Just as one can study linguistics without studying a foreign language, one can study a foreign language without studying linguistics. However, if it is hard for the layperson to imagine a linguist that only speaks his or her native language, it should be equally difficult for the linguist to imagine a language learner without a modicum of linguistic knowledge. This short introduction to Turkish phonetics offers a very basic representation of the sounds of Turkish and their relationships with each other within an accessible linguistic framework.
The Turkish Alphabet
In writing, the Turkish language employs a Latin-based alphabet that was implemented in 1928, becoming the sole alphabet of official documentation, publication, and education. Some other communities where a Turkish language such as Azerbaijan have also adapted modified version of this alphabet, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prior this change, Turkish employed the Ottoman alphabet based on an Arabic-Persian spelling system. Without getting into the specifics of that change here, the new Latin alphabet made the spelling of standard Turkish extremely phonetic so that there is in theory a near one to one correlation between spelling and pronunciation (it did however exclude certain sounds pronounced in many dialects). There are still some small aberrations that will be dealt with individually, but the table below is a basic representation of the letters and sounds of the Turkish alphabet. Letters whose spellings are alien to English or vary significantly from the pronunciation of that letter are in yellow. Letters the pronunciation of which may prove challenging for a native English speaker are in red.
As you see, there are no proper consonants (ğ is not quite a consonant) that would present a significant issue of pronunciation for English speakers, though some of the letters are pronounced slightly differently than in English. This is in part by design of the aforementioned language reform. The four highlighted in yellow correspond to the following sounds.
|c||equivalent of English "j" as in "jolt"|
|ç||equivalent of English "ch" as in "charge"|
|j||no English spelling, but like the "z" in "seizure"|
|ş||equivalent of English "sh" as in "shock"|
"j" will mostly arise in words from French or other foreign words that utilize this sound such as "jeton (token)" and "öje (nail polish)". "c", "ç", and "ş" are extremely common letters.
The major issue for English speakers learning Turkish, in addition to the stress, will be in the pronunciation of vowels. Turkish does not have more vowel sounds than English (it does have more vowel letters), but some of them are different and bound by the very strict constraints of vowel harmony (explained below). I will offer phonological charts of Turkish later, but for now, we will learn the vowels in the way that they are organized orthographically and more importantly within the vowel harmony system:
This system may seem a little jargony, but in fact it accurately represents the relationship between the eight principal vowels of Turkish and will aid in explaining the pronunciations of the ones that are more challenging to English speakers.
Let's start with the five that are similar to English equivalents:
|i||pronounced as "ee" in "meet"|
|e||pronounced as "e" in "bed"|
|a||pronounced as "a" in "father"|
|o||pronounced as "oa" in "boat"|
|u||pronounced as "oo" in "food"|
Even if we account for slight variances in American English pronunciation and slight differences between English and Turkish, these pronunciations will work for you when seeking to pronounce and more importantly to hear Turkish. The following three will be more difficult to pronounce and hear:
|ı||pronounced like "e" in "broken"|
|ö||pronounced like French "e" in "je" meaning "I"|
|ü||pronounced like French "u" in "tu" meaning "you"|
If you know French and have better pronunciation that Brad Pitt in "Inglorious Basterds", this may be enough for you. However, let me briefly explain these sounds in relation to each other. Please get out a mirror (or if you don't have one, you probably have a phone that will let you see yourself).
First let's deal with the letter "ı", which is an undotted "i". It is pronounced very similar to an unstressed vowel in English, which its sometimes written with a schwa, or upside down "e" like this ə . Because the stress in "broken" is on the "bro" the "e" in the "-en" becomes this schwa sound. However, if you want to know how to pronounce it in relation to the other letters above, let's use the instructions from the chart.
Take the letter "u" as in "food", "mood", "zoo", and "rude", which is also pronounced high and in the back of the mouth like "ı". Get out your mirror, look into it and say "oo" as in "food" continuously like "oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo". While doing this (and without smiling, it will effect your pronunciation), look at your lips. You should see that they are rounded in the shape of a circle like the letter "O". Flatten out your lips and put your teeth together as you keep doing the "ooooo" sound. It will transform into the letter "ı" right before your eyes. That's ıt.
Next, let's move to "ö" using the same principle. Some dialects of English have this sound, but most do not. "ö" is pronounced low and in the front of the mouth in a similar was to the Turkish letter "e" as in the English "bed", "get", and "set". Say the word "bed" but stop before you get to "d" and just let that "e" fly like "beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee". Look in your mirror and as you do this, round your lips to "O" shape as you do so. You have just created a perfect "ö".
Finally, we need to deal with "ü", which is like "i" but rounded like "ö". Get that mirror or camera out, look right into and says "cheese" like you were getting your picture taken (try not to get distracted and start taking selfies). Carry that "eeeeeeeeeeeee" and then suddenly round your lips to an "O" shape. Your "cheese" has just become a "tschüss". It has made you an expert in Turkish pronunciation, as your Turkish "i" has become an "ü".
Of course, knowing these pronunciations and implementing them are two very different things. Likewise, resisting the urge to pronounce Turkish letters as they are read in English can be surprising difficult (don't say "a" like in "dad", that sounds like an "e" in Turkish, and please do not ever pronounce "u" as in the word "use"). Moreover, training your ear to hear the sounds properly will take time.
However, it will be helpful to remember the above chart in these situations. If you're hearing and "i" but can't find the word in your dictionary, maybe it is an "ı" or an "e". If you're hearing an "o", it might just be an "ö". Especially in song, vowels might shift pronunciation just a bit to throw you off towards one of their neighbors. Likewise, there are a few other minute points of pronunciation not covered by the alphabet that I will address below. Nonetheless, the vowel system as laid out here will be sufficient for good listening and pronunciation and give you the key to our next point: vowel harmony.