23 Turkish Phrases I Wish Someone Had Taught Me

There are a number of phrases that Turks use in daily life that you may not find properly explained in your Intro to Turkish book. They are nice to use when you first arrive and want to trick people into thinking that you know what you’re doing. Plus, Turks will find it endearing. So, in the hopes of helping out fellow yabancılar, I’ve put together a list of 23 phrases that I wish I had known when I first came to Turkey.

First, a word of warning before you start trying these out…if a Turk laughs at you while you’re trying to speak, don’t take it as condescending and don’t let it stop you attempting new phrases. A foreigner speaking Turkish is a rare and fascinating thing for most Turks, so any laughter is probably a combination of affection and disbelief.

1. Hoş geldin – You will hear this phrase on a daily basis. It literally means “good you came,” but the implications run much deeper than that. You will hear this phrase when you enter a store, restaurant, someone’s home, and sometimes if you go to meet someone out in public (especially if you have traveled to a friend’s neighborhood).

2. Hoş bulduk – This is the natural and appropriate reply when you hear someone say, “Hoş geldin.” It literally means “good we found ourselves here,” but it is really just a polite reply, and you will find it becomes automatic after awhile.

3. Afiyet olsun – Literally translates to “may you have an appetite,” but there is no real equivalent in English (Turks often use the French “bon appétit” when speaking in English). This phrase can be used before, during and after someone has had a meal. You should most definitely say it if you yourself have prepared food for others.

4. Eline sağlık – Literally translates to “health to your hand.” If you happen to be sitting at a Turkish dinner table and the person who prepared the food is present (as long as it isn’t a worker), you should use this phrase to thank the cook. It can also be used for any help someone gives you (repairing a pipe, changing your oil), but that is a little less common. If someone says something really good or smart you can say ağzına sağlık (which translates to “health to your mouth”).

5. Sıhhatler olsun – This means “may you be healthy” and dates back to Ottoman times. Say this phrase if someone has just had a hair cut (although this generally only applies to men) or taken a shower.

6. Maşallah – An import from Arabic that basically translates to: “Wow that’s great!” You can use it when you see something very beautiful (e.g., a house, baby, or woman) and also when you hear good news.

7. Kıyamam – Literally translates to “I won’t hurt you,” but it’s not used in that exact context. You would say kıyamam if you hear terrible news and feel really bad (this expresses a “poor you” sentiment) or when you see something very cute (like a puppy or kitten).

8. Aferin – It basically means “congratulations” or “way to go,” but you shouldn’t use it when speaking to someone older than you (I was scolded by a middle aged man once for doing this). If someone older than you comes to you with good news, the best thing to say is maşallah.

9. İnşallah – Literally translates to “God willing” and can be used as a way to wish someone well after you hear someone’s future plans, or if you are not sure that something is going to happen but hope it will. However, beware it can also be Turkish for “This thing that we are talking about isn’t actually going to happen” or “I am going to be late and blame it on traffic.”

10. Allah korusun – You will see this written on the back of trucks, buses and cars. It literally means “may God protect you” and can be used after talking about something terrible (like an earthquake or illness), with the meaning “God, please don’t let this awful thing happen.”

11. Nazardan korusun – This phrase, which in full is Allah nazardan korusun, means “may God protect you from the evil eye.” Nazar is the evil eye, and some people from the eastern Mediterranean believe that if you have a good thing and someone is jealous of it, you can get nazar and subsequently lose that good thing. You know those blue glass eyes (nazar boncuk) that Turks hang everywhere – in the bazaar, on apartment doors and cribs? They are meant to protect against nazar. Similarly, you can use this phrase in any situation where something good as happened, as a way to ward off nazar.

12. Başın sağolsun – Literally “health to your head,” this phrase is the proper response if someone you know has lost a loved one or friend. You’re essentially saying to the person, “I’m glad you are still alive and I’m sorry for your loss.”

13. Lanet olsun – Basically the equivalent of “damn it,” you can use this phrase when encountering a very frustrating situation to which there is no solution. However, if you feel like directing this sentiment toward another person, adding a sana (“to you”) to the beginning of the phrase will do the trick.  Although I don’t recommend using sana lanet olsun lightly.

14. Hoşça kal – There are lots of ways to say goodbye in Turkish, and the majority are used interchangeably and almost mechanically. This one means, word for word, “stay well.”

15. Kendine iyi bak – Yet another way to say adieu, this phrase generally translates to “take care of yourself.”

16. Tabii – The equivalent of “of course,” this word is often written as tabi.  You may have heard Sınan Akçıl’s song, “Tabi Tabi” on the radio. In daily speech you will often hear people saying tabi twice in a row or with a ki added on to the end  (tabii ki), especially when agreeing with something someone has said.

17. Kolay gelsin – “May it come to you easily.” If you hear someone is about to start a tough job or see someone working, this is an appropriate phrase to say. It’s also a very polite way to start a conversation with a service employee (for example, over the phone or after waiting in a line). I’ve found that service workers really will treat you nicer if you begin this way. It’s also a kind thing to say when you see someone working very hard in general.

18. Eyvallah – You will hear this phrase a lot from the men with mustaches that sit around drinking çay. It’s a very casual and emphatic way of saying “thank you.” If you are grateful for something and in an informal setting, you can say this while putting your right hand over your heart. In my experience, it gets the point across very well.

19. Oha! – Even though this is a slang term, you will hear everyone use it. It is simply an expression of surprise and shock. Since it’s not polite per se, use at your own discretion. But if you do end up using it, your Turkish friends will probably find it adorable.

20. Çok yaşa – The Turkish version of “God bless you” for after someone sneezes. It means “live a long time,” and common replies are hep beraber (may we live a long time “all together”) or sen de gör (“you also see” a long life).

21. Geçmiş olsun – Used when people are sick or experiencing an unpleasant situation, it means “I hope it passes you quickly.”

22. Maalesef – This phrase can be extremely annoying depending on the circumstance. Especially when you find yourself in a store, bank or restaurant, and this is what you hear. Technically it translates to “unfortunately.” However, I have all too often found it meant “I don’t feel like helping you out.” So if you hear this once, don’t be discouraged and try asking again. It can also be used to confirm negative news. “Is it true that Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ got his ‘Only Allah can judge me‘ tattoo removed!?” “Did Ayşe really break up with Kaan?” “Was İbrahim Tatlıses linked to the mafia again!?” — In reply to these questions, maalesef would mean, “Sadly, this is true.” Finally, it can also mean that unfortunately, this didn’t happen, e.g., “Did you get the promotion?” “Maalesef.”

23. Buyrun – Unless you work in a shop in Turkey, you will probably never use this phrase. But you will hear it every time you go to a pazar. I remember a Turkish shopkeeper in Eminönü passionately shouting it over and over at a German couple (who seemed very disturbed) in an attempt to invite them into his store. To the man’s despair, the couple walked away looking very irritated and without purchasing anything. The louder and more enthusiastically a Turk shouts “buyrun” the more welcoming he is trying to be, as odd as it may seem to those of us who are not used to shouting in a friendly situation. Buyrun can also be used when allowing someone to talk or when answering to a superior, although these usages are less common.

As for phrases to stay away from, or at least be careful with, sıkıldım (“I’m bored”) is right at the top of the list. When writing and speaking this word, make sure you’re using the ‘i’ with no dot (‘ı’), as a dotted ‘i’ conveys a completely different and rather vulgar meaning.

My last piece of advice is about how to address others. If you ever encounter someone who is older than you, adding the words abi (“older brother”) for men or abla (“older sister”) for women is a great sign of respect (e.g., “Ayşe abla” or “Ali abi”). If they are very old, you can substitute amca (“uncle”) and teyze (“aunty”) for abi and abla, respectively. In certain instances, calling someone directly by their first name may be considered rude. Additionally, anytime you don’t know someone’s name, like a taksi driver or the guy who works at your neighborhood bakkal, you can always just call them abi – it’s a good catchall phrase.

Tell me, dear yabancılar and Türkler, what are some phrases that I’m missing? Share your most useful Turkish phrases in the comments!

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