The Languages of Turkey: From Arabic to Zazaki

By Kristina Temelkova
I'm from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and I'm currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Vienna. My lifelong passions are languages and writing. I speak English, Bulgarian, German and Russian.
March 9, 2022

Turkey made it to the news headlines recently with the announcement of a national rebrand. The country stated that they want to leave the anglicized name Turkey behind and establish “Türkiye” as the new norm.

Sure, this new name would resonate more accurately with the Turkish language and its script. But aren’t there other languages spoken in the country besides Turkish?

Well, if you want to learn more about the languages spoken in Turkey, keep reading because we will dive deep into Turkey’s linguistic heritage.

The linguistic heritage of Turkey

Turkey is a country with a long and fascinating history. It has always acted as the bridge between Asia and Europe due to its geographical position.

The capital city of Turkey is Ankara; however, Istanbul is the largest cosmopolitan city in the country and the economic hub of Turkey. Istanbul is home to over 15 million people. What sets it apart from any other city around the world, is that it is situated on two continents – Europe and Asia.

istanbul

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What’s more, many people associate this country with spectacular spa resorts, tasty cuisine, and hospitable people. And while all of these are true, Turkey has much more to offer when it comes to its linguistic heritage.

Turkey

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Turkey’s ancestor is the great Ottoman Empire. It controlled big parts of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. Due to its vast territory and multinational population, it was impossible to establish Turkish as the primary language of the empire. So, the invaded nations preserved their languages.

Ottoman Map

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The Empire is no more, but the ethnic groups and their languages have survived through the centuries. Some of them still inhabit the territory of Turkey.

As a result, today besides Turkish, which is the official language of the country,  several other ethnic, immigrant, and foreign languages spoken in the country.

What languages spoken in Turkey?

According to Article 3 of the Turkish constitution, Turkish got declared as the only official language of the country. Thus, no other language also studied as a native language in educational institutions in the country.

In other words, the use of any other language for educational purposes or the media gets prohibited by law.

When the Republic of Turkey got established, the Turkish government took on an ambitious and radical program to educate its nation. Then, linguistic diversity saw as a danger to Turkey’s national integrity.

What’s more, the Kurds, who spoke Kurmanji, were the largest non-Turkish ethnic group in the country, so the government had to take measures.

Kurdish

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Due to the restricted use of the ethnic and minority languages of the country and the easy access to education in Turkish, soon the number of Turkish speakers in the country increased drastically.

However, the government’s radical measures did not weep out the country’s linguistic diversity. Here you can have a look at the most widely spoken languages besides Turkish:

  • Kurmanji – 11.97%
  • Arabic – 1.38%
  • Zazaki – 1.01%
  • Laz – 0.12%
  • Circassian – 0.11%
  • Armenian – 0.07%
  • Greek – 0.06%
  • West European languages – 0.03%

Is English spoken in Turkey?

Turkey has become a hot tourist destination in the last few years, which in turn resulted in many people in the hospitality and travel sectors becoming conversationally fluent in English.

But how fluent is Turkey’s population as a whole?

English in Turkey

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English is not widely spoken in Turkey. According to statistics, only 17% of the population is fluent in English. A closer look reveals that this percentage is much higher in urban and tourist areas.

According to the English Proficiency Index, Turkey was 69th out of the top 100 English-speaking countries in the world in 2020. In Europe, Turkey is second to last in terms of English proficiency.

English in Turkey

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English is taught at schools and universities in Turkey as a second language besides Turkish. However, experts claim that the generally low English proficiency in Turkey is a result of a faulty education system.

In other words, the focus is on passing the exam rather than being able to actively communicate in the language. Overall, English, spoken by 17% of the Turkish population, especially by people living in urban areas. While English is taught at schools, most people lack sufficient communication skills that make interactions in English hard, if not impossible.

Languages spoken per region

It’s truly fascinating how all these languages have survived despite the hostile language policies in the country.

Indeed, despite this challenging restriction, Turkey has incredible linguistic diversity, with over 30 ethnic and minority languages.

Overall, the country can divide into seven primary regions, and each of them has a unique language landscape.

Turkey region

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The Marmara region, located in the northwest part of Turkey, including Istanbul and its surroundings. It is the most densely populated region in the country.

The city of Istanbul has attracted all kinds of people throughout the centuries. Hence, the long list of languages spoken in this region: Kurdish (Kurmanji), Azerbaijani, Arabic, Zazaki, Megleno-Romanian, Armenian, Greek, Pontic Greek, Judaeo-Spanish, Albanian, Arabic, and Kabardian.

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Note: Since Istanbul is the most cosmopolitan city in the country, we can add English to this list. According to statistics, 17% of the population of the Marmara region speaks English.

The Mediterranean region is home to around 10 million people and over 220,000 immigrants. Most of the refugees come from Syria and speak Arabic. Thus, the Arabic language is quite popular in this area.

The language of the Kurds, Kurmanji, also widely spoken here. Antalya is a famous tourist city in the region that attracts millions of tourists every year. Thus, one can hear languages, such as English, German, Russian and Spanish in this area.

The residents of the Black Sea region primarily speak Turkish. There are also around 20,000 Laz native speakers who are an indigenous ethnic group, as well as populations of Armenian and Greek speakers.

Over 96% of the population of the Aegean region speak Turkish. There are Greeks and Armenian minorities as well. Since this area is popular among tourists, English is also quite popular.

The capital of Turkey, Ankara, is situated in the Central Anatolia region. As expected, Turkish is the most widespread language here, but there are quite a few other minority languages, such as Kurmanji, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Zazaki, Pomak Bulgarian, Laz, Megleno-Romanian, Armenian, Greek, and Ladino.

Ankara

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The languages of the Eastern Anatolia region include Turkish, Kurmanji, Zazaki, and Arabic. Foreign languages such as English, German, and Russian are uncommon in this region.

The Southeastern Anatolia region is home to Turkish, Kurmanji, and Arabic speakers. Foreign languages are rarely spoken in this region.

On the other hand, as you can see, each of these seven regions has a truly unique linguistic landscape!

The Official Language of Turkey and its History

According to the Constitution of Turkey, Turkish is the official language of the country. With over 75 million speakers. According to statistics, 99% of the Turkish population can speak Turkish at various fluency levels. 93% of Turkish people are Turkish native language speakers, and 6% speak Turkish as their second language.

Furthermore, Turkish is spoken by 250 million people in 12 countries around the world, making it the 12th most spoken language in the world.

Turkish language

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Turkish is part of the Turkic language family within the Altaic language group. There are many Turkish dialects, but the most widely spoken one is the Modern Standard Turkish or the Istanbul dialect of Anatolia. Most Turkish dialects are strictly regional and not widely spoken in the country.

Modern Turkish is the descendant of Ottoman Turkish. The Ottoman Turkish, on the other hand, stems from the so-called Old Anatolian Turkish, which contained many Arabic and Persian words, as well as grammatical forms, and used the Arabic script.

In 1923, after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish republic government initiated a reform whereby the Arabic script got replaced by Latin.

What’s more, the government concentrated its power on purifying the language from foreign words and elements. As a result, a new literary language, or what we call today Modern Turkish, and its old form soon became obsolete.

The Ethnic Languages of Turkey

Turkey is an incredibly ethnically diverse country, so let’s have a look at the most widely spoken ethnic languages such as Turkish, Kurmanji, Arabic, and Zazaki.

Kurmanji refers to the northern dialect of the Kurdish dialect. It belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

kurdish adjectives

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Around 8 million Kurmanji speakers live in the country, making it the second most important language in Turkey. Approximately 3 million monolingual Kurmanji speakers live in Turkey, meaning they cannot write or speak Turkish. Because of this, they have limited access to education, media, and employment opportunities.

Indeed, Kurds are an integral part of the country’s demography, so if you decide to invest in regions with a majority of Kurmanji speakers, it is advisable to adapt your content to their language. There is a common misconception that the official language of Turkey is Arabic. While it is definitely not an official language, it still has a huge influence on the country.

Arabic Language

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Although Arabic is only spoken by a small part of the Turkish population, there are many citizens that are ethnic Arab descendants.

There are four main Arabic dialects spoken in Turkey: North Levantine Arabic with 1,130,000 speakers;  Modern Standard Arabic with 686,000 speakers; North Mesopotamian Arabic with 520,000 speakers and other Mesopotamian Arabic dialects spoken by around 100,000 people.

Due to the ever-increasing number of Syrian refugees that come and stay in the country, the influence of the Arabic language in Turkey continues to expand. As a result of this development, Arabic has got introduced as an elective e language in Turkish schools’ curriculum.

Zazaki, also called Dimli or Kirmanjki, is the language of the Zaza people. Its speakers estimated at 1.7 million people. Zazaki was listed by UNESCO as one of the most endangered languages in the world since it heavily suffers from language repression after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

ZAZAKI

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In a bid to protect the Zazaki language, the Turkish government, in 2012, allowed educational institutions to teach the language as an elective course at universities.

However, there is hardly any improvement in the number of Zazaki speakers despite these measures due to the lack of qualified Zazaki teachers and faulty examination system.

The Immigrant Languages Spoken in Turkey

Turkey and especially Istanbul have always attracted foreigners from all around the world. This, in turn, has led to the establishment of a number of foreign languages as minority languages in the country.

The most spoken immigrant languages in Turkey include Ladino, Armenian, Greek, and Kabardian.

Ladino also referred to as Judeo-Spanish, Judesmo, or Sephardi is a Romance language spoken in Turkey as well as other countries such as Israel, the Balkans, North Africa, and Greece.

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Ladino originates from Spain. During the 15th century, descendants of the Spanish Jews got expelled from Spain. So Ladino speakers came to Turkey, where they found a new home.

According to the Census Bureau data, there are currently 13,000 Ladino speakers in Turkey.

Interestingly, the Treaty of Lausanne from 1923 is a law that gives Jews more linguistic rights than any other minorities in Turkey.

There are less than 10,000 Greek speakers in Turkey. During the 1920s, both Greece and Turkey tried to legally expel ethnic minorities to build national states. So, what happened was that Greek populations from Anatolia in Turkey were sent to Greece, while Muslim populations in Greece were sent back to Turkey. Nevertheless, some Greek speakers remained in Turkey, so this is why you can still hear their language in the country.

The Treaty of Lausanne protects other languages besides Ladino, including Greek and Armenian. This makes it much easier for Greek speakers in Turkey to protect their language and culture.

As for Armenian, there are 61,000 speakers in Turkey, and 50,000 are in Istanbul only. However, most Armenian speakers are bilingual since they use Turkish to get access to education, media, employment, and medical institutions.

Kabardian is a Northwest Caucasian language and happens to be one of the few non-Turkish languages spoken in the country. It has two dialects: Kabardino-Cherkess or East Circassianand Kabardian. There are more than one million Kabardian speakers in Turkey.

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Foreign Languages Spoken in Turkey

The Western world has had its influence on Turkey’s linguistic landscape. Business interactions and the growing number of tourists that visit the country necessitate the use of foreign languages, such as English, German, French, and Italian. 

Nevertheless, the overall English fluency of the Turkish population is very low.

Turkey

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This, in turn, makes translation services a necessity. Indeed, there are huge linguistic and cultural differences between Turkish and English.

Thus, Foreign Service Institute has put Turkish into a category IV language. In other words, to become fluent in Turkish, you will need to spend up to 1,100 hours learning.

In fact, perfect language command and in-depth knowledge of the local culture are essential for quality translation and localization services.

Therefore, if you decide to expand to the Turkish market, you need to remember that only professional Turkish translators have the skills and qualifications to adapt your content to the cultural beliefs and norms of Turkey.

In conclusion

99% of the Turkish population is fluent in Turkish. Keeping in mind the limited access to foreign language education coupled with Turkey’s strict language policies, Turkish is unlikely to be dethroned as the primary language in the country.

This means that if you decide to enter the Turkish market, you have to make all your content and products available in Turkish. This is the only way to reach Turkish customers.

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