NOTE: This article was first published for “Today’s Zaman,” an English daily newspaper in Turkey. View the article as it originally appeared here.
During my year in Turkey, I’ve tried to turn my Turkish from a “caveman dialect” where requests for bus tickets sound like, “Konya ticket need. Tomorrow, early day,” to something friendlier, like: “I’d like to go to Konya tomorrow, please. Is there a bus in the morning?” Working my way through that process has taught me a lot about the differences between English and Turkish etiquette.
My linguistic adventure began with the words “please” and “thank you” (in Turkish, “lütfen” and “teşekkür ederim”). In the US, they are my bread and butter words when it comes to politeness. At the dinner table, at work, at school — almost every request I make in English includes the word “please” and is usually followed up by “thank you.” So naturally, I made sure to memorize their Turkish counterparts and use them equally as often.
After hundreds of “lütfens” and “teşekkür ederims” to my host family and other Turkish friends, I got the sense I was not sounding natural. I asked my Turkish teacher and she explained that rather than using individual words, Turkish infers its politeness by formalizing its suffixes. Unlike English, Turkish words have multiple added-on endings (suffixes) that can tell the reader who is speaking, whether the word is a subject or an object, who is being addressed and formality, among other usages.
For example, “How are you?” in Turkish has a polite and less polite form. “Nasılsın?” is seen as the more informal version because it takes the “singular you” suffix while “Nasılsınız?” takes the “plural you” suffix, which is seen as the more formal and polite usage. Also, rather than using the word “please” for requests, Turks use the “Can I…” phrase (in Turkish, “… -bilir miyim?”).
As an English speaker, it took me a long time to think about it in this way. The other strange thing which I refuse to give in to is using “thank you” less. I’ve always been taught to say “thank you” even for services I’ve paid for, like a minibus trip downtown, a cashier at the market or for change at the bank.
A faculty colleague told me, “We don’t say ‘thank you’ for something that is someone’s duty.” For me, more is always better than less.
But for what Turkey lacks in “thank yous,” it has a wonderful tradition of polite phrases that my language lacks. Three of my favorites are “kolay gelsin,” “afiyet olsun” and “eline sağlık.” The first means “may your work come easy” and can be said to someone working. It can be used as a salutation or, as I love, when you’re just walking by. I once said it to a man painting the third story of a building on scaffolding; he nearly fell off shouting back, “thank you!” The other two are used during meals, with the first meaning “enjoy your meal” and the second “health to your hands,” usually said to the cook. At noon, my department’s hallways echo with a flutter of “afiyet olsuns” as everyone leaves for lunch, and we often exchange the phrase with each other right before eating, and sometimes even after. It’s a language trait I’ve really come to enjoy and will not be surprised if I say unconsciously at lunch with my American friends and colleagues.
Looking at the two languages, I don’t think English is “too polite.” But I don’t think Turkish is less polite either. Instead, my thought is that Turkish relies less on words for manners and more on actions and body language. Because once you’ve been invited in for tea and given a big two-cheek embrace, a thank you really is just words, isn’t it?
UPDATE (8/31/09): This story was published in one of the two English language newspapers in Turkey, “Today’s Zaman.” View it here.
Navigating crowded streets filled with the morning traffic of downtown Ankara, I find the plain eight-story graystone that I report to every weekday morning. Nestled away on the fourth floor is a cultural wonderland. In this room, 16 people, who belong to nine nationalities and collectively speak at least eight different languages, come together each day. No, I don’t work at an international agency; this is just my Level 1 Turkish class.
Three weeks ago, I came to Ankara to continue my Turkish language studies at Ankara University’s TOMER program. Certainly, I expected to pick up much more Turkish in the class, but I didn’t expect to see so much diversity.
Nearly everyone is in their mid twenties except Nye, a retired British expat who has spent many of his years (he won’t reveal how long) living and working in Turkey. When asked by our instructor on the first day how he managed so long without learning any Turkish, he replied, “I’m a good Englishman.” The youngest members of our class are a pair of mischievous 15-year-old twins from Kazakhstan who almost always seem to be in sync with each other from answering questions in unison to leaning against the wall and falling asleep together in just the same manner.
There is one other group of siblings in the class, three Americans from Seattle. From ages 15 to 19, they’ve spent almost all of their summers in Turkey with their American mother and Turkish father. I originally met them while lost amidst the crammed registration room during the first day. They had originally been placed by their father in a much higher level, but eventually ended up in the basic class with us several days later.
Two other students came to the class because of husband related needs. One of them, an energetic Bosnian woman in her late twenties, moved to Turkey for her husband’s new job as a television translator. The other woman, a soft-spoken Afghani, is actually trying to learn English in Turkey while she waits for a visa to the US in order to rejoin her Turkish husband. However, English is only taught in Turkish, so she’s taking our class first.
Several of my classmates have taken a giant leap with few safety nets in coming to Turkey. As an American living for the next year on a government sponsored Fulbright grant, I know that I have a lot of resources available. But, that’s not the case for everybody. I think particularly of one young woman in her mid twenties from Iran. During class breaks, she tells us about her longing to return to Iran, and why, for personal reasons, she can’t go back at the moment. Even though I lived in Boston, a city with an outstandingly mixed population, I’ve met few Iranians. I’ve met even less that have lived there within the last five years, so it was refreshing to hear from a recent expat.
Filling out the rest of the class are four foreign students from Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Hong Kong. The three Middle Eastern students are studying various subjects at Turkish universities. Although their instructors speak English, they felt it was time to try and learn some Turkish. Meanwhile, Ivory, from Hong Kong, is visiting for the summer as a part of her Turkish studies program in Taiwan.
Looking out at the class, it’s quite amazing to see how Turkey has brought us together from all over the world. Together, we stumble through our Turkish vowel harmony as we try to get our tongues around phrases like “Ben burada oturuyorum.” Amidst the incredibly welcoming but still foreign world outside, a world we hope to become better acquainted with by improving our Turkish. By practicing in our friendly group, we’ve stepped out of our shells, dared to speak more Turkish, and strengthened our resolve.
“With almost all of us knowing some English,” said Nye, “I think we’ve really been able to become quite a joined up group.”
Meanwhile, our instructor and her seemingly limitless amount of patience for us has been a saving grace. She continues to smile and encourage us, even while we struggle and sometimes wreak havoc with the intricacies of her native language. While constantly keeping a positive attitude, and often indulges us, by straying from the lesson at hand, and leading a conversation, in Turkish, about movies, music, or our curiosities about each other’s countries instead.
Some of my classmates can’t help but be drawn in by the class.
“I never planned on studying in Turkey, it wasn’t even on my list,” said Ivory from Hong Kong, “It was like fate.”
Whether you believe in fate or not, you can’t deny there is something special about a group of people coming from all across the world…to learn Turkish.