Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Berlin. In which is reflected upon acquiring and use of foreign languages.
Germany, March 2015
do you remember that scene from “The 13th Warrior” where Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (played by Antonio Banderas) sits at the campfire among his Viking companions and suddenly is able to follow their conversation, having learned their gnarled language just by listening long enough over the days travelling with them? I always simmered the moment to finally make an experience just like this. Of course you do know that learning the local language or vernacular dialect, at least the obligatory phrases of civility, always has been a crucial part of travelling in my eyes. Trying to communicate with the locals in their mother tongue does signal a certain respect for their culture and interest in their lives. An engagement which, in my experience, usually is greatly appreciated and may bias people towards you. At least, it’s not the worst idea being able to communicate on a basic level if you’re in a foreign country (and much more helpful than to expect everybody’s talking your language, wouldn’t you agree?).
This way I managed to get an (admittedly, very limited) elementary overview of quite a number of languages of the countries I was travelling, from A as in Arabic to T as in Turkish. Of course, basic knowledge is far from eloquent conversation and most vocabulary is forgotten more quickly than it was learned once it’s not used actively any longer. But it sure helps developing a background knowledge, some basic understanding of how languages are structured – thus making it a bit easier to approach yet another idiom or polish up previous knowledge.
Since I started working on that project in Turkish archaeology about nine years ago, I returned to the country repeatedly. Naturally. Sometimes spending weeks or even months on an excavation expedition there (I hope you got my latest letter from there), certainly helps to realize the advantages of learning a bit of Turkish. You know, like being able to communicate with the work crew and students without doing a funny dance of pantomime. For proper bargaining at the local bazaar and to actually really get the food you meant when asking at the kebab shop. Of course, once back home in a multi-cultural city like Berlin I could even continue to order at kebab shops in Turkish. There’s a strong Turkish community in Berlin actually … which brings me back to the point of my letter.
Learning Turkish actually means quite a bit of effort and needs some attentiveness (but then again – which language doesn’t, right?). Did you know that Turkish is a so-called agglutinative language, meaning that any relevant grammatical information like casus, genus, tempus, etc. pp. will be added to a word in the form of stringed suffixes? Each of these extending the original word creating entwined tapeworms, words as long as whole sentences. Complicated, yet of a certain linguistic aesthetic – the Turkish language actually is a very harmonic one, vowel harmonic to be precise (that’s the reason for some of these picturesque and melodious “ü”-accumulations which Turkish is so famous for, by the way). However, all of this follows a pretty logical system and – quite surprisingly – it doesn’t take too long to develop an ear for its melody; a catchy rhythm with quite some recall value. And of quite some use – Turkish respectively related Turkic languages will actually improve your communication skills throughout large parts of Asia as far as to the Chinese border. Just imagine that territory covered!
So, one day I was sitting in the U-Bahn (metro) – my daily commute to the office. Reading in the latest issue of National Geographic when my ear caught some familiar yet still exotic sound: The swiftly-excited tone of the vowel-rich Turkish language. Two girls just entered the wagon and were now confabulating right behind me. Talking about some friend of them, or another girl – I wasn’t really listening, still reading that article about some amazing deep-sea creatures and only catching a few words with half an ear. Then it struck me: I was actually understanding what they were saying. Did I finally have my “13th Warrior”-epiphany? Was this my Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan-language-revelation (at the subway rather than by the campfire though)? Well, somehow. And somehow not. It certainly helped to remember the grammar behind possessive constructions and one or another word, but what really made it so easy to (now more attentively) follow their conversation was the fact that the girls were actually using some kind of mixed language.
“Her dress, have you seen it? Çok güzel (very nice)!”
“Yes, fakat (but) she’s actually fat – has quite a göbek (belly).”
And so they went on – switching between languages, interspersing their dialogue with German and Turkish phrases. Quite fascinating to observe, I’ve got to admit, how they were handling and juggling with both languages casually. Apparently, there was an impressing naturalness about them moving in both worlds – and could there be a better example for cross-cultural immersion? Guess, it is definitely about time to get back to the books and some more language lesson – maybe with that kind greengrocer just around the corner …