Swimming in Molasses

To write a kompozisyon, even in Turkish, can be utterly absorbing.  We wrote several mini-essays in Temel (basic) 1 Turkish language class. Once graded, we öğrenciler (students) compared how many red correction marks, and the direction of the emoticon’s mouth our instructor, Elif, had drawn on our papers.  Poor Jim got quite a few sad faces. 😦  I got a lot of question marks; Elif didn’t understand what I was trying to say.


I  stayed away from Google Translate, which is useful to get a quick general understanding of a word or sentence in another language, but causes Turkish öğretmenler (teachers) to roll their eyes.  Even when I chose the first entry in the paper dictionary, however, it often wasn’t a word Elif recognized.  Maybe she has a small Turkish vocabulary?  🙂


In one kompozisyon, I attempted to complain about being assigned to write it during one of the four breaks we get during four hours of class.  I called her a taskmaster – but she didn’t recognize the word.  I explained to her later that it wasn’t a BAD thing, just a TRUE thing.  I’m hypoglycemic, I need my food fixes or function miserably.  That particular break was the time I liked to order tost— a ubiquitous Turkish grilled cheese sandwich– from the kafeterya.

We are decompressing after our first 80 hours (in 4 weeks) of lessons, not yet sure what we learned.  Ankara University’s Tömer yabancı (foreigner) language school is supposedly the gold standard of Turkish lessons.  Foreign students wanting to apply to Turkish universities value the Tömer certificate.  It may not have been the best choice for us, although our Turkish teacher in San Francisco recommended it.  The Tömer program lays in a strong foundation in grammar, and its graduates will ultimately be very literate.  We, however, can’t verbally communicate much more than on day 1.

I did learn the word dayı.  The name of the boat our stuff is on, the Mustafa Dayı V– still slowly churning its way to Istanbul 16 weeks after we handed over our boxes–refers to Mustafa’s maternal uncle…or maybe Mustafa IS the maternal uncle…and does the shipping company have five uncles or five boats named Mustafa Dayı?  (The boat hasn’t been sailing for 16 weeks, but we’ve been waiting for our stuff since we’ve been here and still have at least 2 weeks to go, aargh).


See how it is?  Turkish can be elegantly efficient.  For example, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are all “O”.  This is why Türks speaking English will often confuse genders.  (Heck, so does Jim when he is talking about our pets in English.  For him all dogs are ‘he’ and all cats are ‘she’, irrespective of the individual animal’s gender. We’ve had a male cat but never a male dog).

All Elif has to say to one of us struggling to answer a question during ödev kontrol (checking homework) is “ödev var mı?”  (is there homework?).  The var mı? question is particularly streamlined.  If you want cheese in a grocery all you have to say is “peynir var mı? The answer will be “yok” (there isn’t) or “var” (there is) and it will be handed to you, or you will be lead to it.  Easy peasy. 

On the other hand, Turkish can be appropriately Byzantine.  Here’s how it goes.  There is one way to refer to the time of day nowSaat kac?, and another way, Saat kacta? to refer to what time an activity will start.  There is no AM/PM, you absorb that in context, but where in English it is 10:40, Türks have to subtract 20 from the next hour, so it is 11 minus 20.  Maybe it makes Türks better at math than we are?  While we don’t need to learn genders in Turkish, we do have to learn different words for younger and older siblings, maternal and paternal relatives etc.  Verbs are nuanced too.  There is one verb for “playing” ball and another for “playing” an instrument.

Evmorfili, the Greek class member created this diagram for the times.  Parts of it are "Greek to me". :-)

Evmorfili, the Greek class member created this diagram to learn talking about time. Parts of it are “Greek to me” — see the red, yellow and blue headings.

Lurking in my memory as the longest English word is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Wikipedia shows it as the 4th longest word, coined in 1964 (movie Mary Poppins), with 34 letters.  We did not learn the longest Turkish word in Temel 1, but it is easy to see the potential for sentence-long words.  Sort of like Turkish home cooking – fabulous stews that are never served alone, but are complete meals themselves.

Evmorfili cleaned up her diagram!  I still prefer the first one...I know where to find what I need on it!  This one is Classical though!

Evmorfili cleaned up her diagram! I still prefer the first one…I know where to find what I need on it! This one is Classical though, isn’t it?

Turkish words grow by suffixes.  For example, I can say, “Ben anlıyorum”, which means, “I understand”.   To turn something negative or into a question adds one or more suffixes.  Ben anlamıyorum.  (I don’t understand).  Ben anlıyormuyum?  (I understand?).  Ben anlamıyormuyum?  (I don’t understand?).

This is only a single tense and a single vowel harmony form. Vowel harmony is an interesting concept.  It is what makes the Turkish language sound like it does.  When I was here in 2010, I was asked if Turkish sounded like Arabic. At the time I answered no, to me Turkish sounded like a mix between Japanese and Eastern European languages, not that I’ve heard much of either of those.  I found it syncopated, lyrical, and complexly layered.  (http://www.holyandotherlands.blogspot.com/2010/08/hotel-room-philosopher.html )

Simdiki Zaman, "current time", present continuing tense, in case you wanted to know.  This was ödev assignment.  I actually know this.

Simdiki Zaman, “current time”, present continuing tense, if you want to know. This was ödev assignment. I  think I actually learned this.

Vowel harmony changes the suffixes of verbs depending on the word’s spelling.  Also, to keep the lyrical cadence, nouns next to each other get modified.  For example, A sport salon (gym) becomes spor salonu. The kebap salon becomes kebap salonu.   With the city ferries, those wonderful white lumbering boats of varying vintages that ply the Marmara and Bosphorus loaded with commuters, Şehir (city) Hatlar (lines) becomes Şehir Hatları, ending it on the upbeat.

Turkish QWERTY keyboard.  An additional wrinkle.

Turkish QWERTY keyboard. An additional wrinkle.

When I questioned things we hadn’t yet learned after noticing them in my homework, Elif replied “yeni (new) gramer (grammar)”.  One class we were learning how to talk about before and after (önce / sonra). Suffixes are added to a noun before the words önce or sonra.  Verbs, however, require different suffixes for önce vs sonra. I asked when grammar would cease to be yeni, meaning by when would we learn all the rules?  Elif said, “Temel 12”.

So, this is what the last month has been like.  Should you want to know, the longest Turkish word, according to various Internet sources is 70 letters long. It is Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine and means: As though you are from those whom we may not be able to easily make into a maker of unsuccessful ones.  The saying makes sense in Turkish. Google “longest word in Turkish” and you’ll find the genesis of the word.

Görüsürüz. (See you.)

Disclaimer to this and all posts where I talk about language or culture:  What I write might be wrong.

4 thoughts on “Swimming in Molasses

  1. love the clock! Beautiful graphic. I think the rule for propane tanks is if there propane the sidewall is colder to the touch. we have a little weight on ours to show how full it is…


  2. Disclaimer: I’m VG at language grammar + structure and awful at imitating sounds. You’re working on a task that is monumentally difficult. More power to you. And now I’m laughing at my idiom. Translating it into Turkish might mean that you get another tank of propane?


    • Funny you should mention propane…tonight while cooking dinner, I again was wondering how our tank was holding up…it’s something you don’t think about until it would be incredibly inconvenient for it to end up empty.


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