Sooo, a couple of months ago in a different thread i told posters that i was working on a mini project highlighting the similarities between Turkish and Japanese, and by extension the supposed Altaic language family, and i’ve been gone ever since, poof !
What happened ? Well, as you can guess i was busy: Turkey is one of those countries where conscription is still a thing and i had to fulfill my duty. During that time i had limited access to internet and as you can guess upon returning to the everyday life i had a lot of catching up to do. However, that didn’t meant i completely abandoned my little project. On the contrary, it was always at the back of my mind and if anything during those months i expanded the initial scope of the project in a significant way. Initial scope of the project focused on the small anecdotal experiences i’ve had and the hearsay data i gathered from my Japanese friends.
Now, after expanding the scope of the project i bought a bunch of books, read some scientific papers prepared by joint committees and watched some panels. Does that mean i turned into a linguist over night ? Of course not, however, i now have a much better understanding of the concepts and the arguments many of the actual linguists are making, and at the very least i believe that i will be able to present their arguments in a coherent way while also providing my own opinions.
I will be referencing the works by: F. Yılmaz Kaleli ( Türkçe ve Japoncanın Akrabalığı ), Talat Tekin ( Japonca ve Altay Dilleri ) , Dr. Osman Tuna ( Altay Dilleri Teorisi ), Sıddık Ungan, Muharrem - Akiko Kunita Demirci, Prof. Dr. Masao Mori, Takeuchi Kazuo, Prof. Dr. Ikeda Tetsuro and many other researchers that have partaken in the joint papers and panels. With a few exceptions this will be the only time i’m referencing anyone by their name, rather i’ll be dividing their works and arguments into two reference groups:
Enthusiasts: This group consists of Turkish and Japanese nationals that are ‘for’ the Altaic language family theory. Most of their arguments are based on superficial findings. This group is very passionate about their beliefs.
Scholars: Most of the researchers, linguists and academics are in this group. Majority of this group is ‘against’ the Altaic language family theory. Their arguments are based on research.
An interesting thing to note before we start: Enthusiasts flat out disregards any findings made by ‘third parties’ ie. non-natives as irrelevant and interestingly Scholars also agrees with this opinion, though to a degree. Scholars considers findings made by non-natives as a secondary/circumstantial evidence.
So, how similar is Turkish and Japanese, are those perceived similarities just coincidental and what is the Altaic languages theory ? Let’s start with the Altaic language family and gradually delve into the similarity between Turkish and Japanese. Altaic family is believed to contain the Japanese, Korean, Mongolian and Turkic languages. Structural similarities between these languages and the shared words/concepts between them led to the said theory. I may reference Korean and Mongolian once or twice during this post, however, that will be the extent of it. This post is mainly about the similarities between Turkish and Japanese, Altaic theory is only the cherry on top of that and any conclusions in this post about the Altaic family will be based upon the research on Turkish and Japanese only.
Major breakthroughs for the theory
-Shinkichi Hashimoto’s discovery of Man’yo kana, which had 8 vowels, same as Turkish.
-Hideyo Arisaka and Teizou Ikegami’s findings which revealed that the ancient Japanese had vowel harmony, though to a limited degree.
Main arguments against the theory
-Unspecified contact point/starting point seems to be one of the major ones. Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul’s unfortunate mission is considered to be the official starting point of Turkish – Japanese relations.
Most of the theories about when and where these two cultures crossed ways seems to be very hollow to say the least. Though there is some consensus among Japanese scholars, most of them seems to reference the book稲作以前 ( Inasaku Izen ) and Hokkaido as the most likely contact point, they refer to excavations and some other findings in the above mentioned book, however, i can’t confirm or deny any of the findings in the said book as i don’t have access to it.
-Similar to Turkish, Japanese is agglutinative ( though only to a degree ) however, it doesn’t feature the most distinctive feature of Turkish: nouns and verbs indicate person. Here’s an example:
Gitmeyeceğim — translates to — I will not go
First black part signifies the Turkish verb, second part i’ve highlighted in black signifies the personal pronoun in the conjugation of the verb. Both the Scholars that are ‘for’ the theory and the Enthusiasts can’t seem to find any equivalent to this feature of Turkish in Japanese. Some Scholars argue that the ancient Turkic also didn’t have this feature and they point towards the Kara-Khanid Khanate period Turkish as proof.
Do note that i’m listing the major breakthroughs and arguments against the theory from a Turkish/Japanese perspective, non-native researchers may have raised different, perhaps even more poised arguments, however, as i said before i am strictly focusing on Turkish and Japanese perspectives.
There are many other criticisms toward the theory, i will not list all of them here as they are on the more technical side and i would not be able to present them accordingly. Instead let’s move on to the main part of this post, similarities between Turkish and Japanese.
Sentence structure is not similar, it’s exactly alike:
Ben dün mektubu yazdım.
Literal translation of the Japanese and Turkish sentences in order would be: I yesterday wrote the letter.
Furthermore, even if the ordering were to change in any combination that you can think of, including inverted sentences, order and the structure would remain the same in both of these languages:
Ben mektubu dün yazdım.
Literal translation of the Japanese and Turkish sentences in order would be: I the letter yesterday wrote.
Mektubu ben dün yazdım.
Literal translation of the Japanese and Turkish sentences in order would be: The letter i yesterday wrote.
I could list more examples, combinations etc., but i won’t: Structurally speaking, Turkish and Japanese are exactly like each other and this is something that all the Enthusiasts and Scholars agree on.
Overall conclusion: Turkish and Japanese nationals can think in their own language and speak in each other’s language without any further effort. They only require one thing, which brings us to the next point of the study:
A highly disputed area though not because of the numbers; some of the Enthusiasts lists all the way up to 600 to 800 words as possible matches and words that they allege that derived from each other or from a main common language in ancient times.
Scholars are more conservative in their estimates, they list approximately 50 words as the main points of interests and regard the other listings made by Enthusiasts as highly doubtful. Scholars also points out that even if the high estimations made by the Enthusiasts were to be true, that wouldn’t mean anything definitive. They point out that linguists can list up to a thousand similar words between Hungarian and Turkish but that doesn’t make them related in a definitive way.
Before i list some of the more interesting common words, i also would like to make my own argument: Enthusiasts, particularly the Turkish ones, conveniently forgets the fact that the modern Turkish is convoluted to hell with Arabic and Farsi influences. Often times an Enthusiast will list a Turkish word that was influenced heavily by those languages as a common word with Japanese without mentioning those influences at all. Furthermore, even if they mention those influences, they also would say something like ‘ more research should be made whether this Turkish word actually originated from Arabic or Farsi. ‘ Look, i’m all for challenging the status quo, that’s how the scientific advances are achieved but without due diligence none of their claims amounts to much.
With all that out of the way, i’ll list some of the most intriguing similarities. I won’t be listing well known examples such as いい-İyi, rather i’ll list the ones i consider to be the most interesting:
野蛮 ( やばん ) – Yaban : Perfect match both in terms of reading and meaning.
濃茶 ( こいちゃ ) – Koyu çay : Perfect match both in terms of reading and meaning.
内 家 ( うち ) – İç : Perfect match for both kanji, though only for the うち reading for 家.
沿岸 ( えんがん ) – Enli Kıyı : A partial match that isn’t used in modern Turkish. I’m listing this mainly to focus on the kanji 沿 and the metacommentary/hot take that i want to make. I won’t make a Kanji Meanings subhead in this study mainly because i don’t want to confuse anyone, but i’ll say this: Despite the best efforts by Wanikani crew, most of the concepts and explanations given for the majority of the kanji are hollow to say the least. But to reiterate, the hollowness i perceive has nothing to do with WK staff, rather it’s due to the fundamental differences between Japanese and English.
Overall conclusion: A core group of about 50 to 80 similar/common words is a perfectly reasonable argument to make with scientific evidence backing it up. Everything else is mostly weak parallels drawn by Enthusiasts, which only adds up to my frustration with the Enthusiasts. Speaking of frustrations with Enthusiasts, let’s move on to the:
Some Enthusiasts lists all the way up to 150 ‘ similar ‘ verbs. I won’t list any of those nor will i focus on conjugation similarities, reasons for which will be obvious in a moment or two. Rather, i’ll just voice my frustrations with the superficial arguments made by Enthusiasts.
There is a perfectly valid study to be made when it comes to verbs, however, Enthusiasts are only interested in listing the potential matches, as in ‘ hey this verb is very similar in both of these languages, there is a high chance it originated from the same root. ‘ Frustrating part of this arguments lies in the agglutinative nature of Turkish and Japanese. I’m fluent in Macedonian and English, i’ve also studied German in high school and none of those languages comes close to the Turkish in terms of different forms of conjugations. English in particular is seriously lacking, it loses most of the nuances or flat out ignores them. I’m also going to make a big ass assumption here and claim that none of the Western European languages would come close to Turkish when it comes to conjugation. However, Japanese does !
Sure, it’s not an exact match, as we established earlier Japanese conjugations doesn’t indicate person, however in terms of the amount of possible combinations and all the little nuances, these two are very similar.
Check out this table:
Japanese matches about 85 – 90% of that table. Which raises an interesting question, why do Japanese and Turkish has so many little nuances and share so many smaller forms of combinations ignored by other languages ? Unfortunately, we have no answer or even a valid theory for that question and i partially blame the attitude of Enthusiasts for that.
Furthermore, Turkish equivalent of the する of verbs are ‘ yapmak ‘ and ‘ etmek ’ verbs in Turkish, and they behave just like the する verbs.
Overall conclusion: Arguments can be made for surface level similarities between the root of the verbs, however, the real comparisons should be made at the deeper levels to comprehensively understand the similarity between conjugations.
Adjectives are another strong point of similarity, i won’t delve deep into this issue as adjectives work in a similar way in most languages, but i’ll address a criticism made by non-natives.
Non-native researchers claims that Turkish doesn’t have any equivalent for な adjectives, and Turkish adjectives only have a single form. This argument is wrong on both accounts. Turkish [-lı,-li,-lu,-lü] adjectives exist, as an example:
Güç iş – Tough job
Güçlü adam – Strong guy
Furthermore, some Turkish adjectives only have the [-lı … ] variant: Sağlıklı ( healthy ) , Hızlı ( fast ) etc.
I’ll admit that the [-lı … ] adjectives in Turkish are limited both in use and quantity, however, their mere existence raises questions.
Overall conclusion: Strong similarity both on surface and technical levels. More research about the origins of the [-lı … ] adjectives in Turkish is necessary though.
Both of these languages has lots of particles, and with the exception of は particle which doesn’t have an equivalent in Turkish, most of them are a perfect match with each other. I’ll list some of the more intriguing similarities and divergences.
-Turkish also has a dedicated question particle, [-mi … ] and it’s variants behaves exactly like か particle with a key difference: In Turkish if a 5W1H is present in a sentence, you can’t use the [-mi … ] particle and it’s variants as a rule and there are no exceptions to this rule.
Scholars also notes that the ancient Turkic was a lot more similar to Japanese in this regard, and they point out that the modern Turkish question inducing words like ‘ hani ‘ and ‘ hangi ‘ were ‘ kanı ‘ and ‘ kankı ‘ respectively.
-へ particle is very similar to the Turkish [-e] particle, both in pronunciation and meaning.
-で particle is a perfect match both in pronunciation and meaning with it’s Turkish counterparts [-de,-da].
Interestingly, Turkish [-da,-de] particles also acts like も depending on the placement and the meaning of the sentence. Another interesting point to note, Scholars argue that in the ancient Turkic and in modern Uighur Turkic も particle was/is pronounced in a very similar way [-mu].
-の particle is also extremely similar to it’s Turkish counterpart [-im] and it’s many many variants. Though Turkish particle is extraordinarily flexible therefore it’s not a perfect match.
- While not a particle in Japanese, 屋 behaves exactly like the Turkish particle [-çı] and it’s variants.
For example, ‘ Kitap ‘ means book in Turkish and ほん ( 本 ) means book in Japanese.
kitap + çı = kitapçı – ほん + や = ほんや : a place where you can buy books.
Another example to drive the point home, ‘ Balık ‘ means fish or さかな ( 魚 ) in Turkish.
Balık + çı = balıkçı – さかな + や = さかなや : a place where you can buy fish.
This will be a bit hard for the native English speakers to understand but the ‘ store ‘ translation is a bit awkward when 屋 is used in a complimentary way ( it behaves differently solo ), it acts more like a general direction of something rather than a store, exactly like the Turkish particle.
-I also would like to address ですin this section because you know, why not ? ですalso has a perfect equivalent in Turkish in the shape of [dır,dir,tır,tir]. Though, it should be noted that in modern Turkish [dır,dir] is usually silent and does not need to be written separately, often times sentence itself will contain the meaning.
Bu bir kitap(tır).
Overall conclusion: One of the stronger areas in terms of similarity. Transition from Turkish to Japanese and vice versa is almost seamless. Particles in both languages are extremely similar in terms of meaning, pronunciation and rules.
Turkish and Japanese shares many sounds therefore pronunciation is also easy.
ちis equivalent to the Turkish sound [çi],
し’s equivalent in Turkish is the [şi] sound.
Turkish also has the [ji] sound, however, Japanese じ ’s pronunciation is closer to the Turkish sound [ci] which makes things a lot easier as [ci] is used much more frequently in Turkish.
うえ sound is extremely similar to the Turkish sound [vu].
Turkish does have the [li,lü,le,la] sounds, but Turkish [ri,ru,rü,ra] sounds are very similar to the Japanese pronunciations of the ‘ R ‘ sounds, therefore transition is easy.
Overall conclusion: Pronunciation is naturally quite similar, no extra lessons are necessary.
I believe i’ve covered almost everything there is to cover, so what does all this mean and is it really easy for a Turkish person to learn Japanese and vice versa, and the answer is an unequivocal yes . Main issue for Japanese nationals seems to be the concept of nouns and verbs indicating person and the pronunciations of those in conjugations. As for Turkish nationals, it depends on your priorities, reading presents the same initial challenge for Turkish people too, however once you’re accustomed to the different style of writing, things get a lot easier. Though, if a Turkish national is only interested in speaking, things get much much more simpler thanks to the all the similarities highlighted in this post. As a personal anecdote, before i started i had a 30 month plan to N1 or N2 degree, i’ve revised that plan down to 18 months now. I’ll take the N2 test next spring and in the summer i’ll take the Turkish governing bodies’ Japanese examination test, which is tougher than the JLPT as it’s strictly a handwritten exam.
What about Korean and Mongolian ? Unfortunately, i have no idea. My only exposure to Korean has been a viewing of Memories of Murder and i’ve had no exposure whatsoever to Mongolian. There are references to Korean and Mongolian in the books and studies i’ve read, but i tried to shy away from those references in this post. As a hearsay i’ll note that the online sentiment seems to be that Korean is even easier to learn for Turkish people compared to Japanese. Hopefully one day i’ll be able to confirm or deny that claim myself.
Let’s close things up with the official view of the Turkish government and a few of my hot takes.
Official stance of the Turkish and Japanese Governments
I remember hearing about Altaic language theory in high school, though i also remember that it came with a caveat. I checked my old textbooks and sure enough Ministry of Education’s official stance reads as ‘ though there are ongoing debates/studies about the Altaic languages, many linguists consider the possibility as unlikely ‘. I’ve also checked my cousin’s much more recent edition of the high school textbook and it seems MoE’s stance got tougher as this time theory is noted as a ‘ highly unlikely possibility ‘.
As for the Japanese MoE, unfortunately i don’t have access to a traditional Japanese textbook prepared for schoolchildren. For those that have access to such a textbook, i believe that a simple search in the middle or high school textbook would give us Japanese MoE’s official stance on Altaic languages.
As for the historical context, there is an official study conducted in 1958 by the Japanese Embassy in Turkey on this subject. Unfortunately, the only available copy of this study is very expensive ( and the seller doubled the price once they realized that i was interested ) and it’s not something i can buy on a whim. I contacted the Japanese Embassy in Turkey to authenticate the existence of the study and whether they had it in their archives. They confirmed the official inquiry, however, they noted that they do not have the study in their archives. I’ll get my hands on that study, only question is when, not if and once i do i plan on updating this thread with the historical context.
In the meantime, i’ll note the thoughts of some of my Japanese acquaintances in Turkey as a hearsay for more perspectives. There are some longtime resident Japanese nationals in Turkey, most of those came to Turkey in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 İzmit earthquake and stayed here ever since. They were the ones who encouraged me to learn Japanese and they helped me every step of the way. All of them considers Turkish and Japanese as cognate languages and when i told them about the official stance of the Turkish government and the position of the Scholars, they merely considered those as ‘ internet hogwash ’. To reiterate, i’m sharing their views merely as personal anecdotes, so don’t take them anything more than a hearsay. One interesting thing to note though, all of these people are over 40 years of age, that may provide us with some historical context in terms of education received.
My take on the situation and closing thoughts
While it may not mean much to you, after typing some 3000 words i believe that i’m entitled to voice my views regarding this whole thing. I’m with the majority of the Scholars and the Turkish MoE; Altaic languages theory is at it’s best a longshot. However , i also think that it should be obvious, the ancient Turkic speaking people and the ancient Japanese speaking people crossed paths at a certain juncture and influenced each other in many ways. Those influences, whether it be in language or way of life is still prevalent to this day in both of these cultures and at the very least that much should be irrefutable.
Hot take alert
Something else i’ve noticed during my Japanese learning experience is Eastern languages, including Japanese and Turkish are incompatible with English at a fundamental level. This is my fourth language ( Turkish, Macedonian, English and Japanese in that order ) and all of those Eastern languages have a stark difference at a fundamental level with English. Throughout the years English has become a second nature to me so i probably forgot this along the way but now i see this distinction more clearly than ever. Regardless, i’m still planning on reaching level 60 at WK but my reasoning has changed entirely. At the start i was using WK mainly for meanings, now i use WK exclusively for readings.
End of hot take
I hope that i was able to convey the similarities and differences between these languages in an easy to digest way. I also would like to thank all the names i’ve listed at the beginning, all of them whether they were listed as a ‘Scholar’ or ‘Enthusiast’ helped me tremendously and i hope i didn’t offend or misrepresent the works of those names in any way.
I’m open to criticisms , feel free to voice any counter arguments. I hope the linguists in WK community decides to jump in with their professional views.
Lastly, if i offended anyone reading this post for whatever reason, i assure you that this was not my intention and i offer you my sincere apologies.
Thank you for reading.