (The Establishment and the Function of the Turkish Language Society), Türk Dil Kurumu, pp30-33.

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