About 75 million people speak Turkish in Turkey, where Turkish is the official language, and 90% of the population speaks it as a first language. Turkish is also the language spoken at home by those living in areas that had been governed by the Ottoman Empire. For instance, in Bulgaria, there are about 850,000 speakers (Grimes 1992). About 37,000 Turkish speakers live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan. In Cyprus, Turkish is a co-official language (with Greek), where it is spoken as a first language by 19 percent of the population (Comrie 1990). Over a million speakers are found in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece; over 2 million speakers live in Germany (and other northern European countries), where Turks have lived as “guest workers” for many years. Additionally, about 24,000 Turkish speakers live in the United States (Grimes 1992).

Turkish belongs to the Turkish branch of the Altaic language family. It is the westernmost of the Turkic languages spoken across Central Asia and is generally classified as a member of the South-West group, also known as the Oguz group (Baskakov 1966, Campbell 1991). Except for some differences in vocabulary, the Turkic languages are similar enough that under other political circumstances, they would most likely be considered dialects of the same language.

Turkish is mutually intelligible, barring these vocabulary differences, with the Turkic languages spoken in adjacent areas, such as Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Turkmen.  A speaker of Turkish can be understood as far east as Kyrgyzstan.

Like all Turkic languages, Turkish is agglutinative; that is, grammatical functions are indicated by adding various suffixes to stems. Turkish has 8 vowels and 20 consonants. Modern standard Turkish is based on the Istanbul dialect of Anatolian (Comrie 1990). Turkish uses a Roman-based writing system that was adopted in the course of the so-called writing reform of 1928. Prior to this reform, Turkish was written in the Arabic script. Until the fifteenth century, the Anatolian Turks used the Uighur script to write Turkish (Comrie 1990).

Turkish has been spoken in the area constituting Turkey since the thirteenth century. It formed the basis for Ottoman Turkish, the written language of the Ottoman Empire. The establishment of the modern Turkish state in the 1920s involved considerable language reform. Spoken Turkish was declared the language of the country, and measures were taken to expunge Persian and Arabic borrowings, replacing them with native Turkish or at least Turkic words. These and other vocabulary reforms and standardizations since the 1920s have been quite successful: Current standard Turkish is indeed standardized, consisting mostly of Turkic vocabulary; the written language is clearly an extension of the spoken language; and the literacy rates in Turkey are at about 90 percent.