Although often seen as a very homogeneous country, Turkey’s linguistic diversity is second-to-none. Turkey boasts a wide range of languages spoken by various ethnic groups. But how many languages are spoken in Turkey, exactly? This article provides an overview of the linguistic diversity in Turkey, discussing the minority languages spoken in the country, the history of the Turkish language, and the rights of speakers of other languages.
It is not a well-known fact that over 70 languages are spoken in Turkey, although the official language is only Turkish, which is the mother tongue for around 85-90% of the population. Other languages are spoken by minority groups, such as Kurds, Arabs, Zazas, and Armenians.
Thus. apart from Turkish, there are several languages and dialects spoken in various regions of the country. Some of these include Kurdish (in its various dialects like Kurmanj, Sorani, etc.), Arabic, Zazaki, Laz, Georgian, Abkhaz, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Armenian, among others. Unlike the EU, known for its respect for regional languages to preserve its cultural heritage (ELE project where Pangeanic has been a partner and contributor) not all these languages have the same level of recognition or protection, and the number of speakers for each language varies.
Read more: Turkish language: A brief introduction
Distinctive Features of the Turkish Language
The distinctive features of the Turkish language include vowel harmony and extensive agglutination. The basic word order in Turkish is subject-object-verb. Turkish does not have noun classes or grammatical genders. The language uses honorifics and has a strong T-V distinction, which differentiates various levels of formality, social distance, age, politeness, or familiarity towards the recipient.
The Turkish language employs a Roman-based writing system, adopted in 1928 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
As noted at the beginning of this article, Turkish belongs to the Turkic language family and is the most spoken, with about 80-90 million speakers. It's the national language of Turkey and Northern Cyprus. Small groups of Turkish speakers also exist in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Greece, Cyprus, other parts of Europe, the Caucasus, and parts of Central Asia, Iraq, and Syria. A distinctive fact is that Turkish is mutually intelligible with other Turkic languages spoken in neighboring areas, such as Azerbaijani (40 million speakers, of which 12.66 million are in Iran), Uzbek (between 35 and 44 million), and Turkmen (6.5 million, of which 1.1 million reside in Iran).
A Quick Overview on Turkey’s Minority Languages
In Turkey, the topic of minority languages has always been a bit complicated. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne said that these languages are protected. But, there are rules: you can’t freely use them in schools or government. But this is not just a Turkish affair; regional languages such as Occitan (spoken by half of the population at the time of the French Revolution). Catalan of Basque are confined to private use. In contrast, Spain celebrates its diversity by offering co-official status to Catalan, Basque and Galician.
The Turkish Constitution makes it clear: Turkish is the only official language. And, there’s a rule (Article 42) that says only Turkish can be taught as a first language to Turkish citizens in schools. But there’s a catch. Schools can offer other languages as optional classes.
In recent years, protests have abounded in Turkey seeking more rights for minority languages. In 2012, the government allowed the use of minority languages in education. But large sections of linguistic minorities feel that this new rule is still too limited. In fact, a movement has emerged to promote the use of these languages in Turkey. Although it has met with government resistance, it is gaining momentum.
Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey has a unique cultural heritage shaped by its diverse linguistic and historical background. With a population similar to Germany’s (over 85 million), Turkey is home to several minority languages, each with its distinct features and historical significance.
Languages Spoken in Turkey
Of course Turkish, spoken by around 90% of the population, is not only the national and official language of Turkey (we will see how and when did that come about), it is the language of administration, politics, religion and business. But there are many other languages in Turkey, remnants of a glorious multicultural past.
Minority Languages in Turkey:
Turkey is home to several minority languages, including Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Laz and even Ladino. These languages belong to different language families, such as Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, and Kartvelian.
Kurdish: Kurdish is the most widely spoken minority language in Turkey, with around 8-9% of the population speaking Kurdish as their first language (BBC News, 2019), which would bring Kurdish speakers to some 8 million. Unlike Turkish, Kurdish belongs to the Indo-European language family and has several dialects, including Kurmanji, Sorani, Zazaki and Pehlewan. Around three million Turkish residents are monolingual Kurmanji speakers. This means that they don’t speak the national language of Turkey, which can create frictions, given Turkey’s requirement that no education or training be provided in any language other than Turkish. Zazaki often considered one of the Kurdish dialects , although mutual intelligibility is sometimes questioned.
Arabic: Arabic is spoken by around 2,5 million people in Turkey, mainly in the southeastern regions bordering Syria and Iraq (Ethnologue, 2019). Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family and is closely related to Hebrew and Amharic. The number of speakers of Arabic has risen enormously in recent years as a result of migration from war zones (Syria, Iraq). Arabic has become the 3rd most widely spoken language in Turkey.
We can hear 4 different Arabic dialects across the country:
North Levantine Arabic – 1,130,000
Modern Standard Arabic – 686,000
North Mesopotamian Arabic – 520,000
Other Mesopotamian Arabic – 101,000Most Arabic speakers have gone or are going through a process of Turkification as they adapt to their new country and are in the process of becoming bilingual.
Armenian: Armenian is an Indo-European language spoken by the Armenian community in Turkey, estimated to be around 61,000 people (Armenian Diocese of Constantinople, 2020). Armenian has several dialects, including Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian. The Armenian language is protected by the Treaty of Lausanne and is primarily spoken in Istanbul where about 50,000 speakers reside. Historically, the Armenian identity and language were suppressed in Turkey due to the ethnic cleansing during World War I, which affected 1.5 million Armenians. The language was underground for years, and it was surprising for the Armenian community when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tweeted in Armenian during the 2019 mayoral elections.
Georgian: Georgian is a Kartvelian language spoken in northeastern Turkey, particularly in the provinces of Trabzon and Rize (Ethnologue, 2019). There are around 15,000 speakers of Georgian in Turkey.
Laz: Laz is a Caucasian language spoken in the Black Sea region of Turkey, primarily in the province of Rize (Ethnologue, 2019). Around 200,000 people are estimated to speak Laz in Turkey. Compare that to the approximate 300,000 who speak Basque in Spain!
Ladino: Fun fact! Ladino was the language of the Sephardic diaspora when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1942. There were many Ladino-speaking communities all over the Mediterranean for centuries (100,000 about half of the population in Thessaloniki, just across Istambul at the beginning of World War II). This is way Ladino is academically known as Judeo-Spanish,. Nowadays it is spoken by approximately only 13,000 people in Turkey since many have moved to Israel and is legally protected along with Greek and Armenian under the Treaty of Lausanne. Despite having a smaller number of speakers compared to other minority languages like Kurdish and Arabic, Ladino has a greater recognition due to the treaty. Ladino originated from an archaic form of Castilian Spanish and has incorporated elements from various languages including Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek but it is still intelligible to modern Spanish speakers both in written and spoken form.
Greek: In addition, Greek is also legally protected in Turkey and has fewer than 10,000 speakers, primarily speaking Pontic Greek and Standard Modern Greek.
History of the Turkish Language:
The Turkish language is not an Indo-European language. It has a long and complex history with roots in Central Asia. The earliest known Turkic inscriptions date back to the 8th century AD, and they were written using the Orkhon script (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020). Civilizations and peoples that settled or conquered Anatolia include: the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Cimmerians, the Persians, the Galatians, the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans, the Armenians, the Goths, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
For times prior to the Ottoman period, a distinction must be made between the history of the Turkic peoples and the history of the territories that now form the Republic of Turkey. From the time when parts of what is now Turkey were conquered by the Seljuk dynasty, the history of Turkey encompasses the medieval history of the Seljuk Empire, the medieval and modern history of the Ottoman Empire and the history of the Republic of Turkey since the 1920s. After adopting Islam and becoming front men for the Seljuk Empire, Turks conquered the Anatolian peninsula by gradually displacing the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern part of the Roman Empire which itself lastet for more than 1,000 years.
The Ottoman Empire, which ruled Turkey for centuries, had a significant impact on the development of the Turkish language, adopting Persian and Arabic loanwords and influencing its grammar and syntax. Modern Turkish was introduced in the early 20th century, replacing the traditional Ottoman Turkish language.
During the 19th century, various territories of the Ottoman Empire became independent, mainly in Europe. With the beginning of the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire and as a result of the expansionist policies of Tsarist Russia in the Caucasus, several of the groups in that region, mainly Circassians, Tatars, Azeris, Lezgins, Chechens, and other Turkic groups left their ancestral lands and settled in Anatolia. As the Ottoman Empire continued to fragment during the Balkan Wars, much of the non-Christian population of its former possessions, especially the Balkan Muslims, flocked to Anatolia and were resettled in various places.
Successive defeats in wars and the rise of nationalism within the territory led to the decline of the empire's power. Its participation in World War I and the rise of revolutionary movements within Turkey dealt it the death blow. The empire under the leadership of a sultan was abolished on November 1, 1922, and a year later, the caliphate. The revolutionary movements that had overthrown it regrouped and founded the Republic of Turkey on October 23, 1923. However, Anatolia remained multi-ethnic until the beginning of the 20th century. After the Greek-Turkish war (1919-1922), all remaining Greek ethnic groups in Anatolia were expelled during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. Anatolia became the main nucleus of the new Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, its inhabitants being mainly Turks and Kurds.
Population of Istanbul and Languages Spoken:
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, with a population of around 14 million people (World Urbanization Prospects, 2018). According to a survey conducted by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in 2018, around 85% of the population speaks Turkish as their first language, while 11% speak Kurdish, and 4% speak other languages, including Arabic, Armenian, and Georgian.
Rights of Speakers of Other Languages:
Despite the dominance of Turkish as the official language, speakers of other languages in Turkey have certain rights guaranteed by law. Article 3 of the Turkish Constitution recognizes the right to use one's mother tongue, and the government has established schools and educational institutions offering instruction in minority languages (Constitution of Turkey, 1982). Additionally, political parties and civil society organizations representing minority communities have advocated for greater recognition and protection of minority languages.
Turkish language | Alphabet, Basics, & Origins: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Turkish-language
"Kurdish Language." Encyclopedia Britannica, <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kurdish-language>.
Languages of Turkey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Turkey
Cultural and Linguistic diversity in Turkey: https://dei.global/module12adv/Cultural_and_Linguistic.ppt