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Review of  Turkish Grammar

Reviewer: Steve Seegmiller
Book Title: Turkish Grammar
Book Author: Jaklin Kornfilt
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Turkish
Issue Number: 9.645

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Jaklin Kornfilt (1997), Turkish. London and New York: Routledge.
xxxi + 575 pp. 110, US$180.

Reviewed by Steve Seegmiller, Montclair State University.

Jaklin Kornfilt's grammar of Turkish (hereafter referred to
as TURKISH) is the first new, comprehensive grammar of this
language to be published in English in more than two decades. As
such, its appearance is a significant event, especially since its
author is a well known and respected authority on Turkish. This
is the latest title in the Descriptive Grammars series, edited by
Bernard Comrie and published by Routledge. The goals of the works
in this series are different from those of most grammars: the
Descriptive Grammars are intended for linguists rather than
general users. All of the grammars in the series address the same
issues in a uniform format so that a given feature may be easily
compared across languages, and they contain information of a sort
that is often absent from more traditional grammars. Toward the
end of the review I will comment briefly on the potential utility
of this grammar for non-linguists, but for the most part I will
focus on usefulness of the grammar for linguists.

The Descriptive Grammars series now includes nearly 30
titles. According to the editorial preface, the series gives
preference to languages for which comprehensive descriptions are
not presently available (iv). The aim of the series is to provide
information to linguists who are interested in language typology,
language universals, and comparative grammar, employing a
terminology and a notation that will make the information
accessible to linguists regardless of their particular
specialization or orientation. Authors of the grammars in the
series are expected to organize their descriptions as answers to
a series of questions (originally published in LINGUA vol. 42,
no. 1, 1977).

TURKISH contains over 600 pages, including the prefatory
material, the Table of Contents, and the Bibliography. The
grammatical description alone amounts to just over 550 pages. It
is thus roughly twice as long as Lewis (1967) and about 100 pages
longer than Underhill (1976).

The book contains five chapters of widely varying lengths.
Chapter 1 (Syntax) contains 211 pages, Chapter 2 (Morphology) 270
pages, Chapter 3 (Phonology) 32 pages, Chapter 4 Ideophones and
Interjections) just 3 pages, and Chapter 5 (Lexicon) 16 pages.
Thus approximately 90 per cent of the book is devoted to
morphology and syntax. Furthermore, a good deal of the
information in the Morphology chapter deals with syntactic
matters, giving the book an especially heavy bias toward syntax..
This distribution of information no doubt reflects both the
interests of the author and the current emphasis of typological
research. The chapters on phonology and the lexicon are both very
well done and very useful (more on this below), but they do not
address all of the issues that might be of interest to a
phonologist or a lexical semanticist.

A notable feature of the book is the extensive and detailed
Table of Contents. It is eleven pages long and, used in
conjunction with the fourteen-page index, provides easy access to
the an extensive body of information about Turkish.

How well does TURKISH accomplish its goals? I think it
handles syntax and morphology marvelously well, phonology and the
lexicon adequately, and ideophones and interjections in a cursory

The chapters on syntax and morphology provide the best, most
detailed descriptions of these parts of the language available.
The analyses are up to date and insightful, and Kornfilt has done
a superb job of bringing clarity to some of the most difficult
parts of the language. In concept and terminology, the
description straddles the line between generative and traditional
or non-generative approaches. For instance, Kornfilt uses the
terms 'possessive adjective' (105) and 'demonstrative adjective
(106) rather than the more usual 'possessive' and 'demonstrative.'
Similarly, the descriptions are stated in terms
of surface phenomena and grammatical constructions and not in any
recognizable theoretical framework. This is probably the right
choice, given the diverse backgrounds of the probable users of
the grammar.

The range of coverage is broad and thorough. Kornfilt deals
with sentence types, both simple and complex; with negation and
questions; with grammatical categories and phrase types; and with
most of the other grammatical phenomena that might interest
linguists. The morphology chapter contains information not just
on inflection and derivation, but also on the uses of the various
morphological forms. Cross-referencing is extensive, making it
easy for the reader to find all of the relevant information on a
topic even if it is not found in the same section of the book.
This approach of interrelating syntax and morphology is very
useful and allows Kornfilt to clarify some of the cloudy areas of
Turkish grammar. Perhaps most notable are her treatments of
the participial and nominal systems and their relation to
subordination (pp. 323-413 and at various places in Chapter 1).
Finite subordination is rare in Turkish. A far more frequent
pattern of subordination involves the use of a participial or
nominalized verbal stem. The complexity of the system is
mind-boggling to students of the language, but Kornfilt's description
makes it coherent and intelligible. Her treatment of other
aspects of Turkish morphology and syntax are equally well done.

A very useful feature of TURKISH is the inclusion of
information about what does *not* occur in the language. This is
often essential information for linguists (whether studying
typology, syntax, or morphology) and is rarely included in more
traditional grammars. Thus we find on page 104 the statement that
postpostitions govern only one case (with the lone exception of
'kadar'). In Lewis (1967), this information can be inferred from
the discussion of cases on pages 85-95, but it is not so easy to
find and not so categorically stated. There are many similar
examples, especially in the syntax chapter.

The chapter on phonology is short, clear, and precise, but
it does not contain the amount of detail found in the syntax and
morphology chapters. While the information presented will be
adequate for many purposes, phonologists will no doubt wish for
more elaborate discussions of issues like vowel harmony, stress
assignment, and phonological (or morphophonemic) alternations. I
found one omission in this chapter. On page 491, the final
devoicing rule is described as applying to syllable-final
plosives and affricates, yet on page 487 there are examples of
final devoicing of liquids as well, described as being standard
but not universal. A cross-reference would have been useful here.

For the most part, transcriptions in the phonology chapter
follow the IPA norms. One exception, though, is the transcription
of palatalized consonants by means of a comma rather than a
raised j.' While this may have been done for typographical
reasons, it might confuse a casual user.

Chapter 4, Ideophones and Interjections, is only 3 pages
long and provides only the briefest commentary on these
phenomena. While many linguists (myself included) will not mind
the short shrift given to these topics, some will no doubt be
disappointed that the list of ideophones occupies less than a
page and a half.

Chapter 5, Lexicon, is a short but interesting sample of the
lexicon of Turkish. The chapter contains lists of words organized
by semantic field. These include kinship terminology, color
terms, body parts, and cooking terminology. Also included is a
list of just over 200 items of "Basic Vocabulary," which seems to
correspond to the so-called Swadesh List. Linguists interested in
historical linguistics and language classification will be
grateful to find this set of words conveniently collected

Setting aside some minor qualifications, as a reference work
on Turkish for linguists, TURKISH has no equal. It is more
comprehensive, more up to date, and more effectively organized
than any other description of the language. The method of
organization, as well as the detailed Table of Contents and the
Index, make a wealth of information available almost
instantaneously. It is, simply put, an admirable reference work
on Turkish for linguists.

The same can not be said about the utility of TURKISH for
non-linguists. There are two main reasons why the book will not
be accessible to non-linguistic audiences. First, Kornfilt
assumes familiarity with linguistic terminology. In the very
first paragraph on page 1, for example, she uses the terms
'nominalized clause' and 'constituent clause,' neither of which
is likely to be familiar to non-linguists. Second, TURKISH
presupposes an interest in and a knowledge of certain linguistic
questions. Kornfilt has little to say, for example, about
questions of stylistic variation, formal versus colloquial
speech, or any of a range of topics that the typical student or
scholar of Turkish might be interested in. This is not really a
criticism, since the Descriptive Grammar series has a well
defined audience that excludes non-linguists. Nevertheless, it is
unfortunate that the grammar will not be useful to a wider
audience. It will supplement but will not replace Lewis (1976)
and Underhill (1976).

I have just two complaints about TURKISH. First, there is a
relatively large number of errors and inconsistencies. Most are
minor and consist of missing '-s's on verbs, using 'of' for 'or,'
etc., but some will cause confusion. On page 27, for example,
Turkish is described as a 'subject-verb-object language.' (It is
actually S-O-V.) A sentence on page 30, which addresses the of
question whether pied-piping of postpositions is obligatory,
leaves the reader unsure of the answer. There are also some
contradictions. On page 142, the claim is made that the reflexive
can never occur in subject position, but on page 305 we learn
that the reflexive can occur as an honorific subject and on page
542 three references are given to works that discuss reflexive
subjects in subordinate clauses. Other inconsistencies are found
in the bibliography, where some Turkish titles are translated
into English and others are not. The author is aware of some of
the errors and has prepared an Addendum which contains a short
list of errata, but many of the errors that I found are not
included. The Addendum is available free of charge from the
author or the publisher.

My other complaint concerns the cost of TURKISH. At US$180,
the grammar is unlikely to find its way into many private
libraries. This is unfortunate; since the book is so useful,
linguists interested in Turkish will want to have it close at


Lewis, G.L. (1967), Turkish Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University

Underhill, Robert (1976), Turkish Grammar. Cambridge, MA, and
London: MIT Press.

Steve Seegmiller is interested universal and comparative grammar.
He has been working on Turkish and the other Turkic languages for
many years, and published the first grammar in English of the
Turkic language Karachay. He is presently at work on a
comparative syntax of English and Japanese.

Steve Seegmiller
Linguistics Department
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043
E-mail: [email protected]