Talk to the neighbours

December 2, 2005

With Turkey progressing further down its rocky route into the European Union, now is a timely moment for Asli Göksel and Celia Kerslake's comprehensive grammar of the Turkish language.

Turkish, which is spoken by more than 60 million people, has undergone an extraordinary evolution, starting with the switch from Arabic script to an adapted form of the Latin alphabet in 1928. The subsequent drive to purge Turkish of its Arabic and Persian ties in the name of modernisation and in reflection of a new sense of ethnic Turkish identity has been brilliantly evidenced in Geoffrey Lewis's The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (1999). It is on the structure of this contemporary standard Turkish that Goksel and Kerslake's grammar focuses, using a descriptive mode of analysis that is more up to date and more detailed than its predecessors.

The grammar is divided into three main sections - phonology, morphology and syntax - with the last inevitably commanding the lion's share of the attention. The somewhat dry prose that populates these sections is more of an occupational hazard than a stylistic flaw. It stems from the authors' strong grounding in linguistics coupled with an admirable (if at times overwrought) attention to detail. Particularly fraught are the sections on the relative clause - already notoriously tricky terrain for the native English speaker. But the sections on modality are a paragon of insightful analysis, replete with succinct and transparent examples.

The book also benefits from a thorough system of cross-referencing that highlights parallels and differences in the uses of a particular form, both within and between structures. Meanwhile, the familiar problem of indicating vowel harmony and consonant alternation has been surmounted using a clear system of capitalisation to denote the variable letters.

Refreshingly, this highly academic work also provides an unpretentious user-friendly glossary of grammatical terms. That said, for those in the market for a quick-fix grammar in a highly digestible format, nothing beats the original Lewis version of Teach Yourself Turkish (1953).

In presentational terms, Göksel and Kerslake's study appears overloaded with fancy formatting and abbreviations, not to mention the endless subsections. Yet once the conventions have been mastered, the fog lifts and instant readability is gladly sacrificed for the extra information thus packed in. At just under 600 pages, this grammar's emphasis is definitely on the "comprehensive" of the title. It is not for the linguistically faint-hearted, attempting to pick up some kind of structural underpinning for their Berlitz banter. For serious students and researchers of Turkish and linguistics, however, this book is a veritable bible of descriptive grammar grafted on to years of teaching experience to produce a must-have reference tool.

Elisabeth Kendall is lecturer in Arabic and Turkish, Edinburgh University.

Turkish: A Comprehensive Grammar. First edition

Author - Asli Goksel and Celia Kerslake
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 580
Price - £70.00 and £26.99
ISBN - 0 415 21761 X and 11494 2

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