Navigating a new language.
Some people see learning a language as an obstacle course or, more euphemistically, as a second coming of age. Whichever way you look at it, when it comes to Turkish, English speakers are faced with a much harder task than with an Indo-European language.
Why does the Turkish alphabet not contain the letter w? Very few Turkish words remind me of their equivalents in the languages I know; nothing follows a familiar pattern. Over and again, I read meanings into words that turn out to be false friends. Why does engel mean “obstacle,” kalender “unconventional” (it can also be a male first name), tabak—“dish”? Why do you “drink” a cigarette—sigara içmek? Why is a sunflower called a “moon flower,” and a hornet a “donkey bee”? Who came up with the idea to choose inmek for “get off”? Will I ever learn to stop dotting the ı?
Turkish has no direct verbal equivalent for “to be” or “to have”: both are expressed using constructions that seem completely strange to my ears. It is an agglutinative language, which means that person, tense and case are all expressed by adding appendages to a word. “Istanbuldayım”—I am in Istanbul—is one word. As you don’t know the verb before you get to the end of the sentence, you often have to juggle several subordinate clauses while trying to work out what relation these components have to one another.
Instead of he, she, and it, there’s one word: o. So, in the first place, you have to pay close attention to whom or what is being talked about. Most of the time, the aesthetic of sound in Turkish follows the principle of vocal harmony: whatever comes later has to fit in with the sequence of the vowels that has gone before. The longer you study Turkish, the more you get a feel for the elegance of its complex syntax, which is impossible to render exactly in English because words are constructed differently and sentences are composed in another way.
There’s a series of words that you have to look at or listen to carefully so as not to confuse them. Kış means “winter” but kiş means “quiche”; kişi means “person,” but on the other hand, kız means “girl.” Sometimes a mere accent changes the meaning: kar means “snow,” and kâr—with a more open and longer-sounding â—means “profit.”
It takes time to come to grips with some of the rules. Hayır, the direct equivalent of “no,” is seldom used. The common way of saying no is yok; it’s the opposite of var and means “there isn’t/aren’t.” An example from the marketplace:
“Elma var mı?” (“Do you have any apples?”)
“Yok” (“There aren’t any.”)
Yok is often used together with a slight backward flick of the head and a short clicking of the tongue. The word itself can often be left out and the meaning still comes across. A widening of the eyes can also mean no. Headshaking is understood as a reaction but is not itself common among Turks. Another polite way of saying no is the Arabic maalesef, meaning “unfortunately.” A clear no is only used when someone wants to strongly deny something. And even then, sağol or “thanks” is often used.
As a Christian foreigner, can you use expressions like Allah Allah (“gosh”), İnşallah (“hopefully”), or a greeting such as Selamün aleikum (literally “Peace be with you,” a greeting that is answered with Aleikum selam) without hesitating? Indeed, as a foreigner, you can get away with a lot. Many Turks appreciate the fact that you’ve made the effort to learn their language and are generous when you say something that might be considered a faux pas.
There are about five thousand words with French roots—halüsinasyon, for example meaning hallucination. But those who believe that their French skills will get them halfway there are sorely mistaken. Many words are also Arabic or Persian in origin. Which one should you use? The original Turkish word or the one with Persian or Arabic roots? Even today, two words are often used in parallel, and sometimes their meanings have drifted apart.
This is where the struggle with the consequences of Atatürk’s legacy comes into play: by creating a modern Turkish language, he wanted to free Ottoman Turkish from its freight of foreign-language influence, as well as bridge the gulf between the dialects of intellectuals and lower-class citizens. A committee was hired to replace Arabic and Persian loanwords with Anatolian, Azeri, Tatar, and artificial words. Within a few months, the changeover to the Latin alphabet was finalized. The use of Arabic script was made a punishable offence on January 1, 1929.
Let’s cast a glance at Geoffrey Lewis’s The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (2002), in which the author unveils a series of “linguistic monstrosities” with a delight for detail. One of Lewis’s interesting claims is that the greeting selâm is less common these days than merhaba (both have Arabic roots) because the lip movements for selâm in dubbed American films are more similar to hello than merhaba. Lewis makes no bones about his sympathies: in his opinion, modern Turkish does not have the diversity of meaning that Ottoman Turkish has. But what is the alternative? The resurrection of Ottoman Turkish? A year ago, it was fiercely debated in Turkey whether it should be offered as a compulsory subject for high schools across the nation. But in the meantime, the discussion has ebbed away. There are simply not enough people who still master this vanishing form.
But all is not lost. Apart from Turkey’s population of almost eighty million people, Azerbaijan (ten million inhabitants) uses an alphabet similar to that of Turkish. And some thirty million Azeri Iranians speak a language very similar-sounding to Turkish, although they write it with Arabo-Persian characters. In Uzbekistan, too, where a Turkic language is spoken by almost twenty-five million people, the numbers from one to five are bir, ikki, uch, t’ort, besh (in Turkish: bir, iki, üç, dört, beş), and even among the Uyghurs in northwest China, five thousand kilometers away from Istanbul, the way they are spoken is not so different.
Bernd Brunner’s most recent book is The Art of Lying Down: A Guide to Horizontal Living. He divides his time between Istanbul and Berlin.
Translated from the German by Lucy Renner Jones.