Ah, Türkiye — a land of wonders. Beautiful sea coasts, great food, amazing cultural heritage, but most of all, great people. Whether you are considering visiting Turkey for a holiday, seeing historical sites such as Göbekli Tepe, or perhaps coming on business, one way or another you will get plenty of opportunities to speak with Turkish people. Warm, friendly, and great hosts, Turks love their country and show special respect to those genuinely interested in it.
Shortly after you land in Turkey, you might find yourself asking for directions or discussing local politics over çay (tea) with a friendly Turkish person that is proficient in English. However, Turks are not famous for their great knowledge of English, so you’d be better off communicating with them in a language they do understand — Turkish.
In this post, you will find 10 expressions, with some etymology, culture, and interesting stories behind them. Hopefully, it piques your interest in the rich language that is Türkçe (Turkish)
(Click each phrase to hear a recording.)
1. Merhaba! (/məɾhaba/) — Hello!
With its first written traces originating all the way back to the 13th century, the word merhaba comes from the Arabic word مرحبا (marḥabā), meaning “with relief.” Even though it is just a simple “hello” in Turkish, if said with a smile, it will go a long way.
You can use it when meeting a Turkish person for the first time, or toward the people you see daily.
Then, here are some alternatives:
- Selam /səlam/ — Hi / Hello
Meaning: be healthy and sound / be safe / be at peace
“Selam arkadaşım, bugün ne yaptın?”
Hi my friend, what were you up to today?
- Günaydın /ɟynajdɯn/ — Good morning
Meaning: gün (day) + aydın (bright, clear)
Günaydın aşkım, kahvaltıya gidelim mi?
Good morning love, shall we go have breakfast?
- İyi günler /iˈji ɡynˈleɾ/ — Good day / Have a good day
Meaning: iyi (good), günler (days)
İyi günler dilerim size.
I wish you a good day. (formal)
- İyi akşamlar /iji ɑkʃɑmɫɑɾ/ — Good evening
Meaning: iyi (good), akşamlar (nights)
There is also an expression for good afternoon — tünaydın — which, interestingly enough, I have heard used only one time throughout my 8-year-long Turkish learning journey.
During the 1930’s Turkish language revolution, when Turkey started using Latin letters instead of Arabic as it had during the Ottoman empire, many neologisms (new words/expressions) were infused into the language. Günaydın and tünaydın are two such neologisms. Tünaydın is only really used in schools. It never became popular in everyday speech. Having said that, while an interesting historical and linguistic topic, the language revolution is a story for another time.
2. Kolay gelsin [kɔˈɫɑj gelsin] — May your work come easy to you
My favorite Turkish expression. It’s often used and easy to pronounce. You can say Kolay gelsin to everyone, from workers picking up trash on the street to waiters when you are leaving a cafe or restaurant, and everybody in between. Intended as a sign of empathy, this phrase expresses your wish that a person will be able to finish their work with ease.
There isn't an exact replacement in English for the expression, unfortunately (and after getting used to using it, not being able to use it in a different language feels a bit odd!) It is a way to instantly connect and bring a smile to the face of any type of worker.
Let’s imagine. You just bought your friend a magnet in the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı). You’ve gotten your gift wrapped and are now leaving the shop. You can say:
- Sağolun. Kolay gelsin!
Thanks. May your work come easy to you!
3. Ellerine sağlık [ɛlleɾinɛ sɑɰɫɯk] — Health to your hands
This phrase is used after work is done for you as a way to honor and thank the worker, particularly someone who has just made a meal for you. There are many variations of this idiom, depending on the types of work that was done for you.
- Emeğinize sağlık.
Thank you for your efforts.
- Ağzına sağlık.
For example: You just had some wonderful zeytinyağli yaprak sarmasi (vegetarian stuffed grape leaves) that your Turkish friend's mom prepared, or maybe you had some freshly brewed, homemade Turkish tea. After finishing the meal or drinking the tea, you could say:
- Ellerine sağlık, sarma/çay çok lezetliydi.
Health upon your hands, the sarma/tea was so delicious.
4. Güle Güle [gyˈle gyˈle] — (Go) with a smile
This expression is mostly used as a farewell expression, said only by the one who stays to the one who is leaving. If you’re the one leaving, you can’t use this phrase — or you can, and it might cause some laughter. There are two popular theories of how this expression came about.
The first theory, the more popular one, is related to the verb gülmek (to smile). That in mind, güle güle would mean something like go with a smile.
- "Üzüntüsüz bir hayat sürerek, gönül ferahlığı ile (git, giy, otur, kullan, büyüt...)”
Leading a life without sadness, with an easy heart (go, wear, sit, use, grow...)”
The second explanation is related to the word gül (rose), and it has an Islamic backstory.
5. Hoş geldiniz [ˈhoʃ ɡeldiniz] — Welcome
An expression you are sure to see written at the airport or have said to you whenever you approach a restaurant. If you know how to reply to it, it will make your hosts feel more appreciated for sure. To respond to their well-wishing of you coming to visit them, you can answer with:
- Hoş buldum
I've found you well.
The word hoş (nice, pleasant) originates from Persian and it can be also found in many other expressions such as hoşça kalın (stay well,) which is a form of goodbye that is said by the person leaving (and can not be said by the person who is staying.)
6. Seni seviyorum [sɛni seviyorum] — I love you
This expression of love comes from Ottoman Turkish’s سومك (sevmek, “to love, caress,”) and this wouldn’t be much of a Turkish expressions list without an expression of love! A rise in the popularity of Turkish telenovelas also made a great impact on the spreading of this expression.
If you hear a mother talking to her child, she will often call them many beautiful loving words, such as aşkım (my love), canım (my soul), birtanem (my only one), etc. You might even hear some of these expressions used among couples, although not as commonly since Turkish couples tend to be quite conservative in their public displays of affection. So if someone tells you they love you in Turkish, you can answer with:
- Ben de seni seviyorum!
I love you, too!
7. Sana ne?! [sana nɛ] — What is it to you?
If you want to be a bit cheeky with your new Turkish friend you can answer this when faced with a question that you don’t want to answer. However, don’t be surprised if they tease you back in turn by answering with a rhyming expression: Saman ye! (eat hay). It is a fun exchange and is usually used jokingly.
One of Turkey’s stereotypes is that they are big fans of gossip. I am not at liberty to confirm or deny that stereotype… however, IF you find yourself in a situation where someone has asked you an inappropriate question, you might also answer with sana ne. This can come across as rude, however, so be careful and only use it with people that you are sufficiently close to. (As a side note, don’t mind the questions — people are just curious.)
8. Pardon [pardon] — Sorry / excuse me
Now this word might sound familiar, not only to English speakers but particularly to French speakers. About 14% of Turkish is composed of foreign words from languages such as Arabic, French, Persian, Italian, Greek, and English, so if you listen closely, you’ll hear many familiar-sounding things.
- You can use this one when trying to get a waiter’s attention:
Pardon, garson! (Sorry, waiter!)
- Almost run into someone on the sidewalk?
Çok pardon. (So sorry.)
9. Lütfen [lyt.fɛn] — Please
Originating in Ottoman Turkish but derived from the Arabic لُطْف (luṭf, “kindness, friendliness”), this is a word of kindness. You can use it when, for example, asking for a glass of water or even a menu:
- Bir bardak su alabilir miyim lutfen?
Can I please get a glass of water?
10. Teşekkür ederim [tɛʃɛcːyɾ ɛdeɾim] — Thank you
While teşekkürler is one of the first expressions learned by students of Turkish, most learners have trouble pronouncing it. I figured out why one day when I was speaking with a Moroccan friend — he told me that it very much resembles the Arabic version of the word, which has three consonants in its root: ش ك ر (š-k-r; “to thank, to be grateful.”) Even today, after eight years of learning Turkish, I am aware that people realize I am a foreigner just by the way I say thank you.
I’ve put this expression at the end (most definitely not because I have some type of beef with it, as it has undermined almost a decade of learning Turkish for me…) but instead to thank you for reading the article until the end. In the hopes that some of these expressions will be useful to you, or at the very least start a good conversation, I wish you: iyi şanslar (good luck)!