Altaic Family
of Languages

Turkish Japanese Korean


The Altaic Family is named after the Alti Mountains, in Central Asia. These people were nomadic horsemen living in the plains. One group migrated towards Europe, the other group migrated towards the Korean Peninsula and the islands of Japan.

Turkish is the most westerly member of this family as well as the most spoken. Many of the others are spoken in former USSR republics (Azeri in Azerbaijan), Turkmen (in Turkmenia), Kazakh (in Kazakhstan), Kirghiz (in Kyrghystan), Uzbec (in Uzbekistan, land of Genghis Khan), Uigur (in Western China east of the Pamir Mountains).

Mongolian is found in Mongolia (where it is written in the Cyrillic script) and Northern China (with a script that goes down rather than horizontal). Korean and Japanese are the most easterly Altaic languages.



The scripts used by these languages depend on historical or political factors. Turkish uses a Latin-based script, the ex-Soviet languages and Mongolian ones use the Cyrillic alphabet. Korean has its own distinctive script. Korean writing evolved separately from all the other scripts in the world, having been invented six hundred years ago. The language used to be written in Chinese characters.



Japanese is still written with Chinese characters (called Kanji) but there are two other alphabetic scripts. Hiragana is used to indicate prefixes and suffixes while Katakana is used for foreign words.

The Altaic languages have lots of suffixes that can be glued on one after the other to build up quite complex ideas. Languages that behave in this manner are called agglutinating.

As an example of agglutination (Turkish): EV is house, EV-LER is houses, EVLER-IM (my houses), EVLERIM-E (to my houses), etc. There are many suffixes: EV-CIK (little house), EV-ICIN (for the house), EV-DE (at the house), EV-SIZ (without a house), EV-IN (of the house).

Another property of the Altaic languages is called vowel harmony. This means that the vowels are divided into groups. Words will only contain vowels of one group and their suffixes will have different forms depending on the vowels.

In Turkish, the vowels and suffixes are divided into either two or four forms. For example, the plural is formed by the addition of LER or LAR. This is two-fold harmony. Many suffixes have four forms.

Turkish is one of the most regular languages in the world. It has one irregular noun (water) and one irregular verb (to be).

Japanese and Korean have highly complex honourific forms for verbs depending on the social level of the speaker and the one spoken to. Japanese also has some differences in vocabulary depending on whether the speaker is male or female. For example, stomach is HARA if spoken by a male, and ONAKA if spoken by a female.

All languages are influenced by languages they are in contact with. At the two extremes of the Altaic family, Turkish has many Arabic words while Korean and Japanese have many from Chinese.

Some linguists do not include Korean and Japanese in this family. Others link the Uralic and Altaic families together.

Turkic Branch
Turkish : Azeri : Turkmen : Kazakh : Kirghiz : Tatar
Bashkir : Uzbek : Uigur : Chuvash : Balkar : Nogai : Salar
Mongolian Branch
Mongolian : Buryat : Kalmyk
Tungusic Branch
Evenki : Lamut : Manchu : Nanai : Sibo
Korean Branch
Japonic Branch
Japanese : Okinawan

Books From and

External Indo-European Links

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Mongolian language page.