I LOVE LEARNING LANGUAGES. I speak German, French, and Italian; and a bit of Russian and Dutch. I taught myself enough Japanese that I was able to carry on basic conversations while in Tokyo on a two-month singing engagement.
So when I decided to move to Turkey, I figured I’d be fluent in about a year. I’ve now been here a year and a half, and I’m still struggling with the language. I can get by, but I’m a long way from where I thought I’d be. The alphabet may look more familiar than Japanese or Russian, but the complexity of the grammar and the counter-intuitive syntax makes Turkish the most difficult language I’ve tried to learn.
Fortunately, Turkish is full of set phrases which can help a visitor get through many situations. Here are 12 extraordinarily useful Turkish phrases to help you prepare for a visit to Turkey.
[Editor's note: Below each subtitle is the phonetic pronunciation in English with the word stress in italics, along with the pronunciation written using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Within the word description, the links point to audio files of the author saying the words.]
1. hoş geldiniz — it’s nice you came / welcome
hosh geldiniz — /hɔ:ʃgɜ:ldɪnɪz/
Hoş geldiniz – “it’s nice you came”, or “welcome” – is the first thing you’ll hear when you arrive anywhere, whether at a friend’s house or at a restaurant.
2. hoş bulduk — I find it nice
hosh bullduk — /hɔ:ʃbʊldʊk/
The response to hoş geldiniz is hoş bulduk, which means “I find it nice”. It’s not necessary to reply when entering a shop or restaurant, but it would be rather rude to omit it when invited into a home.
3. buyurun — please / here you are / walk this way / etc
buoyroon — /bʊjrʊn/
The next thing you’ll hear is buyurun, which is comparable to “prego” in Italian or “bitte” in German. It’s often translated as “please” in English, but actually lutfen is please.
Buyurun is more like “here you are”, “walk this way”, “come in to my shop”, and so on. You would also say it if, for example, you wanted to give your seat on the bus to an elderly person. Say buyurun teyze – “take my seat, auntie” – or buyurun amca – “here you go, uncle”.
Everyone in Turkey is family, and the polite way to address someone in your age group is either abla – “big sister” – or abi – “big brother”. You call a young boy oglum – “my son” – and a little girl kizim – “my daughter”.
4. teşekkür ederim — thank you
teshekur ederim — /tɜ:ʃɜ:kʊrɜ:dɜ:ri:m
You probably already know from your guidebook that teşekkür ederim means “thank you”, but do you know just how useful this phrase is? If your host tries to refill your plate for the third time, say teşekkür ederim. If someone asks how you are, answer with teşekkür ederim. It’s especially handy when deflecting the touts trying to get you to enter their shops, because it’s a polite way of saying, “I’m not interested”.
5. elenize sağılık — health to your hands
eleneezey sahlik — /ɜ:lɜ:ni:zesɑ:lɪk/
To thank your host for cooking, say elenize sağılık – “health to your hands” – rather than teşekkür ederim. This is generally said in the home, but can also be said to the teyze you see slaving over the outdoor grill on which she made your gözleme.
6. afiyet olsun — may it be good for you
afeeyet olsun — /ɑ:fi:jɜ:t ɔ:lsʊn/
Remember the older woman you just bought the gözleme from? When you thanked her by saying elenize sağılık, she replied with afiyet olsun. This is probably translated in your guide book as “bon apetit”, which is why waiters who speak a bit of English say “enjoy your meal” as you are leaving the restaurant. But afiyet olsun actually means “may it be good for you”, which is why it can be said before, during or after a meal.
7. güle güle kullanin — use it smiling
gewlay gewlay koolahnin — /gyleɪgyleɪku:lɑ:nɪn/
Almost any time someone buys something, güle güle kullanin – “use it smiling” – is an appropriate thing to tell them. It reminds me of when my grandparents used to say “wear it in good health” whenever I bought an article of clothing. I never heard anyone else in America use this phrase, so it must have come from somewhere in the “old country”.
8. kolay gelsin — may it come easy
kohleye gelsin — /kolaɪgɜ:lsɪn/
When approaching someone who’s working, it’s nice to start with kolay gelsin, which means “may it come easy”. When approaching an employee at Turkcell or Turkish Airlines, for example, kolay gelsin sets a much better tone for your conversation than, “Do you speak English?”
9. Allah Allah — good Lord
Allahalla — /ɑ:lɑ:hɑ:lɑ:/
You will certainly have the occasion to say Allah Allah at some point during your stay. It means “oh boy”, “wow”, “oh my goodness”, “well, I never”, “good Lord”, and the currently fashionable, “really?” You will hear this phrase at least once a day in Turkey.
10. geçmiş olsun — may it pass
gechmish ohlsun — /gɜ:ʧmɪʃɔ:lsʊn/
Geçmiş olsun, which means “may it pass”, is most often said after hearing that someone is ill. But it can also be used in response to something like, “My mother-in-law is visiting”. In that case you could precede it with an Allah Allah for emphasis.
11. inşallah — God willing
eenshalla — /i:nʃɑ:lɑ:/
Inshallah, which means “God willing”, is said very often in Turkey. For example, I might say, “I’ll finish my blog post tomorrow when the electricity comes back on, inshallah”, which could indicate my lack of confidence about the return of the electricity.
My favorite use of this expression is when I’m confronted by conservative Turks who expect me to have an explanation for why I’m not married and have no children. If I’m in an ornery mood I might say, “I don’t want to. But my brother makes up for me–he and his husband have three kids”. But most of the time I wimp out and give a more popular answer: “Maybe I’ll meet a Turkish husband, inshallah”. People are usually so thrilled with this response that the subject is dropped.
12. aferin sana — good for you
afairin sahna — /ɑ:fɜ:rɪnsɑ:nɑ:/
As in, I tell people that God willing I will meet a Turkish husband, and the response is aferin sana – “good for you”. Or when someone says, “I’ve just learned 12 extraordinarily useful Turkish phrases”, the correct response is, of course, aferin sana.
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Ellen Rabiner has been writing about travel since her teenage years on the road as a violist in a youth orchestra. After college her focus shifted to singing, although she did some creative writing as a lawyer. She returned to singing as a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and is currently traveling and writing from her home in Antalya, Turkey. She blogs at Talking Turkey.