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In Standard Turkish, "ğ" is explained as having no sound of its own but instead lengthens the previous vowel.

So would "aa" and "ağ" sound alike? What about "â" and "ağa"? Can there sometimes be three vowel length distinctions in Turkish?

(This is a reworded version of an example question I put up on the Turkish Language & Usage proposal but I've wondered about it since before that.)

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ğ is a symbol used in writing Turkish. When word or syllable final, it indicates a preceding back vowel is lengthened and is typically silent otherwise. In some dialects it may be realized as a velar (or uvular) approximant, fricative or plosive. A velar approximant is an acceptable pronunciation in standard Istanbul dialect too, but it's becoming increasingly rare. Following a front vowel it may manifest as a palatal glide.

So "aa" and "ağ" are identical. When intervocalic, the preceding and following vowels belong to different syllables, meaning that "ağa" is a long syllable-final vowel followed by a syllable-initial vowel (so Turkish does not have a three-way length contrast). I don't know "â"??

There are some other complexities, discussed in the pdf here (pp 7-8).

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My final project for phonetics was to analyze the sound system of Turkish. By far the hardest part was characterizing the effect of 'ğ'. Eventually I came to, basically, the same conclusions as the cited paper: lengthen's vowels when it's syllable final, silent between similar vowels, occasionally a velar approximate and occasionally unrealized. I missed a lot of the complexities, and straight out wrong on some points. Still, if an undergraduate's fumbling attempts at research can be taken as corroborating evidence, I vote hippietrail awards this answer the bounty. –  Nathan Oct 11 '11 at 2:16
    
For the standard Istanbul dialect this is mostly true except the "aa" = "ağ" part. "aa" is realized as two separate vowels. So "aa" = "ağa" would be more correct except some older speakers realize the first one a glottal stop between the "a"s. –  cyco130 May 6 '12 at 1:13
    
Also, in some instances, "ğ" is realized more or less as a [j] when it's associated with front vowels. As in "değmek". –  cyco130 May 6 '12 at 1:15
    
One last comment :) Many regional dialects realize "ğ" as a velar or uvular approximant, fricative or even as a flat out plosive. Realizing "ğ" as a slight velar approximant is perfectly acceptable in standard Istanbul dialect too, but may sound pedantic. –  cyco130 May 6 '12 at 1:19
    
@cyco130 In the answer I did mention that it can be realised as a palatal glide following a front vowel. Thanks for the comment about the dialectel variants, maybe you'd like to add that to the answer? –  Gaston Ümlaut May 6 '12 at 2:39
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I disagree partly with this answer claiming that 'aa' and 'ağ' are identical.

The sequence aa does not appear in Turkish words unless they are of Arabic origin, and the proper pronunciation of the aa sequence is not a single lengthened a sound, but rather two separate vowel sounds. Take for example the word cemaat (more properly cema'ât), which in its Arabic form has an 'ayn consonantal sound between the two a sounds. The same goes for the word müracaat, although I concede that the standard pronunciation of the doubled aa in these and similar words is often more akin to or â.

The letter â comes mainly from Arabic loan words where it palatises the preceding consonant and/or lengthens the vowel (but Turkish orthography used to use it for French words as well: plân). Palatisation occurs with the letters k, g and l, but there is sometime ambiguity: kâtil has a long a but an unpalatised k; lâkin has a short a but palatised l.

The sound of ğ after a varies depending on the dialect of Turkish, but in Istanbul Turkish, you'd have to say that and â are identical. The same does not hold true in, say, Eastern Turkey, where you will hear the ğ.

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"katil" (murderer) was always spelled without the circumflex to prevent people from wrongly palatalizing the initial k, as they routinely do now for "ikâmet". But this led to another problem, people now routinely confuse it with "katil" (same spelling, pronounced with a short a, meaning "murder"). By the way, "lakin" does have a long a, and it's currently spelled without the circumflex. I also want to add that use of circumflex is now marginalized unless it solves an important ambiguity not recoverable from the context. Just check the daily newspapers :) –  cyco130 May 6 '12 at 1:08
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TDK (Türk Dil Kurumu, Turkish Language Association) now recommends spelling "lakin" without the circumflex and pronounce it with a palatalized "l" and a long "a". Original arabic pronunciation definitely points to a confusion caused by this circumflex mess. In my opinion using a single diacritic for two different purposes was a mistake in retrospect. –  cyco130 May 6 '12 at 1:31
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@cyclo130 Interesting to see that the new pronunciation of lakin has been 'officially' sanctioned. I agree that it was a mistake to have a multi-purpose circumflex. But then so was using a single consonant k for two different sounds... –  SigueSigueBen May 6 '12 at 6:51
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@hippietrail To me it seems to be a brief ceasing of exhalation. –  SigueSigueBen May 6 '12 at 17:59
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@hippietrail Some older speakers do use a glottal stop. But I'd say currently the main distinction is stress. For example in "saat", there are two syllables, the second one is stressed, the first one is not. i.e. /sa'at/ in contrast with /sa:t/ –  cyco130 May 8 '12 at 2:26
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When ğ is between back vowels: "provides a smooth transition between vowels, since they do not occur consecutively in native Turkish word". (wikipedia)

As for â and ağa - they denote different historical evolution rather than different lengths. The soft g has, at some point, existed as a separate sound between vowels. For example in Turkmen (another language of the same group) the word for "onion" is "sogan". Loanwords in other languages, like Bulgarian or Bulgarian dialects also have the g - "sugan" for "onion". On the other hand â is used only for load words.

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Yes I know the history of the (groups of) letters is different but I don't know how they are pronounced. I pronounce ğ very faintly but I really speak Turkish so nobody seems to notice or correct me. As for â it can be due to Arabic or Persian loans but also due to a native reason that I can never remember. –  hippietrail Sep 22 '11 at 7:47
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I am a native turkish speaker living in İstanbul, 30 years old. I am an architect, really interested in linguistics and I am reading the questions and answers with big enthusiasm. I would like to correct an issue: "aa" and "ağa" are not the same. It takes two stops to give the sound of aa.

I agree with sigue and his examples of "cemaat" and "müracaat", which are right. It takes two syllables to pronounce "aa" here: "ce-ma-at" and "mü-ra-ca-at". there are a a lot of ways to use "ğ", though.

I found a good research on the issue (in Turkish), that may be helpful for the ones that know turkish already.

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