Dossier Turkic languages - Introduction

No one can be unaware - but this is rarely explored further - that the Turkish language has spread over a vast area of Asia, and that certain linguists (at least those lulled by the illusions of the romanticism of the early days of the Republic) like to repeat that speakers of Turkish (i.e. the Turkic languages (sometimes spelt türk), often very distant from Turkish of Turkey) number between 150 and 180 million!
Istanbul, Turquie.
Istanbul, Turquie. © DR‎

It's an excessive shortcut, and exact figures are sometimes hard to come by, but the idea of a group of languages linked by structure, sympathy, solidarity and a community of traditions lives on! Let's hope that our dossier (based essentially on contributions from teachers and researchers in the Turkish section at Inalco) will be able to answer, with objectivity, some of the questions clouded by the fantasies of a Eurasian geopolitics.

The Turkish language represents a group of related languages scattered over a vast area stretching from the Balkans to western China, via Iran and Afghanistan. Turkish of Turkey (heir to Ottoman) is an Altaic language, belonging to the Oghuz group of the Turkic language family: it's an accusative language with case marks, whose canonical order is Subject Object Verb; it's agglutinative and knows vowel harmony, which means that for each word, the rounding and advancement features of each vowel, except the first, are determined by progressive assimilation in relation to those of the vowel of the preceding syllable. Although a large proportion of borrowed words do not obey this rule, it applies almost systematically to the choice of suffix, which thus depends on the vowel of the last syllable of the morpheme to which it is attached. It is spoken by around 85 million people, mainly in Turkey, but also in the Balkans (Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Kosovo, northern Macedonia and especially Bulgaria, where it is the mother tongue of a million people, as well as in southern Moldavia); in Western Europe, there are over 4 million speakers, mainly in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, following the emigration of workers in the 1960s-70s; to this should be added several waves of political and now economic exile (often of the academic brain drain variety) between 1980 and 2020. Their existence is seldom mentioned, but there is also a significant proportion of recent immigrants to Australia and the USA. We know that there are communities in northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon who still speak Turkish: Turkmen, but also Armenians of a certain age, who came from Turkey during the First World War and continue to practice Turkish as their daily language, alongside Arabic.

Yes, the Turkish-speaking community has spread widely and unevenly. The fact remains that not all speakers practice it in the same way: as a family or community language, as a language of the media (radio, TV, internet), and we wanted here to remind you of the variety and geographical extension of these languages. But when we speak of Turkish languages, let's not be mistaken; this denomination actually conceals a great diversity. The south-western group (Oghuz) includes Azeri, Gagauz, Crimean Turkish, Turkish of Turkey and Turkmen (from Turkmenistan and Iran). The north-western group (Kipchak) includes Bashkir, Karaim, Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Kazan Tatar, etc. The south-eastern group (Chagagau) includes Turkic, Turkic of Turkey and Turkmen of Iran. the southeastern region (Tchagataï), which mainly comprises Uyghur and Uzbek. Seen from Moscow, half of all Turkic peoples live in Russia or on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After the disappearance of the Golden Horde - the western part of the Mongol Empire - at the beginning of the 15th century, all areas inhabited by Turkic peoples fell under Russian control. The most numerous were the Tatars, followed by the Bashkirs and the Chuvash. Other, smaller groups included the Siberian Turks, Altaics, Telenghits, Teleüts, Oïrots, Yakuts, Tuva, etc. Intercomprehension between speakers of the same sub-group is more or less possible, but becomes very complicated when moving from one to another. For example, a Turk from Istanbul who travels to Baku and Ashgabat will be able to make himself understood there, even if he will have more difficulty with a Turkmen than with an Azeri. On the other hand, says Bayram Balcı, if he travels to Almaty or Bishkek (Kipchak group), he will be obliged to use an interpreter, unless he goes only to the city's market, where Kazakh or Kyrgyz merchants count in the same way as in the stalls of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

If there is unity, it can perhaps best be seen in the existence of a common literary heritage: for centuries, the Turkic language spoken in Turkestan (the whole area from China to the Caspian) served as a literary language, and Oghuz Turkic produced the first philological and literary masterpieces. The spread and establishment of the Turkic language can thus be dated: first of all, there's the immense lexicographical work carried out in the 11th century by Kasgarlı Mahmut: the Divan Lûgat-it-Türk (Compendium of Turkic languages). In this dialectological, historical and geographical compilation, the poet brings out the language of the early Islamization of the Turks and the syllabic tradition in poetry:

kurgu kaşuk adızka yarmasa

kurug söz kulakka yakışmas

(Empty spoon to the mouth does not fit,

Void word to ear does not fit)

Yusuf Has Hacib's Kutagdu Bilig (The Mirror of Princes), was also written in the 11th century. Presented in the form of a mesnevi, a four-voice dialogue on the religions that succeeded one another in the Turkish world before the arrival of Islam, it is a philosophical and poetic treatise. In French, one work offers a scholarly introduction to these rarely addressed issues: La Poésie turque ancienne (L'Harmattan, 2020) by Vali Süleymanoğlu. The book by Faruk Sümer (1924-1985), a great Turkologist known for his research on the Oghuz, is worth mentioning in this respect: entitled Türk Cumhuriyetlerini Meydana Getiren Eller ve Türk Destanları (The Builders of the Turkic-Speaking Republics and Turkic Gestures, 1997) as it introduces the reader to the epics of Köroğlu, Dede Korkut or Alpamych and reminds us that Turkish is a language carrying an epic tradition: the epics of Alp Er Tonga, the Manas, the Oghuz gesture of Dede Korkut, a legendary figure who means a great deal to Anatolians, Azeris and Turkmen, is, for example, one of those "common fathers" whose memory Turkey seeks to revive, right down to the epic of Niourgoun the Yakut. Throughout Turkey, the tone and form of these epics in verse continue to nourish popular culture and the works of various media, from operas, films and musicals to historical novels such as those by Kamal Abdulla in Azerbaijan. When it comes to mystical poetry, Ahmet Yesevi (1093-1166) in Central Asia and Yunus Emre (1240?-1321?) in Anatolia are undisputed classics whose limpid language has endured through the centuries.

Heir to the Ottoman language, today's Turkish has become a major language of culture: it is the language of literature, the social sciences, music, theater and cinema, and since the introduction of the Latin alphabet (in 1928), has established itself in all artistic, scientific, legal and medical disciplines. In addition, 20th-century Turkish writers have achieved international renown: Nâzım Hikmet, Yaşar Kemal, A.H. Tanpınar, Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak, Aslı Erdoğan and many others... The success of this language, which has been reformed several times but whose evolution has known no brakes, is a unique phenomenon and a rare case of renaissance. Take, for example, this poem by Melih Cevdet Anday, written in 1970 and comprising just one term taken from Arabic, in a pure language (öztürkçe) that offers us the uncluttered beauty of contemporary Turkish:


Cenazeden dönüşte horozlar öttü.

Nisan toprağının bomboş ikindisi.

Gökyüzü küçük bir boru çiçeği gibi.

Çıktı karşımıza. Şarapçıya girdik.

Masamız çıtırtılar içindeydi.

( Our table

On the way back from the funeral the roosters crowed.

Afternoon all empty of April earth.

The sky came out before us like a little pavilion

of flowers. We went to the tavern.
The wood of our table was all crackling.)

Timour Muhidine

Senior lecturer in Turkish language and literature, Inalco

On all these subjects, please refer to books and articles by:

Louis Bazin, Etienne Copeaux, Gyorgyi Hazai (in German and Hungarian) G. Lewis (in English), Talat Tekin and Mehmet Ölmez (in Turkish and French).

In French, there are a few works that provide an introduction to ancient literature: Le Livre de Dede Korkut (Gallimard, L'aube des peuples, 1998), Aventures merveilleuses sous terre et ailleurs de Er-Töshtük le géant des steppes (translated from the Kirghiz by Pertev Boratav, introduction and notes by Pertev Boratav and Louis Bazin, Gallimard, "Connaissance de l'Orient", 1965), Sibérie légendaire, Epopée de Niourgoun le Yakoute Conseil international de la langue française, 1990) Les Cantiques d'Abandon et d'Adoration by Yunus Emre (translated by Rémy Dor, L'Asiathèque, 2012) are the result of a very bold attempt to restore the tone of 13th-century poems in Old French.

Contemporary Turkish literature is fairly well represented, starting with:

Nâzım Hikmet's Il neige dans la nuit (Poésie poche, Gallimard, 1999) and Lettres à Taranta-Babu (Emmanuelle Collas, 2019), Yachar Kemal's great novel cycles (all published by Gallimard), A.H. Tanpınar: Cinq Villes (Publisud. /Editions Unesco, 1995) and L'Institut de remise à l'heure des montres et des pendules (Actes Sud, 2007). J'ai vu la mer, anthologie de poésie turque contemporaine (Bleu autour, 2010) and by Melih Cevdet Anday: L'Arbre qui a perdu la quiétude (Arfuyen, 1981) and Offrandes. Poèmes 1946-1989 (Publisud / Editions Unesco, 1998).

For an overview of the globalization of this literature: Turkish Literature as World Literature, (Editor(s): Burcu Alkan, Çimen Günay-Erkol), Bloomsbury, 2020.