Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2006

Learning Turkish

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

For most of the first semester of elementary Turkish I just completed, I felt like I was barely treading water and in over my head. Learning a new language at the age of 61 is tough enough as it is, but studying it at an Ivy League institution like Columbia University is even more daunting. Twice I came this close (picture a thumb 1/8th of an inch away from a forefinger) from dropping it, but just received my grade: an A-!

Learning a language in some ways is like rehearsing for a play. You have to memorize your lines. In my final exam, I remembered most of the words I was expected to use in an essay question about a father taking his daughter to the playground (a sandbox is a ‘kum havuzu’; a pail and shovel are ‘kova’ and ‘kurek’), but drew a blank when I tried to remember how to say ‘for 3 days’ (uc gundur).

My main problem is that my brain doesn’t work the way it did when I was the age of my classmates. It used to be like a camera, now it is like a sieve. Five days after I learn how to use a verb ending, the memory becomes faded. Oddly enough, the Spanish I learned in high school 46 years ago adheres better.

Despite the difficulties and despite my deep aversion to taking tests and being graded, I have found learning Turkish to be a deeply rewarding experience. Being finally able to converse with my wife’s friends and relatives in Istanbul and Izmir would make my trips there much more pleasurable. Since we would eventually like to have a summer place in Izmir, this makes learning the language a necessity.

Perhaps the main reason I stuck with the class was the teacher Etem Erol, who is without doubt one of the finest I have studied with ever. Erol brings an enormous amount of patience, enthusiasm and good humor to the subject that shows up even when the class is going through the most tedious of drills. Additionally, he is passionate about Turkish culture and history and leavens each class with comments about a wide range of topics, from the Kurdish question to Turkish cuisine. It is impossible to imagine a more qualified and more dedicated professor.

Since my understanding of Turkish culture and history are about as rudimentary as my understanding of the language, I treasured observations the professor made during the course of the semester. To begin with, I suppose that most people understand that the Turkish language is a relatively modern invention. After Mustafa Kemal led a successful revolution that led to the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923, he instituted a number of reforms that were intended to modernize the country along the lines of certain Enlightenment ideals. One of them was to replace the Ottoman alphabet (a mixture of Arabic and Persian letters; words are read from right to left) with Roman letters. (There are additional letters in the Turkish alphabet that are distinguished by the presence of an accent or a symbol. For example, an i without the dot is pronounced “uh”; with it, it is pronounced more like the i in “in”.)

As is so often the case in revolutions, even bourgeois revolutions like the Kemalist, there are excesses. There was such a strong desire to modernize that nobody questioned the need to Westernize the alphabet. Erol speculates that with the addition of a few extra letters, the Ottoman alphabet would have sufficed. When he first began looking into studying the Ottoman language in Turkey, his Kemalist professors rebuked him for aspiring toward reactionary goals. He ended up studying it in Princeton University.

Apparently prejudices of this sort have cut both ways in Turkish history. When Turkish nationalism was gestating in the late 19th century, it adopted the Turk identity that had been viewed as crude and inferior by the Ottoman aristocracy. To call somebody a Turk in the 1700s was almost an insult. It was the identity of Eastern Anatolia, the homeland of semi-nomads and farmers. Erol surmises that much of the trouble with the national minorities in Turkey is a result of overcompensating for a sense of inferiority, to put it in psychological terms.

Despite the fact that the ethnic identity is rooted in the eastern part of the country, the language itself is very much the product of the urban centers of the West and the Janissary culture in particular. Janissaries were the European and Christian slaves of the Ottoman court who became generals and bureaucrats. This is just one more reminder that precapitalist slavery and chattel slavery were completely different phenomena.

Despite some often ham-fisted if not genocidal attempts to impose a monoculture on the Turkish people, there is something wonderfully diverse about the society, starting with the language which is not above borrowing from points east and west. A razor blade is a ‘gilet’, while the words for city have either a Turkish (‘kent’) or Arabic (‘sehir’) origin. Additionally, Turkish society itself is a mixture of European and Middle Eastern culture inasmuch as the country and the largest city literally overlap Europe and Asia. One can live in the Asian side of Istanbul and commute to the European side each day to go to work.

Although the West-East divide has provided a kind of creative tension for the entire history of the country, there are signs recently that the contradictions might eventually be resolved in favor of the East. If so, it will be hastened by the backwardness of Europeans and Christians who are stigmatizing anything Islamic nowadays, even if it is the generally tolerant religious party in power in Turkey whose economic philosophy owes more to Milton Friedman than the Koran. With the Pope warning against Turkey being admitted to the European Union on the basis of Crusade-era shibboleths, it is no wonder that the Turks are having second thoughts. There are solid economic considerations as well. If Turkey is admitted to the European Union, it might turn out to be a drain on the economy rather than a benefit. With Western European populations tending to be older and closer to retirement age, the younger Turkish work force might end up subsidizing their social security funds. Furthermore, with China, India and Russia on the upswing, Turkey might decide that its fortunes will be tied to this emerging bloc of capitalist nations as well.


  1. very interesting post, i loved 🙂 I am for Turkey’s entry to European Union btw, i have many reasons for that, hehe.
    I just wanted to congratulate you for your Turkish studies 😉
    I am helping Turkish Learners on net. I am not a qualified teacher but learnt many things in a year, i would like to meet with your professor, he seems to be very good at his work. Feel free to visit my site and leave a comment if you wish.
    Greetings from Turkey

    Comment by Osman — December 31, 2006 @ 2:13 pm

  2. I think that “The Turkish Language Reform, a catastrophic success” by Geoffrey Lewis may be of some interest to you, even if it does not touch the sociological reasons behind the reform. The sociological side of the reform (having many similarities with similar processes in i.e. Japan, Greece, etc, is fascinating.

    Comment by William — January 30, 2007 @ 10:37 pm

  3. wow..I am so lucky ….I am from India….I was just waiting for somebody who could teach me Turkish………I fancy it…….Please can you help me…Thank you……………

    Comment by lisa — April 24, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  4. Hi Louis,
    If you live in Istanbul, I can teach you Turkish. I am usually free on weekend. And I have to practice in English. Because my English listening and speaking is not good.

    My mail address is erkal@hotmail.com

    See you,

    Comment by erkal — June 10, 2007 @ 12:06 am

  5. I started learning Turkish in 1996/7. I can read books and newspapers now, and follow normal conversations. I found that the big problem with Turkish is the structure of the language – it is not Indo-European and it shows.

    Comment by Hasta siempre comandante — February 19, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  6. Did you ever get that summer house in Izmir?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — August 21, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

  7. Did I hit a nerve asking about a house in Izmir? Such silence on such an uncontraversial subject.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — August 22, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

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