Friday, September 15, 2017

"I Have the Duck! Good Grief, He's Eating a Strawberry": The Emotionally Fraught World of the Turkish Language

My Turkish mother did not speak her native language with my sister and I during our childhood lest it prevented us from English fluency. Linguistic research has proved my mother wrong. She did, however, often take us to visit our grandparents and other relatives in Ankara,Izmir, and Istanbul almost annually. Before and during our trips, I took self-administered language courses whose curriculums consisted of poorly written instructional books. If only I had had an app like Duolingo back in the 80s, I’d be fluent by now.

My studying didn’t go very far. My younger sister Katie and I would commiserate with one another (in English) on the conversational sidelines as my mom engaged in animated dialogue with her many relatives. “They might as well be barking,” I complained.  The barrier was felt to be THAT great. “The goat is in the box” became a treasured phrase, but not one likely to prove useful. (Humorous aside: my closest encounter with farm animals occurred as I camped out overnight in a single-person tent on an Aegean beach. Every morning, a herd of sheep would gather outside the tent, totally silent except for the tinkling of tiny bells around their necks, their looming shadows swaying in the 104-degree heat. These koyunlar may have been merely curious, but it nonetheless unhinged me!).

Here is a cultural and linguistic tidbit you may enjoy…

The popular expression “Allah Allah!” can be adjusted by the speaker accordingly to suit the gravity of the circumstances. To wit:

A rapid utterance in a normal tone of voice roughly translates to “Good grief!”, or “No way, dude; I was not aware of this.” Or: “I am left mildly incredulous of what you say, but it is not wholly unexpected. Continue!”

Draw out the syllables ever so slightly, however, and you convey stronger revulsion whilst still remaining in the dialogue, which usually consists of two women talking about their husbands, boyfriends, or a woman with whom they take issue. Translation: “Oh no he din’t!”

Defcon 4, mind-blown, get outta town level: Every consonant is rapidly enunciated for maximum effect at very loud decibels. The speaker may throw her hands up in utter disgust before she exits the room. May be directed at a group of individuals that is not present or at the person with whom you are speaking. Throughout my childhood and teen years, I was subjected to many such “Allah Allahs” during fights with my mother. Note to mom: Not the hallmark of a master debater, but highly entertaining!
There are countless permutations that fall between mild frustration and blowing your top, naturally, which makes this expression an invaluable part of one’s Turkish tool-kit.

For more “Allah Allah” and other useful Turkish expressions (both profane and sweet), I urge you to check out Behzat ç.:Ankara Police, a Turkish series on Netflix that ran from around 2010 to 2013. It highlights the traditional—sometimes old-fashioned—values that Turkish culture embraces, but it is also a sentimental portrait of the broad range of Turks.

Some women still wear a hijab. Many brothers and husbands continue to assume a protective role over their sisters and wives. The show’s writers condemn practices that are simply wrong, such as honor killings and domestic abuse. But they do not demean religious Turks who express their faith in positive ways.

One caveat is that I don’t advise saying “Allah Allah” too liberally among actual Turks; I’m not sure if it is considered blasphemous by devout Muslims. All the characters on Behzat ç. use it all the time, but it is a show about cops, so you never know.

I hope you have found this brief tutorial useful. In closing, here’s an imaginary conversation between an adult brother and sister that exemplifies the hyper-emotional—dare I say “neurotic”?—state that permeates the Turkish character and its beautiful language:

Kiz kardeş (sister) to her abi (older brother): I’m headed out; is there anything I can get for you?

Older Brother: Where are you going?? It’s already dark outside.

Sister: Uhhh, the grocery store. I have to buy a few necessities, anyway.

Brother: There’s no one but perverts and rapists out at this time of night!!!

Sister: I’ll be fine.


Brother: You’ll be killed, for sure!! Allah Allah!!

Sister: (growing visibly frustrated) Look, do you need anything or not?! Because I am going out no matter what.

Brother: Okay, okay, but let me drive you!!!

Sister (with eye roll): Fine. Let’s go!!

Brother: First though, make me an omelet! With sucuk [Turkish pepperoni]…and peppers.

Sister: Allah Allah! [Defcon 4 level] Yapma ya! [I don’t believe this!]

Brother (sweetly): You make it better than mom.

Sister: (sighs and storms off to kitchen to make omelet)


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