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Turkey Demographics: Peoples, Cultures, and Languages

In 2012, Turkey’s population was 73.9 million, with more than 70 percent in urban areas. Turkey is a youthful country; more than two-thirds fall in the 15-64 age group, with another 26 percent under age 15.

Ethnic Turks are 80 percent of the population, while Kurds account for nearly 20 percent. Since a Turk is constitutionally defined as anyone who maintains Turkish citizenship, regardless of ethnicity, enumerating the other ethnic minorities who became Turkish during centuries of Selçukian and Ottoman rule is virtually impossible, but they include Abkhazians, Adjarians, Albanians, Arabs, Assyrians, Bosnians, Circassians, Hamshenis, Kurds, Laz, Pomaks, Roma, and Zazas. Additionally, Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities were officially recognized by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. A small number of Levantines—Western European minorities of French or Italian descent—have been present in Istanbul and İzmir since the Middle Ages.

Statue of three figures outside Istanbul University.
Istanbul University. Photo © Sadık Güleç/123rf.

Education is compulsory until the age of 14. Enrollment for primary school from 2008 to 2012 was close to 100 percent nationwide, while rates decrease to around 80 percent for secondary school. Schools are free, but the quality and the limited scope of the education provided by the state increasingly motivate middle-class parents to seek private schooling. Students can only be admitted to private high schools and universities through rigorous examinations, which require years of serious preparation.

Ninety-eight percent of Turkish men and 90 percent of Turkish women are literate. According to a 2006 report by the BBC, the gender disparity results from the traditional customs of Arabs and Kurds in southeastern Turkey.

Language in Turkey

As mandated by the preamble of Turkey’s constitution, Turkish is the country’s official language. There are no statistics on the distribution of other languages spoken around the country, but the largest ethnic minority—the Kurds—have been allowed to campaign and broadcast in the Kurmanji language since 2009. One of the TV channels operated by national Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) is broadcast in Kurdish, while TRT stations devote a few hours of televised or radio programming in other languages spoken in Turkey, including Arabic, Bosnian, and Kabardian, a North Caucasian language also known as Circassian.

Countless languages and dialects are spoken nationwide. In Istanbul, minorities that include Armenians, Greeks, and Turkic people from “The Stans”—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and so on—communicate in their own tongues. Turkey’s growing expatriate community has propelled the use of English, German, and Russian.

Turkish is an Indo-European language spoken by more than 80 million people worldwide. Its characteristics include vowel harmony, agglutination, and lack of grammatical gender, which is consistent within the Turkic family of Altaic languages spoken throughout Asia. Following Atatürk’s linguistic reforms of the 1920s, the Turkish alphabet was romanized from the previous Ottoman system, a variant of the Arabic script. And while Turkic words replaced hundreds of loan words from Arabic and Persian in the previously used Ottoman system, a few have remained. Globalization has also had its effect on the Turkish dictionary in recent years, as an increasing number of English loan words are finding their way into its pages, particularly in business and technological fields. The standard dialect of Turkey is called “Istanbul Turkish.”

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Istanbul & the Turkish Coast.