From the Central Asian steppe to southeastern Europe, Turkish is a language that has absorbed many influences while retaining its own character. Most of the vocabulary comes from Turkic, Arabic, and Persian roots that have evolved over the centuries.
By looking at the words that cannot be simply translated into English, we understand the language’s uniqueness and the culture that it comes from. Of course, there are hundreds of words for food and clothing with no English equivalent. Some of these—take baklava or kaftan—have become English loanwords. Perhaps some of the words below could also be adopted into English in years to come—or you could just use them to impress friends.
Usually translated as “sea sparkle,” this word refers to the glittering of moonlight on a moving sea at night. Alternatively, it can also mean the blue glow of bioluminescent plankton in the water. The Turkish word is derived from the Greek diakomos, meaning “to sparkle.”
There is only one pronoun in Turkish, o, for he, she, and it. While English speakers are still debating gender-neutral pronouns, the Turks have had one from the start. This pronoun can lead to confusion about who did what, so writers use personal names more often than we do in English.
This verb translates roughly as “to be too lazy to do something.” As you can guess, this word’s frequency goes up when the weather is bad. The closest translation is probably “can’t be bothered to (do something).” It might indicate that you think the activity is boring and not worth your time.
This adjective combines the Persian words for “heart” and “blood.” Together, those words describe someone who is in deep sadness or grief. This word is not common in everyday speech, but you can hear it in melancholy songs or poetry.
In Turkish, there are often different farewells for the person leaving and the person who stays. The leaving person can say “allahısmarladık” to mean “I leave you in God’s keeping.” Actually it’s very similar to goodbye, which is a contraction of “God be with ye.”
Derived from Arabic, this word means “an evil thing that is not as evil as other evils.” It’s similar to the English expression “the lesser of two evils,” but it packs that into one word. Ehvenişer is actually a quote from the Ottoman legal code known as Mecelle. An example of the ehvenişer rule is cutting off an infected finger to save the whole arm.
The coldest part of the year, supposedly from December 22 to January 31, is called zemheri in Turkish. These dates come from the Turkish “people’s calendar” that has been used to predict the weather for centuries. A Turkish proverb says, “He who wants yogurt in zemheri should carry a cow in his pocket”—meaning there’s not much chance of yogurt.
This literally means “liver part,” which sounds like a something from a butcher’s shop. In fact this word, taken from Persian, means someone that you love as much as your own body. You might hear lovers or friends calling each other ciğerparem, meaning “my liver part.”
This Arabic expression has entered Turkish as one word, meaning “to rise again after death.” This refers to the resurrection that Muslims believe will happen before the final judgment. The phrase itself is found in a prayer called Amantu, which professes belief in life after death.
The Arabic and Turkish word for “fate” is kader. According to the rules of Arabic grammar, the change from kader to mukadderat gives the meaning “things that are fated.” The exact meaning changes according to different philosophies. Some interpret mukadderat as fatalism, others as divine predestination, and others as people creating their own fate.