It’s eloquent and expressive, fluid and fine-tuned; the Turkish language is well worth celebrating, as is recognizing some of the wonderful nuances in its words that truly express the culture.
On Sunday, Turkey celebrated Turkish Language Day, a holiday to commemorate the Turkish language being recognized as the region’s official state language by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on Sep. 26, 1932. While the language dates back thousands of years, modern Turkish as we know it has descended from Ottoman Turkish and the predating Anatolian Turkish said to be introduced into the region by the Seljuk Turks. The first dictionary, the Divan-ı Türki by Sultan Veled, was published in 1277. Up until 1928, when the Turkish republic adopted the Latin script, the Turkish language was written in the Arabic script. Many Arabic and Persian words had been absorbed into the Turkish spoken at the time and the language reform introduced by the government of the Republic of Turkey aimed at linguistic purification. The Turkish Language Association (Türk Dil Kurumu in Turkish) was so important to the founder of the Turkish republic that Atatürk actually bestowed his inheritance on it as well as on the Turkish History Association.
Another interesting development that took place during the formative years of the Turkish republic was the adoption of the Surname Law (the Soyadı Kanunu in Turkish) in which, on June 21, 1934, all Turkish citizens were obligated to adopt a legal Turkish surname. Considering that was just 87 years ago and many names were chosen to reflect the lineage’s profession or heritage, this means that, in many cases, Turkish surnames can provide valuable insight into a family’s history.
There are a number of words in Turkish that also reflect unique aspects of the culture and the importance placed on expressing endearment. In Turkish, there are multiple words to define the concept of love that do not exist in the same way in the English language. For example, the ultimate form of romantic and divine love is expressed in Turkish by the word “aşk” and thus to fall in love in Turkish is referred to as “aşık olmak."
While its meaning is “love,” the word “aşk” is not one you would choose to use to express your love for your mother or sibling. That is unless you were using the exclusively non-romantic term of endearment “aşkım,” which in Turkish means “my love.” In Turkish, sentiments of love for family members or friends are expressed by the word “sevgi” – though, complicatedly enough, the term “sevgili” refers exclusively to a romantic partner as a noun. “Seni seviyorum” is how Turks say “I love you,” and this phrase can be uttered for both romantic and platonic expressions of affinity.
In Turkish there is also the word “gönül,” which in essence refers to a person’s soul, heart and desires, however, there are a slew of phrases surrounding the word that refers to a deep love for a person or profession. In addition to meaning being deeply in love, the word “gönül vermek” means to have your heart set on something or someone. “Gönül” also means to be willing and to have intentions driven from within. Thus, the word “gönüllü” actually means “to be soulfully willing,” although it is also the term regularly used to mean “volunteer.”
Like the concept of love, the Turkish language also has multiple terms to represent what in English would refer to as our “souls” or, for lack of a better expression “our very beings.” The Turkish word “can” means both soul, spirit and life, but it differs from the term “hayat,” which in Turkish is also a word that means life but in the more straightforward sense of existence.
In Turkey, a person’s “can” literally has a life of its own, and it is used widely in the Turkish language to express a desire or craving. Rather than simply saying “I want something or to go somewhere,” in Turkish it is this “can,” – in other words “this soul” – that is regularly referred to as driving the desire. “Canım çekti,” which best translates into English as “I wanted or craved it,” actually infers that it is the soul that is the one “wanting.” The most popular term of endearment in Turkish hands down is “canım,” which literally means “my life” or “my soul” and is such a lovely expression of love it is a shame an English equivalent doesn’t exist. “Hayatım,” another loving way to refer to someone, also means “my life.”
The epitome of a romantic love connection in Turkish is actually referred to as “ruh ikizi,” which best translates into English as “soulmate” or “soul twin.” Thus, it makes sense that the Turkish word “ruh” is yet another variable for referring to the individual soul or spirit. However, the word also refers to “spirits,” – in other words, ghosts. And yes, Turkey also has a number of words to refer to the concept of otherworldly “spirits.” For example, in addition to “ruhlar” for Turks, there are also “cin,” spirits that can have evil connotations and “peri,” which for lack of a better term, could be translated as “fairies or pixies.”
In Turkish, there is also a phrase that refers to being literally “madly in love” the point of mental instability. Derived from a famous love story based on characters from the seventh century, the protagonist and poet Mecnun falls in love with Leyla and literally loses his mind, retreating into the mountains to recite poems. Due to its somewhat negative connotations, it is rare that the name Mecnun is given to a child in Turkey, however, if someone has fallen crazy in love, they can be said to have become a “Mecnun” themselves. Luckily for me, as that is my own moniker, the name “Leyla” is extremely prevalent and has multiple meanings. Of course, one is to have that feeling of floating in the clouds when falling in love, which is “Leyla olmak” – in other words, “being Leyla.”
It should come of no surprise that the Turkish language also has a number of words to express the concept of fate or destiny. “Kısmet” is one such word and it has actually entered the English language, while “kader,” “nasip,” “talih,” “felek” and “alın yazısı” are all terms that refer to the proverbial cards we are dealt. While in English the word fate may infer that what unfolds is determined by an unknown supernatural power, for the Turks everything is predestined as prescribed and written by Allah.
My favorite word in Turkish is one that doesn’t have a direct counterpart in English, yet it can be seen adorning signs of restaurants and boats throughout Turkey. “Yakamoz” has a wonderful ring to it and it refers to the glistening light reflecting on the water at night. It also happens to be the name of the bioluminescent plankton referred to as sea sparkle, which is a minute marine species that lights up the water when triggered by movement. Also referred to as Noctiluca scintillans, this species can be problematic when occurring in excess. I do recall spending countless nights swimming in the Marmara Sea and witnessing this miraculous spectacle of floating through tiny glowing bubbles. Now is a great time to catch this visual phenomenon while the weather is still warm at night. Some of the other spots where sea sparkle can be spotted include the Dardanelles, which connect the Marmara and Aegean Seas, and in the Black Sea.