Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Monday, November 06, 2006


My efforts to learn Turkish continue laboriously. 'Laboriously' being the key word. The structure of the language is so radically different to English that, unless you utterly abandon your English-language-speaker ways of thinking and start to think like a Turk, you are lost. This precept is true in all languages, but especially so in Turkish. In German, you can mangle some grammar, but people basically get what you mean. The same in French. Whereas in Turkish, if you don't use the right grammar, you can't even begin to construct a sentence...and if by some miracle you manage to string some words together, it's pretty likely that no one will understand what the hell you're talking about.

Levent and I spend Sunday mornings curled up with a Turkish newspaper. We select an article of interest, then go over it with a fine-tooth comb. For my current level of Turkish, newspaper writing is way over my head, and without Levent's help there's no way I could even begin to tackle it. Even with help, though, I wind up with these moments where my head starts throbbing, my vision goes blurry, and I experience a barely-contained urge to scream, or faint...or both. It reminds me of L.A. traffic (why do all my analogies always come back to L.A.?): one minute you're parked on the freeway, making no headway whatsoever. The next minute traffic miraculously clears and before you know it you're doing 70 without a care in the world. About 5 seconds after you've gotten used to your newfound mobility and are starting to enjoy it, traffic comes to a (literally) screeching halt, and there you are, parked once again on the 405 South at rush hour. Turkish sentences have more or less the same effect. One moment I'm looking at the thing, thinking I haven't the foggiest idea what this sentence is about, or even where it begins. Of course, you're thinking, Why, it begins at the beginning, of course! But it doesn't...not really. A lot of sentences seem to be a random stringing-together of words, devoid even of helpful commas which might help you differentiate relative clauses from the main sentence. Suddenly, a flash of understanding. I get it! I get it! I cackle triumphantly to myself. Like that short-lived burst of speed on the L.A. freeway, I dash ahead to the end of the sentence, only to come screeching to a halt before a linguistic brick wall. The wall sometimes takes the form of extra words or sentence parts thrown in that don't jive with the meaning I've decided to attribute to that particular sentence. Or it might be that there are suffixes that don't make sense...compound nouns, posessives, relative clause indicators...when using any of them would plunge the sentence back into obscurity.

Take the following, by way of example. And this is a relatively short and simple one...nothing like what you find in the newspapers!

Bizim onlarin evine gideceğimizden başka bir şeyden haberim yok.

If we take literal word-by-word translation to ridiculous extremes, this reads (hyphenated words indicate that one Turkish word represents this concept):

Our their to-their-house that-we-will-be-going apart-from one thing-from news-my doesn't- exist.

Clearly, literal translation is a no-go. But where to start unravelling such a sentence? One helpful hint is that the subject generally comes at the end of the sentence, and the relative clause(s) come(s) first. Therefore, My news doesn't exist must be the main clause. What other parts can we latch onto? Let's see...their to-their-house actually just means to their house. Our...that-we-will-be-going can be translated as that we will be going. So in interpreting the sentence, we make the following transformations:

Our their to-their-house that-we-will-be-going becomes
That we will be going to their house.

My news doesn't exist can be interpreted a bit more naturally as
I've heard nothing or I don't know anything

The suffix -den together with başka (as you will only find out by consulting a dictionary or Turkish textbook) means apart from.

Sooo...let's put all that together:
That we will be going to their house / apart from / I've heard nothing.

...rearrange the parts:
I've heard nothing apart from (the fact) that we will be going to their house.

Ta da!! Easy, right? The good news: I decoded the sentence. The bad news: it took me 5 minutes. Now imagine trying to actually speak to people...generally, people lose interest and walk away before I (a) have figured out the end of my sentence before I start the beginning of it, and (b) remembered how to formulate it.

There is some progress, though. Today I made a telephone call to the man I work for and actually SAID (I'm very excited about this!!) the following:

Me with-the-car taking man's name forgot-I. (I forgot the name of the man who picks me up.)

Lord knows if it was right. But he seemed to understand, and he gave the desired information, so that's progress, right? I'm off to study whilst still in the grip of optimism. Bana başarılar dileyin! (Wish me success!)


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