Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Learning to speak a new language “in situ” has a built-in hazard which is that when you end up with egg on your face from a wrong word, everyone knows it but you! Now we do that sometimes with our own language, often when we try to use a word we think we are familiar with and really aren’t. In college I had a friend who tried to use the word “microsporangi” and instead said “spermatozoa.” She was the last one to know her mistake, because the mixed group of listeners were too busy hooting and hollering and rolling around on the grass to tell her.

Turkish is not the easiest language in the world to learn. If one could go around just stating or conjugating verbs it really would be quiet easy, because it is a language with lots of rules and few exceptions. But alas, that does not qualify for speaking it. In theory, once you get the hang of what you are to do with Turkish nouns and verbs, it should not be too hard to structure a sentence in a way that any kind-hearted Turk will understand. If you learn all about the rules for prefixes and suffixes and know a medium amount of verbs and nouns, you just may be able to make your wants understood. But all that is contingent upon starting off with the correct word.

I took a few Turkish lessons when we arrived in Istanbul. A new Turkish friend’s daughter, bi-lingual in both Turkish and English, gave me very inexpensive lessons. However, the only books available were actually written for high school students, and while what I did learn was fairly helpful, in the end I decided that learning more about students, teachers, dorms, finals, and homework just wasn’t what I needed. I decided to wing it on my own and try to pick up what I could.

I studied hard and by the time we left for home eighteen months later, within the limits of my vocabulary I could tell Turks what I wanted or needed. I also could tell them not to answer me because I couldn’t understand spoken Turkish yet. That worked out fairly well. The only time I know that I made a mistake was when one night after dinner Jerry and I set out for a walk. We had a bekci (a gate-keeper) at the front of our apartment, and as we passed him I announced to him that we were going for a walk. Half way through the walk I came to a dead halt. “Jerry,” I moaned, “I meant to tell Nezemettin that we were going for a walk, but instead I told him we were going cooking.” Jerry and I laughed, wondering what on earth he thought we were going to do. If he understood and believed me, where did he think we were going to cook? On the street? In the park? If he didn’t understand me, it was impossible for him to correct me. Well, by the time I got back I had formulated in Turkish what I would say to him. So in my best fractured Turkish I said, “Nezemittin, I am cooking, no! I am walking, yes!” He laughed and said “Evet, Evet!” which means yes, yes. If was our first communication. I think. At least I thought we communicated. But in Turkey one never knows.

Better than that, though, was my friend who also had her own episode, from which she and the participants both never fully recovered. She needed bread, and near her house was a neighborhood bakkal (mom and pop-type market) that always had a ready supply of “ekmek” (which as an aside is the most wonderful bread in the universe.) This bakkal also had a ready supply of working men who stood or sat around drinking tea and shooting the bull with the owner. Wanting a large, fresh loaf of bread (as opposed to a half-loaf, which also was available), she confidently said in her best Turkish. “Erkek istiyorum. Buyuk erkek. Erkek cok guzel.” The bakkal exploded with laughter. The men pounded each other on the back and pushed each other to the front of the pack. Of course my friend didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. She paid for the ekmek and left amidst the hooting and hollering. It was only later that she realized she had not used the correct word. “Ekmek” is the correct word for the bread. She had inadvertently used “Erkek” which means “man.” She had said that she wanted a man, a big man, and a very beautiful man.

Even if it wasn’t grammatically correct in the Turkish language, those men understood full well what she said and probably what she meant, too, but it was too good a gaffe to let pass. Bloopers are appreciated and relished in any language, and my friend is sure that they are still talking about the American woman who came in wanting to buy a big, beautiful man.

I’m glad my mistake only had to do with cooking.

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