March Diary
Gay marriage, tiger moms, and more.


John Derbyshire

Or you can buy just a starter course, first 10 lessons only, for $29.95. That’s “Basic Turkish.”

Or you can split the difference and buy the first 16 lessons. That’s “Conversational Turkish” for $39.95. Well, that’s what I paid.

Okay, so having done those first 16 lessons, I’d like to continue. How do I do this? “Take your skills to the next level with Pimsleur Turkish 1,” says the website. I am reliably informed, however, that the 30 lessons in Turkish 1 include the 16 I’ve already mastered.

So they’re asking me to pay $149.95 for (a) duplicate disks for the 16 lessons I’ve already paid $39.95 for and studied, plus (b) another 14 lessons.

Why can’t I just buy those extra 14 lessons as an extender? I checked the FAQ. Apparently this Q has never been A-ed before. I e-mailed them with the question. They have not replied.

Guys, I really liked your course, but . . . get yourself someone who has a clue about marketing.

The joy of grammar     My explorations of Turkish have at least introduced me to a real gem of a book: G. L. Lewis’s Turkish Grammar, my edition 1967 from Oxford University Press. I mentioned the book in last month’s diary, but I had only just picked it up at that time. I hereby declare it Book of the Month for March.

For one thing, there’s the interest of the language itself, which is unlike any other I have studied, and full of oddities. There is, for example, no verb “to be” in Turkish. To say “I am X” you just stick an-im (or an -üm, or an-ım, or an-um, or a-yim, or a-yüm, or a-yım, or a-yum — that’s a whole other story) on the end of X:evde = “at home,” soevdeyim = “I am at home .”

Nor is there a verb “to have.” Instead there are these two wordsvarandyok, which mean “exists” and “doesn’t exist.” To say “I have a house” you say evim var, “my house exists.” Should someone tell you that imparatorun elbisesi yok, he’s saying that the emperor has no clothes — literally “emperor’s his-clothes don’t-exist.”

These two omissions aside, the Turkish verb is a marvel, with moods within aspects within tenses. Lewis has whole pages on things like the inferential conditional (“if I am said to have come”) and the subjunctive past (which “expresses unfulfillable past wishes” — that one, it seems to me, should come with a Surgeon General’s warning).

Then there’s the author, who died just three years ago, aged 87. The LondonTimesobituary ishere. “He was a remarkably good teacher in whom a thorough grasp of his subject, ease of manner, and a fine sense of humour made a happy combination,” says the obituarist, and on the evidence of Turkish Grammar he was not mistaken. Would that I had met Lewis — subjunctive past! — when he was still alive.

His illustrative sentences often have interesting color: karım benden hoşlanmıyası imiş, for example — “my wife is alleged not to like me.” Or how about this Strindbergian snippet:hakikaten bedbaht olunabilir mi? — “is it possible to be truly unhappy?” The spirit of Camus is hovering, too: insan ıztırabı karşısında aydın ne diyor? — “confronted with human affliction, what does the intellectual say?”

I can’t resist quoting Lewis at more length. Try this, from his section on the wonderfully versatile aorist tense:

An instructive example of the difference between the aorist and the present is seen in this cynical remark on traffic hazards in Turkey: başka memleketlerde kazara ölürler; biz kazara yaşıyoruz“in other countries they die by accident; we live by accident.” The force of the aorist ölürler is “I cannot say confidently that anyone abroad is in fact dying at this precise instant, but I am aware that people abroad are liable to die — kazara — as the result of accident.” The presenty aşıyoruz means “we are in fact living at this moment but — kazara — it’s more by luck than judgement.”