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  • Galina Blankenship

Two Basic Principles of Turkish Syntax and Other General Properties (As Compared to English)

Updated: 2 days ago



The two basic principles of Turkish syntax are:


1. The Principle of Preceding Qualification (Head-Finality)

2. The Principle of Verb-Final Word Order (SOV)



Some general properties of the Turkish language, as opposed to the English language, are provided in the table below:

PROPERTIES

TURKISH

ENGLISH

Head-Directionality

Head-Final

Head-Initial (Compl.) / Head-Medial (Modif.)

Verb Position

Verb-Final

Verb-Medial

Canonical Word Order

Subject–ObjectVERB (syntactically flexible, pragmatically fixed)

Subject–VERBObject (syntactically fixed, pragmatically depending on intonation)

Coordination

Asyndetic Parataxis preferred

Syndetic Parataxis preferred

Subordination

Nonfinite (Nominalization-Based Verbals and Postpositionals) & Finite

Finite & Nonfinite (Verbals)

Style of Describing

Verb-framed

Satellite-framed

Sentence Branching

Left-Branching (+ Mid-Branching)

Left- and Right-Branching (+ Mid-Branching)

Adposition

Postpositional

Prepositional

Subject vs. Topic

Topic-Prominent (Null-Subject)

Subject-Prominent

Information Packaging

Topic/[Subject]–Focus–VERB–Background

Subject/Topic–VERB–Focus

Specificity

Determined by position and case marking

Determined by article: a(n), the, zero article

Grammatical Functions

Determined by case marking

Determined by position


Here, I'll explain in more detail some aspects of these principles and properties.




A painting called "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" by a painting by Ukrainian-born Russian artist Ilya Repin of the Zaporozhian Cossacks writing a letter to the Ottoman sultan.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Ottoman Sultan by Ilya Repin



I. The Principle of Preceding Qualification in Turkish



The most prominent characteristic of the Turkish language is that, syntactically, it follows the so-called rectum-before-regens, or dependent-before-head, principle of phrasal and clausal structuring. In Turkish syntaxis, any qualifier precedes the qualified element, the secondary element is placed before the principal constituent, and all the words that complete the sense of (depend on) another word are placed before it, their head. This makes Turkish a head-final language.


Another term for the [dependent+head] relationship is phrase, or rather a dependent phrase, as opposed to a coordinated phrase based on an independent relationship. The common dependent phrases are verb phrases, noun phrases, adjective and adverb phrases, etc.


A phrase connected through an independent relationship, meaning that it does not have any heads or dependent elements, consists of equal, parallel items connected as a series, a compound construction, or an appositive structure.

 

The head plays a central role in defining a phrase: The grammatical category of the phrase depends on that of the head. If the most important part of the phrase, its head, is an adjective, the phrase is an adjective phrase; if the most important part of the phrase is a noun, the phrase is a noun phrase, etc. Clearly delineating the phrases helps make the structure of the sentence clearer and less ambiguous.


There are two kinds of dependents:


1. Complements (mostly obligatory)

2. Modifiers (optional), including determiners (articles, demonstratives, possessives, quantifiers)


While complements complete the meaning of their heads (and, as such, usually cannot be omitted), modifiers optionally modify their heads and, therefore, can be dispensed with.


In both Turkish and English, the common phrases with dependent complements include:

  • Verb phrases with direct and indirect objects, complement that-clauses, subject and object predicatives

  • Noun phrases with nominal complement that-clauses

  • Adjective phrases with adjectival complements (to-infinitival clauses)

  • Pre-/post-positional phrases with prepositional/postpositional complements

 

English: Head-Initial & Head-Medial


In English, complements always come after their heads, which makes English head-initial (with complements). English modifiers, however, may come before or after their heads, which makes English head-medial (with modifiers).


As a head-initial language (for complements) and a head-medial language (for modifiers), English words can have both pre- and post-dependent modifiers and post-dependent complements. The table below shows all kinds of phrases, with the heads highlighted in bold and their dependents identified in the brackets [...]:

HEAD OF PHRASE

PRE-DEPENDENT

(PRE-MODIFIER)

POST-DEPENDENT

(POST-MODIFIER)

POST-DEPENDENT

(COMPLEMENT)

VERB

Lena called

[noun as a subject]

called yesterday

[noun]

feel good

[adjective]

VERB

just called

[adverb]

called constantly

[adverb]

call it

[pronoun]

VERB

if you can, call

[conditional clause]

call when you can

[temporal clause]

say that you are OK

[that-clause as an object]

NOUN

present people

[adjective]

​(the) people present

[adjective]

(the) reason [that] he left

[that-clause]

NOUN

(the) then director

[adverb]

(the) people that we met

[relative clause]

ADJECTIVE

very tall

[adverb]

tall enough

[adverb]

glad to know

[verb phrase]

ADJECTIVE

one-meter tall

[noun phrase]

tall as me

[clause]

guilty of a crime

[preposit. phrase]

ADJECTIVE

glad about this

[preposition]

glad that you could came

[that-clause]

ADVERB

rather quickly

[adverb]

quickly enough

[adverb]

PREPOSITION

​just in

[adverb]

on it

[pronoun]

PREPOSITION

over 100

[numeral]

PREPOSITION

until recently

[adverb]

PREPOSITION

in there

[adverb)]

NUMERAL

each five

[pronoun]

five each

[adverb]


 

Turkish: Strictly Head-Final



In the head-final Turkish, in its basic syntactic units—phrases—the dependent element (or a complement) must come before its heads.


For example, compare the Turkish and English phrases with complements, with their heads shown in bold:


TR: öğrenciydik [noun (subject complement) + verb (copula)] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: (we) were students [verb (copula) + noun (subject complement)] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: çikolata yedi [obj.+ verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: (she) ate chocolate [verb + obj.] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: mutlu etti [adj. + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: made happy [verb + adj.] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: işinden memnun [postposit. phrase + adj.] ⟹ an adjective phrase

EN: happy about the work [adj. + preposit. phrase] ⟹ an adjective phrase


TR: okulda [noun + locative case suffix] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: at school [prep. + noun] ⟹ a prepositional phrase


TR: memnuniyet ile [noun + postposit.] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: with pleasure [preposit. + noun] ⟹ a prepositional phrase


TR: sağdan ikinci [postposit. + numeral] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: (the) second on the right [preposit. + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a prepositional phrase


As for modifiers, Turkish modifiers, again, come before their heads, whereas English modifiers come before and after the words they depend on:


TR: yavaşça konuş [adverb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: ate chocolate [verb + adverb] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: güzel okudu [adverb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: read beautifully [verb + adverb] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: bugün bitirdik [noun+ verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: (we) finished today [verb + noun] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: ilk olarak söyledi [converb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: said first [verb + numeral (adverbial)] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: belki görür [verb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: maybe see [modal adverb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase


TR: masadaki bardak [relativized noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: (the) glass on the table [noun + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a noun phrase


TR: naylon torba [qualifying noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: nylon bag [qualifying noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase


TR: yeşil kitap [adj. + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: green book [adj. + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase


TR: hep gülen yüz [participle + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: (the) face that always smiles [noun + relative clause] ⟹ a noun phrase


TR: annemin gelmesi [genitive noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: mother's arrival [genitive noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase


TR: senden daha yavaş [adjective + comparative clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase

EN: slower than you [adjective + comparative clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase


TR: beklediğimiz gibi meşgul [adjective + postpost. clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase

EN: busy as we have expected [adjective + comparison clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase


TR: çok yavaşça [adverb + adverb e] ⟹ an adverb phrase

EN: very slowly [adverb + adverb] ⟹ an adverb phrase


TR: çamur içinde [noun + postposition] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: in the mud [preposit. phrase] ⟹ a prepositional phrase


TR: her ikisi [determiner + numeral] ⟹ a numeral phrase

EN: both of them [determiner + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a numeral phrase




While Turkish is a head-final language, with both complements and modifiers, English is head-initial with complements and head-medial with modifiers.


 

Dependent & Independent (Coordinated) Phrases


In Turkish, like in English, the basic syntactic unit is a phrase, which can be presented as having dependent or independent relationships.



Turkish Coordinated Phrases = Serial Items & Appositive Constructions


In a phrase with independent relationship, the elements are syntactically equal, or parallel to each other.


For example, a series of any items, including subjects, predicates, complements, or modifiers (sevimli ve akıllı; ben, sen; ne burada, ne orada, etc.), or certain appositive constructions (biz, Türkler) are parallel.


Likewise, a series of independent clauses (geldi ve konuştu; gelecek ama konuşmayacak), constituting a compound sentence (sıralı cümle), are parallel.


 

Turkish Dependent Phrases = Dependents + Heads


In a phrase with dependent relationship, the central element is the head, while the other one is its dependent. The head and its dependent must be in agreement with each other, with the head containing the key information about its dependent.


In addition to the obligatory complements, optional dependent elements, e.g., modifiers and adverbials, can also exhibit the head vs. dependent relationship.


For instance:


TR: onunki masa [relativized noun phrase + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: (the) table of his [noun + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a noun phrase


TR: okulda kal [postposit. phrase + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: stay at the school [verb + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a verb phrase


 

Turkish Phrases (and Clauses) = Phrases Within Phrases


As we can see, in both Turkish and English, phrases are recursive, meaning that phrases can be made of other phrases, which, too, stand either as heads vs. dependents or as independently linked items:


TR: [[dün ve bugün] [benimle [koşan adam]]] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: [[[(the) man who ran] with me] [yesterday and today]] ⟹ a noun phrase


independent

dün ve bugün


dependent _ head

koşan adam

benimle koşan

dün ve bugün koşan

dün ve bugün benimle koşan

dün ve bugün benimle koşan adam


If we add another phrase, pek konuşkandır, another verb phrase that contains an adjective phrase (pek konuşkan) and the copular -dır, we get a complex sentence (birleşik cümle) with a verbal subordinate clause (girişik tümce) as its subject:


[Dün ve bugün benimle koşan adam] [pek konuşkandır].

Subject Predicate

The man who ran with me yesterday and today is very talkative.


Since phrases constitute the clausal elements that can function as subjects, predicates, complements (objects), adverbials, etc., in sentences, a basic sentence formula can be expressed as a sum of two phrases:


Simple Sentence = Subject + Predicate = Subject [Noun Phrase] + Predicate [Verb Phrase]

Sentence

=

Subject + Predicate

=

Subject [Noun Phrase] + Predicate [Verb Phrase]

 

Turkish Subject–Verb Agreement


In any Turkish and English sentence, the subject and predicate exhibit agreement: if the subject changes, the predicate changes accordingly, which means that the subject modifies the predicate.


For example:


Ayşe kitabı okuyor.

Ayşe is reading the book.


Ayşe’yle Ali kitabı okuyorlar.

Ayşe and Ali are reading the book.


Oğlum her aksam okur.

My son reads every evening.


In other words, the subject and the predicate form a phrase, in which the subject is the modifier, and the predicate is the modified, which makes the predicate the head and the subject the dependent of the predicate (verb) phrase.


Both Turkish and English predicates agree with the respective subjects: in number and person in Turkish and in number and partially in person in English.

In Turkish, this agreement is expressed through suffixes affixed to the verb stem, while in English, the agreement is maintained through the use of suffixes as well as auxiliary verbs.


 

Turkish Subject vs. Predicate = Dependent vs. Head


This subject vs. predicate relationship aligns with the dependent vs. head relationship, in which the dependent modifies the head. This means that we can reduce the sentence formula down to this:


Sentence = Dependent [Noun Phrase (Subject)] + Head [Verb Phrase (Predicate)] = Verb Phrase [Subject + Predicate]

Simple Sentence

=

Verb Phrase [Subject + Predicate]

 

Turkish and English Sentence = Verb Phrase


This is how any basic sentence, whether Turkish or English, can be interpreted:


The head of a sentence is usually taken to be the tensed verb, and every other word is either dependent on the sentence head (the subject, complements, adverbials), or connects to it through a path of dependencies.

Although both subject and object are dependent on the main verb, they are not dependent in the same way. Ranked higher than any other complements, the subject has a special, sentence-forming relationship with the predicate. Linguists refer to such difference as subject-object asymmetry, exhibited by most languages.



 



II. The Principle of Turkish Verb-Final Word Order (SOV)



As I showed before, in a simple English and Turkish sentence, the verb functions as the head with two dependents: the subject and the object. The ordering of these core constituents, however, in a sentence depends on the head directionality of the language.



Head-Directionality & Word Order


Most languages can be classified in terms of the head directionality, which aligns with the arrangement of the basic (canonical) elements of the sentence, its core.


In Turkish, classified as a head-final language, any simple sentence has the two constituent verb phrases (subject+verb + object+verb), sharing the same head, merge into one verb phrase (subject + object) + verb. Since pragmatically, the canonical subject is also the topic and positioned initially, the canonical Turkish sentence is ordered as subject–object–verb (SOV). This also classifies Turkish as a verb-final language.


For example:

Turkish: Head-Final, Verb-Final

Ayşe kitabı okuyor.

Ayşe ⟵ okuyor

Dep. ⟵ Head


kitabı ⟵ okuyor

Dep. ⟵ Head

Ayşe ⟵ kitabı ⟵ okuyor

Subject ⟵ Object ⟵ Verb

Topic ⟵ Focus ⟵ Verb


English, on the other hand, is a head-initial language. So, the two constituent verb phrases (verb+subject + verb+object), sharing the same head, merge into one verb phrase verb+(subject + object). However, because the subject syntactically modifies the verb (and English modifiers precede their heads), the verb is moved to the post-subject position while remaining positioned before the object (its complement). Thus, the verb is positioned medially, which is why English is classified as a verb-medial language, reflected in its canonical ordering, subject–verb–object (SVO).


For example:

English: Head-Initial (Medial), Verb-Medial

Ayşe is reading the book.

Ayşe ⟵ is reading

Dep. ⟵ Head


is reading the book

Head ⟶ Dep.

Ayşe ⟵ is reading ⟶ the book

Subject ⟵ Verb ⟶ Object

Topic ⟵ Verb ⟶ Focus


Although commonly classified as a head-initial language (based on the head-complement relationships in English), English is sometimes reclassified as a head-medial language to additionally account for the modifier-head relationships.


 

Dependency Links (DLs) & Dependency Distance (DD)


As a head-initial language (for complement dependencies) and a head-medial language (for modifier dependencies), English words can have both pre-dependent constituents (with modifiers) and post-dependent constituents (with complements).


This makes English rather efficient in terms of reducing the distance between heads and their dependents, or dependencies. Turkish, as it happens, has devised other strategies to accomplish that, including reducing the number of dependencies (or dependency links) by reducing the count of words in a sentence (e.g., through agglutinating the function words, dropping pronominal subjects and objects).


Whatever language we speak,