3 min read

Speaking Turkish...

… is hard.

We were fine in Istanbul, where enough people speak enough English for us to get around. But then we take a bus two hours north to a small town twenty minutes from the farm, and I’m all like, “Alright… I’ve been coasting for the last week, but now we’re in a rural area, and it’s time to put in a little effort.”

We walk into a tiny sandwich shop, where lunch for both of us costs four bucks. I’ve got my Turkish dictionary out. We want tea. The dictionary clearly says cay. So I ask the man for “Kay”, and hold up two fingers.

And he just looks at me.

I repeat, “Kay.” He shakes his head.

I mean, I’m reading this out of the dictionary. It’s a three letter word. A single syllable. It’s the most common thing people drink around here. Walk into a Turkish restaurant, order a sandwich and something else, and there’s a 50% chance that something else is “tea.” How can you not understand me?

A few days later on the farm, when the ladies are serving us our afternoon tea, it dawns on me that the dictionary didn’t say cay, it said çay.

That ç makes a “ch” sound. And the -ay, isn’t pronounced like Fonzie’s greeting, but like a pirate’s affirmative. So the word I was looking for is actually quite familiar, one I have long associated with tea:


That’s one of the problems with learning Turkish: the alphabet is similar enough to lure you into a false sense of confidence, but they’ve got seven letters we don’t: Ç, Ğ, I, İ, Ö, Ş, and Ü. They adopted the Latin alphabet in the early 20th century, changed a few letters, and added a few more to accommodate their spoken language. This brings us to the second point….

They’ve got sounds we don’t.

I’m a visual learner. As bad of a student as I was in college, I crushed fact-regurgitation exams thanks to the help of mnemonic devices.<span font-size: 80%>*</span> But, if I don’t see it, I don’t remember it.

Çok güzel means “very good.” Important on the farm for complimenting the cooks. I remembered it by imagining myself giggling with joy as my hands tighten around the neck of a gazelle. “Choke gazelle.”

Sen De Gör is how you respond when someone says the Turkish equivalent of “bless you” after you sneeze. I see a woman in a bikini, rolling around on a beach, then sneezing. “Sandy girl.”

Those are the easy ones. But a lot of Turkish syllables - the building blocks of words - are unfamiliar to the English language, and I though I rack my brain front to back, I can’t find any imagery to remind me of them.

The first phrase you should learn in a new country is “Thank you.” Paired with a smile, it sets a tone of “I realize I’m on your turf”, and hopefully dispels the preconceived stereotype of the Ungrateful American.

It took me over a week to say thanks in Turkish.

First I learned sağol. Of course, the ğ is silent. But then there’s nuance - fluctuations in pronunciation depending who’s saying it, what direction they’re facing when they’re talking to me, or how much earwax I’ve got that day.

Over the course of our first week, I went from saying “sao”, to “saul”, to “sa-ou”, to “sa-oul.”

Not confident in my sağol, I moved on to teşekkür, the more formal “thank you.” One of the other volunteers, a 20 year old Frenchman named Arthur, said, “it’s like ‘Tea Sugar.’”

Which is close, but not quite, because it’s pronounced “teh shek goo-ur.” I don’t know how to visualize that. I don’t know a word in the English language has a “shek” in it. The “teh” isn’t even common - it sounds different than the beginning of “tennis.”

I’ve settled on teşekkürler. The first syllable pronounced “teh”, followed by “secular” if secular was spelled with an sh instead of a s. Still can’t see it, but of the three options, it’s the only pronunciation that I could anchor to anything familiar, and it finally stuck hearing it twenty times a day on the farm.

This is just infantile vocab. I’m still miles away from sentence construction (direct object comes before the verb), pluralization (add “-larsh”), or the way they tack syllables onto nouns to form complete phrases (Ev means “house.” Evinizdeymişim means “I was apparently at your house.”)

Makes me appreciate traveling to Spain, Central America, or Humbolt Park.

*For a fun read on mental athletes who take these techniques to the extreme at the US National Memory Championships, check out Moonwalking with Einstein