The Turkish-French connection
photo by junquegrrl

Although French was not technically my first language, it was the language I spoke at school from the age of five. When you learn a language as a young child, you develop an innate rather than a mechanical sense of how things work and how words fit together. Although I can’t particularly explain French grammar in any meaningful way, I know what sounds right and what doesn’t. And when I look at French words written down, I don’t have to think about how they would be pronounced – it just comes automatically, even if the spellings may look illogical to a non-Francophone.

This has made learning Turkish very interesting. Considering that it’s not even in the Indo-European family of languages, Turkish borrows a surprising amount of words from French. In fact, French contributes more loanwords to Turkish than any other language does aside from Arabic. I could go into a long and boring explanation about why this is (Google “Tanzimat” if you really want to know), but at the end of the day I’m just delighted that it is the way it is.

The most fascinating aspect about the way loanwords work in Turkish is that they almost always adopt Turkish spelling conventions. In English, if we borrow a word from French, we generally keep the French spelling. Take the word soufflé, for example – we retain that spelling, even though it’s actually pronounced like a word we might spell “sooflay.” We have very little problem understanding how to pronounce it the French way, even though in English a reasonable assumption would be that a word spelled “souffle” might be pronounced “sooful” or even “sowful.” In short, inserting French words as-is into English is perfectly acceptable to us, and we just deal with the pronunciation differences.

In Turkish, however, these loanwords are nearly always converted into phonetic spellings. Soufflé becomes sufle or süfli (I’ve seen both spellings). Procédure becomes prosedür. Corrélation becomes korelasyon. And so forth. As a French speaker, this is very strange to get used to at first, even though the Turkish spellings have a more direct, er, korelasyon to how the words are actually pronounced. I’m so used to seeing the original French spellings, both in French and English, that seeing the phonetic spellings has taken some mental adjustment on my part.

Now, however, I’m well past the initial difficulties, and these days discovering French words in Turkish is nothing but fun. At one point near the end of the nineteenth century, there were nearly 5,000 French loanwords in the Turkish language. While most loanwords do have a “true Turkish” equivalent, the French versions are still very widely used today, and given the huge amount of overlap between French and English, this means that even people who don’t know much French can still enjoy finding many of these little gems embedded throughout the Turkish language.

For those interested, there’s a fantastic chart of the most common French loanwords and their Turkish equivalents at Wikipedia.

Meet the author


I'm a photographer, writer, and musician living in Antalya.  I've been in Turkey for six years and I absolutely love it here.