Friday, January 29, 2010

Family Changes and the Worst Parts of Turkish.

Since I last wrote about life in my host house, it has improved quite a bit, to the point where it is downright enjoyable to be home. The most obvious reason why is that my Turkish is steadily improving. This means that I can now actually speak to my host parents and understand them. I have found that it is much easier to make up a translation when I know a few of the words they are saying (though my strategy of using context and intonation alone was admittedly entertaining).

The other welcome change around the house is the rotating cast of people. My host uncle left this past weekend, going back to whatever mysterious place he came. I am beginning to suspect that may not be very far, since he has been replaced by my host parent’s son and his wife and baby (herein referred to as “my host brother,” “my host sister-in-law” and “the baby”*) have come to live with us. I have been to what I have every reason to assume is their house, and it is about a 15 minute walk from mine. My assumption is that they are either having a construction related issue (floors redone or something) or they just wanted to hang out here.

No matter what the reason, I am happy to have them around the house. The baby is still the cutest thing with two legs (and possibly with four limbs). He is generally well behaved though when he eats, he must be distracted from the apparent unpleasantness of having food spooned into his mouth so that he does not burst into tears and choke. Also, the baby is always the center of pressure, which relieves me from the position. My host brother is friendly, and makes me feel better about my Turkish when he practices his English. I have stated a competition, unbeknownst to him, in which I need to translate anything he says in English back into Turkish to prove my language-learning superiority. So far I am winning. My host sister-in-law is a boundless ball of energy, a wonderful cook, and eager to make me practice Turkish. This brings me to the second part of my post.

The Worst Parts of Turkish (Part of an Ongoing Series)

1. There is no clear way to say “yes” or “no”
To start with, the words that directly translate to yes and no (evet and hayır) are two syllables long and sound nothing like their English counterparts. I still mess them up and (as would be expected) the response I get for saying “yes” and meaning “no” or vice-versa is usually undesirable. Secondly, these two words are only applicable as exclamations. More useful are the words “var” and “yok” which mean “exist” and “not exist.” These are used as yes and no whenever talking about a thing. For instance, one has to say “Class does not exist tomorrow” rather than “No class tomorrow.” In some other situations like “No Smoking” (never used, since Turkish signs say “smoking prohibited”), the word “deǧil” must be used. Combine that with negation particles, and you get the reason why I will never be able to speak properly.

2. There is no easy way to say “to have”
This is a continuation of the “var” “yok” issue, as these are the replacements for “to have”. Instead of asking “Do you have a pen?” one would ask “Does a pen exist?” This makes for trouble, as I cannot figure out how to say who has the pen. In a conversation with my host brother, I tried to make a joke about “bebe biskuve” (baby biscuits). I looked at the nutrition facts and said “Baby does not exist.” His response was “I am the baby” which was reasonable, but undermined the basis of my joke. NOTE: I talked to a Turk about this and you can say “The pen exists at me” but it is only done for emphesis.

3. Negation particles and question particles sound the same
To negate a word or ask a question, a particle is added either inside the verb or next to it. The two particles both start with “m” followed by a harmonic vowel (hard to explain, but in Turkish, some vowels change within one of two schemes so that they all similar within a word). I therefore confuse the two. Instead of asking “Should I eat it?” I sometimes say “I am not eating it.” This, understandably, can be a bad thing.

4. The word for pretty is a catch-all. I go around saying that the food is pretty, the baby is pretty and people’s English is pretty. In fact, I cannot come up with a situation when it is better to say good instead of pretty.

But the most important problem is that I can barely speak Turkish. So say a few complex and nuanced English sentences for me when you get a chance.

*Having a nephew, host or otherwise sort of freaks me out for some reason. It seems like more responsibility than I am willing to take.


  1. David, this entire post was confusing and scary (although also hilarious). Eric and I discussed it, and we can't really decide what your joke was regarding baby biscuits. What were you TRYING to say, and why on Earth did your host-brother say, "I am the baby?"

    That said, it's so cool that you're picking up on bits and pieces. Good luck with the rest of the semester! All of your classes are at least in English, right?

  2. I think my host brother thought that I was saying there were no babies in the room, rather than in the ingredients. As a measure of precaution, I have avoided eating him.

    Yup, every class but Turkish is taught in English. The next Turkish class might have some English in it too if there are only Americans in the class.