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A Foray into Turkish Verbs

This week, Turkish fell into my lap, quite unexpectedly. Not another one! I hear you cry. Well, not quite.

Here’s the deal. One of my favourite things about developing language resources as a career is the variety. Languages that I probably wouldn’t ever have thought to study land in front of me, and just by working with them, I get the chance to learn about them (if not quite to speak them all).

As it happens, I’ve been working on a Turkish verb drill app lately. Geek fess: automated language learning practice based on morphology models is a nerdy passion of mine. If you build an accurate linguistic model as a digital object, you can manipulate it to create myriad, virtually inexhaustible testing options. That approach fits particularly well with verb conjugations with all their paradigms and permutations.

Second geek fess: if it’s possible to have a most beloved part of speech, the verb is mine. No, I can’t believeI have a favourite part of speech, either.)

In any case, if you’re making these models, you have to understand them first. To start with, I will usually grab a bunch of grammar primers, as well as consult Wiktionary and other online resources like the excellent Turkish Text Book for explained examples to base a program on. The side-effect is that I’ll become unintentionally familiar with language systems I’m not actively learning, which is both a not-particularly-useful gift, as well as a source of linguistic fascination.

And Turkish is quite an interesting one, as far as verbs are concerned.

As Regular As A Turkish Verb

The first thing is the regularity. Pretty much everybody makes this remark; in my searches, I repeatedly came across the seemingly wild claim that there are no irregular verbs in Turkish.

Well, as shocking as it is to someone used to ‘school languages’, this claim appears to be more or less accurate. Verb after verb, tense after tense, there is very little that is completely unexpected. The alternations that you do find are often explained away phonologically, too. For instance, the -t- in the root git- (from gitmek, to go), can become voiced intervocalically in some tenses, like gidiyorum (I am going).

There is one aspect you could compare to Indo-European verb irregularities, which is a handful of verbs with an extended aorist root (vermek, to give, for example, has the aorist root verir- rather than the expected ver-). But it’s nothing compared to the verb table headaches we had in French, German and Spanish.

Just What Are You Inferring?!

The other striking difference from languages I’m more familiar with is the inferential mood. This relates to reporting events that were not necessarily witnessed or experienced, and it’s not something that the Indo-European biggies tend to indicate now; perhaps the closest is the subjunctive of reported speech in German. In his book Dying Words, Nicholas Evans explores  several languages that have these kinds of hearsay features in their verb systems, and they’re all off the beaten, mainstream path. That said, Balkan languages – possibly via contact with Turkish? – have developed ways of expressing it too.

Anyway, bundling that into mood and tense allows Turkish to express some very nuanced situations very succinctly. Take this example from Fluent In Turkish:

almak (to buy)
almiş (I heard that s/he bought)

How nifty is that? If you ever wondered whether it was possible to feel envy over a language having a particular tense, there’s your answer.

Although I’m not learning Turkish, I am learning about it – and loving it. And if all we take away from these brief forays is an appreciation of how other languages do stuff differently, we’re still all the richer for it.

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