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Yesterday I was watching a Turkish trivia game show on TV when a question came up about the ablative case in Turkish. The question, asked during a part of the show when questions are generally deemed to be quite difficult, went as follows: "What is the correct ending: Ziya Gökalp'dan, Ziya Gökalp'den, Ziya Gökalp'tan or Ziya Gökalp'ten?"

I've had roughly three years of Turkish language lessons and am by no means a competent, let alone good, speaker of the language, nor do I have advanced knowledge of its grammar. Yet this question seemed pretty simple to me: vowel harmony of the "a" in Gökalp dictates that the suffix also have an "a" and the final letter "p" means that it should be "tan". And indeed, the answer turned out to be "Ziya Gökalp'tan".

To my surprise, however, this question genuinely seemed to stump the contestant, a highly educated native speaker. He had, up until that point, answered various fairly arcane trivia question with ease and was evidently (according to me at least) an intelligent person with a grasp of Turkish that quite obviously far exceeds my own. Yet he thought about it for a long time, employed one of the "help lines" that the game show offers, before finally guessing (correctly).

This left me with the following question: why was this question about a seemingly (to me) simple Turkish grammar issue deemed by the game show, and experienced by the contest, to be that difficult?

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  • You’ve actively learnt the rules of vowel harmony and voicing assimilation, and you actively apply them when speaking. A native speaker may have learnt them at some point as a kid, but unless he’s linguistically minded, he probably doesn’t know them anymore – he just follows them naturally. Gökalp also breaks vowel harmony internally (it’s a compound, so it’s allowed), and it’s a personal name which presumably rarely appears in the ablative. All that makes for a rare word that may feel unnatural. (Incidentally, I would have thought the correct spelling should be Gökalp’tan.) Jul 7, 2023 at 9:57
  • As circumstantial evidence that Turkish speakers do find it less than obvious how to inflect Gökalp’s name, consider that the Wikipedia article on Gökalp contains five instances of harmony-breaking Gökalp’in (plus one Gökalp’tir) and eight instances of harmony-adhering Gökalp’ın. Jul 7, 2023 at 10:04
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    Assuming your profile location is not misleading, we can use a Dutch example to illustrate how simple rule application is not necessarily a good predictor of native competence. Imagine this question: “Which of these verbs are correctly written: jij werd, jij wert, jij werdt, gij werd, gij wert, gij werdt, hij beantwoord, hij beantwoort, hij beantwoordt, het gebeurd, het gebeurt, het gebeurdt, het is gebeurd, het is gebeurt, het is gebeurdt” – how many Dutch people do you think would be able to pick out all the correct ones? Jul 7, 2023 at 10:25
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I'd say that the vast majority of people that completed secondary education, let alone university or something similar, would be able to identify the correct answer to that question quite easily. Sure, they may make mistakes when writing something quick like a text, but when forced to sit down and think about it, people would know (by applying spelling rules they learned in school).
    – mdirkse
    Jul 11, 2023 at 20:43
  • @JanusBahsJacquet you're right about the spelling, fixed
    – mdirkse
    Jul 11, 2023 at 21:06

2 Answers 2

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Although people do speak their own language, this task is almost certainly interpreted as a normative question "What is the proper form of this word?". What is the proper spelling of exercise / exercize / excercise, or yogurt / yoghurt? It is very common for people to get bogged down in self-doubting introspection. All of those suffix variants actually exist in Turkish, it's just that you have to filter through the rule system to know which one is approved by the educational system for general use. The underlying suffix has d, and contrary to general orthographic practice in other languages, the effect of the phonological rule of progressive devoicing is applied in the spelling. Incidentally, here is some support for an alternative spelling without devoicing.

I suspect that the same person would, in a casual discussion, not have had such doubts, but people lose access to all sorts of things that they know when the pressure is on.

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  • I think the yogurt/yoghurt example doesn't apply, as there's no way to deduce it (as you can with the endings in the question); you just have to know. I can appreciate that the pressure of a TV game show might make people doubt things that they normally wouldn't, but this seemed (again, to me, with my limited knowledge of the grammar) to be the equivalent of doubting whether 9x8 was indeed 72. Sure, you might do a double take when there's a prize riding on your answer, but no more than that. Also, I have to confess that I have no idea what the bit about "progressive devoicing" means.
    – mdirkse
    Jul 11, 2023 at 21:27
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My knowledge of Turkish is even less than yours, but I recall learning that the Turkish language has both case endings and postpositions (the equivalent of prepositions in English, but placed after the noun). I believe that the same group of sounds can sometimes be used as a case ending and sometimes as a postposition. When it is used as a case ending, it is adapted to the noun: if the noun contains a front vowel, the case ending must contain an "e", if the noun contains a back vowel, the case ending must contain an "a", in accordance with the principle of vowel harmony. The consonant in the case ending is also adapted: if the noun ends in an unvoiced consonant, the case ending must begin with an unvoiced consonant, if the noun ends in voiced consonant, the case ending must begin with a voiced consonant. With postpositions these rules no not apply, the postposition remains unchanged, regardless of the noun after which it is placed.

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  • Interesting. I know nothing about what you've mentioned and would love to know more. Not really sure if it applies in my example though.
    – mdirkse
    Jul 11, 2023 at 21:10

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