The Turkish Cow goes mı, mi, mu, mü

After 7 months of being here, Jeremy and I finally signed up for Turkish lessons! It wasn't for a lack of good intentions that we hadn't signed up previously. I, for one, was supposed to get Turkish lessons as part of the package that my school offered to foreign teachers. Like many things that were promised, however, those lessons fell short of expectations in that they were frequently canceled and weren't regular or planned enough for me to get beyond the merhaba-nasilsiniz stage.

Now that we've committed to being in Istanbul for two more years, it only seems logical that we commit ourselves to the language as well. Plus, I don't want to continue to relive the scenario, where a Turkish person asks me how long I've been in Turkey, and in hearing my answer, seeing the understanding look fade from their face and morph into one of incredulity, like they are thinking, "Dude, you've been here 7 months and you're coming at me with this busted, half-assed Turkish? Get your shit together!!"

So, on a freezing cold Monday evening, in the spirit of cultural understanding and not looking like a moron all the time, Jeremy and I met in front of Galatasaray High School to go to our first legit Turkish class. When we got the the school, we took the elevator up to the apartment-converted- to-Turkish-language-school in Taksim and shuffled into the small classroom, finding spots in the semi-circular arrangement of school desks. We weren't alone- other teachers- these ones German, teaching at a Turkish national school, also joined our class. After chatting a bit, we came to the realization that we were all at about the same level of Turkish. We'd all (except for one teacher) come to Turkey in time for the current school year and were just now getting around to learning the thorny, enigmatic language one can't just 'pick up' or absorb passively.

We started off with the basics of dialogue: "Hello, my name is ______", "What is your name?" "Nice to meet you." Although I had already learned those phrases, it was nice to practice them. So much of my trouble with Turkish is actually pronouncing the sounds and words. I end up feeling like my mouth is full of gumballs, preventing me from making the correct sounds and speaking smoothly. We moved on to the alphabet, through which we learned a lot of vocabulary that was linked to each letter. "A is for araba (car), B is for biber (hot pepper), and C is for cami (mosque)"... etc. After practicing each word, we began to use them in basic sentences: "What is this?" "This is a_____" "Who is this?" "This is ________." It reminded me of the exercises I would do with the students in my speech and language SDC class- very structured and repetitive, but effective.

Turkish sentence structure is very different from that of English, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. Word order in sentences is completely different. For example, where in English we would say "What's this?" in Turkish, the phrase is "Bu, ne?"- literally "This, what?" Some of the details of the Turkish language remind me of the language structures that are found in African American English (San Francisco Unified School District gave a wonderful PD by Dr. Noma LeMoine on this last year). For example, there are no linking verbs such as 'to be'. Where in (standard) English, we would say, "I am happy", in Turkish, one says "Mutuyum", or "Happy, I". Another interesting parallel is the use of plurals. In Standard English, a number word is followed by a plural noun: "three dogs", "four dollars". In Turkish, however, like in African American English, the number word is enough to signify plurality and therefore the noun is not pluralized: "three dog", "four dollar".

We took frequent breaks during class, when we were offered the black tea cay- it seems that no Turkish gathering is complete without this dark, potent beverage, and chatted with our classmates. The three hours passed quickly as we finished off the lesson with the question endings "mı, mi, mu, mü." All of them are used at the end of a noun to ask a question and the one you choose to use depends on the vowel in the noun that preceded it: vowel correspondence. Practicing them, one can't help but sound like a cow. Now picture a whole classroom of students mı, mi, mu, mü-ing away- a whole chorus of  cows! Some of these sounds are also very hard to make as an English speaker. Some sound like French sounds- for example, the "ü" sounds like how one would say the letter 'u' in French and the "Ö" sounds like a French "eu" sound. The trickiest is the dot-less 'i'. It sounds like "uh", but is made deeper in the throat, with a barely opened mouth. I can never get it quite right.

Finally, the class ended and we were handed our homework. I looked it over and started to complete mine right away. Another student turned to me and said, "Well, every class needs its geeks, right?" I guess I got a little overly eager. Tonight is round 2 for this week. My homework is done and I am ready.


  1. I love the poster you attached. Its interesting how much repetition is necessary to learn language, drilling it into the foundation of memory, as opposed to other types of memory. The bicycle piece I'm doing right now is about circles and spinning stationary while passing through landscapes and somehow the idea of repeating words and letter out loud resonates with this project...

    There are levels of geek, of course. This is a practical level you're on with your homework, not yet a danger zone:)

  2. Let me know if I reach more dangerous levels ;)
    I would love to see your bicycle piece!


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