Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

Morpheme Addiction

Until very recently the only thing I knew how to say in Turkish was the proverb Nerede çokluk, orada bokluk, which means (I shall bowdlerize slightly) “Where there are people, there is dung.”

I had learned this by the most random kind of chance. Many years ago, I was living in a rooming house in Hong Kong, where I struck up a friendship with a fellow guest, a brilliant and well-educated young Frenchman. He was a compulsive traveler — one of those people who have been everywhere and engaged at close quarters with a score of languages.

The proprietress of the rooming house bore the not-uncommon Cantonese surname Bok. Mention of this name always brought a smile to the face of my French friend. After the third or fourth time of noticing this, I asked him why. He replied that in Turkish the word bok means “dung.” He then taught me the proverb, which for some reason stuck in my memory through succeeding decades, though I never felt any inclination to take my knowledge of Turkish further. The thing has a memorable lilt to it: NEH-reh-deh CHOK-luk, OH-rah-dah BOK-luk. It is also, of course, indisputably true.

Forty years on, I have picked up my Turkish where I left off. I am taking a brief trip to Turkey this spring. On a whim, I thought I would try to learn some of the language. Some more of it, I mean: The observation that the presence of human beings is inevitably accompanied by their waste products would, I felt sure, prove to be of limited conversational utility.

Though a hopeless linguist who has never gotten much of a grip on any language other than my own, I hate to be in a foreign country without knowing anything at all about the language. Experience has taught me that memorization of even a few commonplace phrases, with careful attention paid to articulation and intonation, yields a high return in friendliness and convenience. I therefore set about purchasing a Turkish course — a cheap one, the projected trip being for only a few days.

There is a wealth of language-learning materials out there now — a side benefit of globalization, I suppose. The newest and trendiest style is to connect with a native speaker via the Internet and have him coax you through live conversations. The business has certainly come a long way from the old Linguaphone courses, which comprised a pack of vinyl discs and a textbook, with written exercises you had to mail in to be marked.

I settled at last on the Pimsleur product (in which neither I nor National Review has any financial interest). Pimsleur is a respectable marque — owned by the publishing house Simon & Schuster — and the cheapness criterion was satisfied. Best of all for my purposes, there is no written material.

#page#Like most bookish people, I have a strong inclination not to take anything seriously until I’ve seen it in print. This approach has its advantages — it filters out a lot of nonsense — but it is useless, in fact counterproductive, if you want to master a foreign language. The right way to learn a language is the way you learned your mother tongue: ear and mouth first, eye and hand last. With Pimsleur you dispense with eye and hand altogether, though I confess I have treated myself to a secondhand Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary (1959 edition, the boards laid with that fine old dark-blue cloth) and have been taking notes.

Limiting one’s ambitions to the bare essentials maximizes the pleasure of language learning. You can enjoy the thrill of novelty and the tiny satisfaction of exchanging pleasantries with the occasional native speaker, then bail out before reaching the icy stratosphere of subjunctive inferentials and 5,000-word vocabulary. Sure, it’s dilettantish: so sue me.

The principal novelties of Turkish are two, one in phonetics and one in grammar. The phonetic novelty is vowel harmony: Front vowels (ee, ü, eh, ö) and back vowels (uh, oo, ah, o) are hardly ever mixed in the same word. The grammatical novelty is agglutination: the piling of suffixes onto — sometimes into — a root word to modify its meaning. English does this to some degree (hap, happy, happiness, unhappiness), but in a fully agglutinative language a word can be suffixed up into an entire sentence. The two novelties collide immediately, in Pimsleur’s Lesson One, because a suffix’s vowel has to change to agree with the vowels of the word it’s being attached to.

Such fun! And then there is one’s modest target vocabulary to be accumulated. I note with interest (Lesson Four) that a public square is a meydan. Surely this is cognate with the open maidan in Kipling’s Indian towns, where subalterns of the Raj used to practice pig-sticking and polo. Does maidan come from Turkish, then? From Arabic, says Webster’s Third; no, from Persian, insists the OED. Not Turkish, anyway. But didn’t Atatürk famously purge his language of all Arabic- and Persian-derived words? Perhaps he missed one. Oh, put away those books! Listen! Speak!

(My favorite Atatürk story: It used to be the case that Turks, like Anglo-Saxons and Tibetans, had no surnames. As part of his Westernization program, Atatürk one day decided that this should change. He summoned his cabinet and walked round the table, giving each cabinet member a surname.)

No matter how hard we geezers try, though, there is no keeping up with the younger generation. The day my discs arrived I went out to walk the dog while listening to Lesson One on earphones. Back home from the walk, I went into the living room, where my teenage son was lounging on the sofa watching TV. Feeling whimsical, I addressed him in Turkish: Afedersiniz, Türkçe biliyor musunuz? (Excuse me, can you speak Turkish?)

Without taking his eyes from the TV, or moving any part of himself but his lips, he replied: Evet, the Turkish word for “Yes.”

I was stunned. “Good grief! Where on earth did you learn that?”

Age of Empires.” His eyes remained fixed on the TV. Fifteen is the zenith of cool. “The Ottomans talk to each other in Turkish.”

Age of Empires is a computer game. So apparently computer games actually have some redeeming educational value. Who knew? Or as we Turkophones say: Kim bildi?

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