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Explore the Official Languages in Turkey

Posted by Chloe G. on February 28, 2024.

Which language dominates conversations in Turkey? The primary language spoken in Turkey is Turkish, serving as the country’s official language as per the Constitution. Around 85-90% of the population considers Turkish their mother tongue, utilizing it extensively in governmental affairs, educational institutions, media outlets, and daily interactions—both spoken and written.

Nevertheless, despite Turkish being the predominant language, Turkey boasts a diverse linguistic landscape encompassing over 30 minority, immigrant, and foreign languages. Among these, Kurdish, Zazaki, and Arabic hold significant positions as the most widely spoken languages following Turkish. 

In this post, we explore the official languages in Turkey, each of these languages, shedding light on Turkey’s rich linguistic tapestry.

Languages Spoken in Turkey

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As of 2023, the predominant language spoken in Turkey is Turkish, with 87.6% of the population communicating in this official language of the country. However, Turkey boasts a linguistic mosaic, with over 70 other languages spoken nationwide, including Kurdish, Arabic, Zazaki, Circassian, Armenian, and English.

Language remains a contentious issue in Turkey, as the Constitution designates Turkish as the sole official language and prohibits educational institutions from teaching any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens, as stipulated in Article 42. Nonetheless, elective classes in minority languages are permitted.

Despite these legal restrictions, Turkey hosts a diverse array of minority, foreign, and immigrant languages. While some languages are recognized as minority languages by law, others with larger speaker populations remain unofficial due to Article 42’s provisions. Consequently, many ethnic minorities in Turkey encounter challenges in freely using their native languages.

For instance, of Turkey’s eight million Kurdish speakers, three million speak only Kurdish, highlighting the complexities surrounding language rights in the country.

In terms of linguistic demographics, Turkish is spoken by over 66 million people in total. Kurdish emerges as the second most spoken language in Turkey, followed by Arabic and Zazaki. Breaking down the percentages of language speakers within the population reveals a diverse array of minority and other language groups, including Kurmanji, Arabic, Zazaki, other Turkic languages, Balkan languages, Laz, Circassian languages, Armenian, other Caucasian languages, Greek, West European languages, Jewish languages, Coptic, and others.

According to Ethnologue, 15 of Turkey’s languages are currently endangered, while the majority are considered stable. This diversity prompts a closer examination of Turkey’s rich linguistic tapestry. Shall we delve deeper into Turkey’s linguistic diversity?

Kurmanji, also referred to as Northern Kurdish, is spoken by approximately eight million individuals in Turkey. It represents the northern dialect of the Kurdish language and has been documented in its written form since at least the 16th century.

As previously mentioned, around three million Turkish residents are solely proficient in Kurmanji, lacking fluency in the country’s official language, Turkish. This circumstance can lead to challenges, especially given Turkey’s stipulation that education and training must be conducted exclusively in Turkish.

Arabic is another language spoken in Turkey, albeit as a minority language, with approximately 2.4 million speakers. The Arabic spoken in Turkey encompasses four main dialects, with the following speaker distributions:

  • North Levantine Arabic: 1,130,000 speakers
  • Modern Standard Arabic: 686,000 speakers
  • North Mesopotamian Arabic: 520,000 speakers
  • Other Mesopotamian Arabic: 101,000 speakers

The majority of Arabic speakers in Turkey are bilingual, also proficient in Turkish, owing to significant Turkification within the Arab community.

Zazaki, alternatively known as Kirmanjki, Kirdki, Dimli, and Zaza, is spoken by the Zaza people of Eastern Turkey. It belongs to the Indo-European language family and has been influenced by Kurdish over the centuries to the extent that it is often classified as a Kurdish dialect.

Turkey is home to over 1.7 million Zazaki speakers, divided between Southern Zazaki (1.5 million speakers) and Northern Zazaki (184,000 speakers). Since 2012, certain Turkish universities have been authorized to establish departments focusing on Zaza language and literature. However, years of linguistic suppression have contributed to a decline in Zazaki speaker numbers in Turkey.

Ladino, alternatively recognized as Judeo-Spanish, Judesmo, and Sephardi, is spoken by approximately 13,000 individuals in Turkey. Protected by law, along with Greek and Armenian, owing to the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923, Ladino enjoys greater recognition of linguistic rights for the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian minorities in Turkey, despite its lower speaker numbers compared to languages such as Kurmanji and Arabic.

Originating in Spain from an archaic form of Castilian Spanish, Ladino accompanied Spanish Jews following their expulsion from the country after 1492. Over time, Ladino assimilated elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and other languages.

Greek speakers in Turkey similarly benefit from legal protection under the Treaty of Lausanne, despite Greek not being the official language. With fewer than 10,000 Greek speakers in modern-day Turkey, the primary dialects spoken include Pontic Greek and Standard Modern Greek.

Armenian, another language granted legal protection by the Treaty of Lausanne, is spoken by 61,000 individuals in Turkey, albeit with declining numbers. Predominantly concentrated in Istanbul, where around 50,000 speakers reside, the Armenian language and identity were historically obscured within the Republic of Turkey, a legacy of ethnic cleansing during World War I.

Kabardian, a non-indigenous language in Turkey, boasts approximately one million speakers in the country. Also referred to as Kabardino-Cherkess or East Circassian, Kabardian is a Northwest Caucasian language distinguished by its clear phonemic distinction between ejective affricates and ejective fricatives, a feature rare among languages.

 

The Official Languages in Turkey

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While Modern Standard Turkish is primarily based on the Istanbul dialect of Anatolia, Turkey encompasses several other dialects, categorized into Western and Eastern variants. This diversity underscores the importance of maintaining an extensive network of translation professionals to ensure we always have the appropriate translator available to handle specific dialects.

Turkish ranks as the most widely spoken language among the approximately 35 documented tongues constituting the Turkic language group. Classified as a Category IV language by the Foreign Service Institute, Turkish presents significant linguistic and cultural disparities compared to English. English speakers aiming to master Turkish typically require around 1,100 hours of study to attain proficiency.

Historically, Ottoman Turkish served as the language of administration and literature throughout the Ottoman Empire. Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, it transitioned into the country’s sole official language. Subsequently, in 1928, Atatürk’s Reforms introduced a switch from the former Ottoman Turkish alphabet to the Latin alphabet.

In 1932, the Society for Research on the Turkish Language was established as the governing body for Turkish language matters. Presently known as the Turkish Language Association, it continues its role in overseeing various aspects of the language, including vocabulary, syntax, and the incorporation of loanwords.

 

Main Languages Spoken per Region

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What language is spoken in Turkey? Turkish! Turkish serves as the primary language in Turkey and is essential for anyone planning to visit or engage in business within the country.

While Turkey officially recognizes three minority languages protected by the Treaty of Lausanne (Ladino, Greek, and Armenian), the national language remains Turkish. Turkey’s diverse demographics encompass several other languages with over a million speakers, including Kurmanji, Arabic, Zazaki, and Kabardian.

Wrap up

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