Friday, 28 May 2010

Say What?

The other day, my friend Güzin and I got on the dolmuş downtown after an afternoon of shopping. Almost as soon as we sat down, a group of sixty-ish women piled in, one after the other, talking a mile a minute.

Güzin was delighted. "They're from Istanbul too!" she whispered. "I can tell from their accents; they sound like they're from my old neighborhood."

I was intrigued. "How can you tell?"

"It's just the way they sound." Her eyes widened and she frowned. "In fact, I can't really tell what language they're speaking," she whispered. "It's mainly Turkish, but it's something else too; I just can't tell what. Spanish maybe...?"

I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the women's voices. Whatever they were speaking sounded just like Turkish to me, though some words seemed more guttural and the sentences had a rhythm that was slightly exotic. "Well, it's not Spanish."

We were both silent for a while, then there was a lull in the women's conversation so Güzin and I started talking about something else: a colleague of ours who recently got engaged. She brought her photo album to work and I was fascinated by the Turkish custom of the bride-to-be preparing her husband-to-be salty coffee. "Does he really have to drink it?"

"Yes, he does."

"Why?"

"Because if he can drink his wife's salty coffee without complaining, her family will know he's patient enough to endure marriage."

One of the women shoppers with the fascinating language leaned forward and tapped Güzin on the shoulder. She said something to her, but all I could understand was İngilizce -- the Turkish for English. Güzin answered her.

"What did she say?" I whispered.

"She wanted to know where I'd learned my English."

The ladies were speaking to each other again and Güzin shook her head. "Do you think it's Catalan?"

I shook my head. "I've heard Catalan and that's definitely not it." We both frowned. "Hey," I said, "Do you think it could be Ladino?"

I've never heard anyone speak Ladino, but I've always wanted to. When Sephardic Jewish exiles settled throughout the Ottoman Empire, they took their language with them and it evolved, depending on what area they settled in.

Güzin perked right up at that. "Ladino? Maybe that's it!"

We listened to the women a little more. I could barely stand it: if the women were really speaking Ladino, I was dying to know. "Could you maybe ask them what language they're speaking?"

Güzin bit her lip and glanced quickly behind her, then shook her head. "I can't."

"But they asked you about your English!" I whispered.

"I know, but that's different."

And for the next ten minutes, we sat there simmering with curiosity as we listened to the women speaking their mystery language. If I thought they could speak English, I swear I'd have asked them myself.

Before Güzin got to her stop, she kindly let me practice my Turkish on her again: fırın n'ın orda, or Near the bakery. When I want to get off at the local bakery instead of the mosque, this line is an absolute must. I've never yet met a dolmuş driver who speaks English, so having this useful bit of Turkish has saved me many a long, dusty walk.

Just after I waved goodbye to Güzin, my mobile went off and I spoke to my daughter in Japanese. As we talked, I became aware of a sudden hush: all the other passengers seemed to have stopped talking. My Japanese suddenly sounded very loud and foreign to my ears. The ladies who might be Ladino speakers were watching me, open-mouthed, as was the driver.

Almost on cue, the driver wheeled around and asked me where I was going. I took a deep breath: I was ready for this! "Fırın n'ın orda," I said loudly and clearly.

The driver knitted his brow and repeated fırın and my heart sank. Because unfortunately, a useful phrase like near the bakery only works when the driver knows where the bakery is. It has been my experience that one out of five drivers don't know where our local bakery is, so this was just my lucky day.

"Where going?" a loud man in front of me asked in English. I stifled a sigh. This happens a lot. I speak my little piece in Turkish, nobody knows where the bakery is, and I end up having to entertain everybody in English. As it happens, the bakery is just down the road from our local cattery, but imagine having to explain that in Turkish. "You England?" the man in front of me shouted, looking me up and down. "You want Turkish bakery? Where you go?"

I had a sudden inspiration. "Pan-ya e," I answered in Japanese. "Karşıyaka ni arimasu ga, dare mo wakaranai mitai. Anata mo wakaranai dessho?"

The man's jaw dropped and I smiled. Russian, I heard somebody behind me say. I smiled all the more broadly.

When the mystery language ladies got off, they gave me a quizzical look. I hope we'll meet again. If they tell me theirs, I'll tell them mine.

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24 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

Although it's not directly related to your wonderful story - congrats on surviving the academic year without murdering any of the students :)

Vijaya said...

Oh, for heaven's sakes, you must always be like a cat and satsify your curiosity!

You'd better be writing a book about dolmus stories ...

Miss Footloose said...

Oh, that was fun! I love guessing languages. A few years ago my dh and I were in France, in a restaurant, and a couple at the table next to us where speaking a completely foreign tongue to my ears, except once in a while I heard a very clear and precise couple of Dutch words (my mother tongue), the equivalent of a little expression like, "you know" or "forget it," and it blew my mind, because it was pure Dutch and the rest was "Chinese."

I could not resist and leaned over and asked in English what language they were speaking. The woman laughed. It was a very strong Belgian Flemish dialect!

It was totally incomprehensible to me and couldn't even have guessed it had anything at all to do with Flemish/Dutch! (same language)

Robert the Skeptic said...

My daughter was studying Japanese while going to college in Lyon. Just her CONCEPT of trying to learn Japanese while conversing daily in French was enough to give me a brain cramp.

Robin said...

I love all your stories, Mary. Your blog is the treat of my day. Truly. Just wanted you to know that.

I wonder why your friend didn't want to ask the ladies about their language? In this context, it seemed okay. Especially since they had asked about yours. I'd do terribly in that area. I'd probably be thrown out the bus door for rudeness beyond the bounds.

Nice job foiling them with your Japanese! Mwahahaha!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you! Some of them will never know how close to the wind they were flying, though I suspect in the last couple of weeks they were getting the idea. I'm still a little heady from the joy of it all, though I will miss my truly good, hardworking students (all five of them).

Vijaya -- Maybe it is the cat in me, but the truth is, I would have paid money to find out what language those ladies were speaking -- and I am a huge cheapskate. Fortunately, they don't live far away from us. I'll be on the look out for them.

I've never thought about writing dolmus stories, but maybe I could combine them with my Japanese train and subway stories? That will keep me busy when I'm revising my MG ms for the 257th time...

Miss Footloose -- When I lived near s'Hertogenbosch, one of the people who lived in the same artists' colony had a similar story about Flemish. He swore they could have been saying anything and he'd have been none the wiser, and I've heard the same thing said about Africaans. What used to amaze me was how much Dutch sounded like English. I used to think I ought to be able to understand it; structurally, Dutch and English are so close it's amazing. But oh, those tongue-twisting Dutch vowels!

I'm so glad you asked that couple what language they were speaking! I can never resist asking myself, and I'm always happy to tell people what I'm speaking and why. It's one of the perks of speaking a language that is a little unusual.

Robert -- Yay for your daughter -- she'd fit right in with us!

My daughter has been studying for her IGCSE (an international British examination) in Japanese here, but in her spare time she teaches herself Korean and Mandarin. It cracks me up to hear her practicing her tones in Mandarin while the call to prayer blasts from the loudspeakers of the local mosque. Sometimes, while she's parroting her rising-falling, falling-rising tones, I'll ask her a question about Turkish just to get full amusement value.

Robin -- I think Güzin felt that it was okay for the ladies to ask her about a language she had acquired (though she speaks English like a native), but not okay for her to ask them about their own mother tongue. In a way, I understood how she felt. It seemed a little intrusive -- and Güzin is more of a lady than I am. But I've GOT to know -- and after googling 'Ladino', I'm almost positive that's what they were speaking (Istanbul was listed as one of the major areas where it is still spoken). I'm so tempted to start lurking outside their apartment building.

Thank you for those kind words, and allow me to return the favor. There are a number of blogs that are pure pleasure to read, that I always click onto with a happy sigh and a smile -- and never leave disappointed. Yours is absolutely one of them, (and I'm not just saying that because you praised my blog).

Anonymous said...

Well, Güzin is speaking now :) I didn't want to ask those ladies about the language they were speaking, because I didn't want to put them in a difficult situation. I was almost sure they were speaking Ladino, which is spoken among Jews in Istanbul. Yet, asking about it would have revealed their ethnic identity and jeopardize their safety among muslim people. Not all muslims are hostile, but you never know...

Charlie said...

You have an amazing ear for language, not to mention an insatiable curiosity. I suspect that you don't do wood carving or needlepoint, so I would say language is your hobby (I said hubby the first time I typed it).

Mary Witzl said...

Güzin -- I was going to write something similar, then figured I'd wait until I saw you on Monday and ask you first. But how cool that we've heard Ladino spoken! I can add that to Basque, Navajo, and Swahili.

The next thing I want to learn how to say in Turkish is, "Excuse me, but would that be Ladino you're speaking by any chance?" (I swear I'll whisper!)

Charlie -- How I wish I could accept that compliment, but I have a tin ear for Turkish -- ask any of the people I work with (including Güzin) and they'll confirm it! I could hear that what the women on the dolmuş were speaking wasn't quite the same thing as the Turkish I hear around me, but only after my friend pointed it out.

I like that typo! Language is sort of my hubby. I'm as good as married to it.

AnneB said...

Sigh. My only language triumph was discouraging some annoying Italian guys one night in Rome when they couldn't figure out what language to use to try to pick me up. I managed to tell them to "go away" in French...and it worked.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- Language can be very useful for dissuading men, so congratulations on finding a use for your French.

My daughters aren't fluent in Turkish yet, but they have found that sign language works a treat. Our youngest got pestered by a bus full of young Turks as she made her way back from the vet's one afternoon. She flipped them the bird and was amused when they responded not by getting angry but by clapping and cheering. She wants to believe they were applauding her for her feisty spirit.

meredith said...

This made me smile. I had tourists in my office on Saturday, and one of them said she was German so I was trying out my pitiful German on her when another tourist heard her accent. It turns out he was Dutch but from just across the border from where she was from in Germany and he recognized this just by the few words she spoke to me. And then they started talking to each other in their common local dialect and further verbal input on my part was a lost cause.

Anne Spollen said...

Nice story! It is fun to guess languages. And I never even heard of Ladino - see what you can learn from reading blogs?

And yes, from one teacher to another, the year is over - and you used to think it was the students who were happy ; )

Marcia said...

This is a great story. Very satisfying ending; it makes me feel mischievous. :) Alas, I'm no good at all at guessing languages.

I Wonder Wye said...

Fun story. I will be back to read more!

Mary Witzl said...

Meredith -- If that Dutchman hadn't come along, your German ability would have come in handy, but I'll bet you'd have gone home with a colossal headache. Nothing is more exhausting than trying to stretch a little language further than it can go. I'm a lifelong insomniac, but on our short trips to France, I've never had any trouble falling asleep, especially when my husband gets tired of interpreting for me.

(Your blog won't allow me to post comments, by the way -- I've tried several times!)

AnneS -- You're off too now? Congratulations!! Isn't it just the greatest feeling?

After this semester, I look back on all the times my friends and I whooped and crowed at the end of a school term and I see how idiotic we were to think our teachers were sad to let us go. However happy we thought we were to be shot of them, I'll bet it was as nothing next to how they felt.

Marcia -- Thanks. It made me feel mischievous too -- in a good way.

Half the time it takes me five minutes to spot the difference between Turkish and Russian -- I don't have such a great ear for languages at all. It was only when my friend mentioned Spanish that I thought of Ladino. But I'll bet you anything that was what they were speaking -- I wonder if I will ever find out?

IWW -- Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

Pat said...

Every bus ride must be an adventure and I think you attract them;)

Kit said...

I'm in awe of your linguistic gymnastics! I hope you find out what that language is - I'd never heard of Ladino before.

JR's Thumbprints said...

If only I'd had the "Salty Coffee" test, then maybe things would be different.

adrienne said...

I envy your talent for languages. Not that I get to travel much, but I regret always having to seek out the English speakers...

I'm also curious why your friend didn't want to ask them what language they were speaking.

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- I'm a nutter magnet. Riding the subways in New York and Tokyo, this always seemed like a huge disadvantage, but I now see it has its silver lining: it's left me with a lot of good stories. Plus, I've still got what it takes: if a lady with a 15-kg bag of onions, four shopping bags full of eggplant, and a truck load of peppers gets on the same dolmuş I'm riding, it's almost axiomatic she'll sit next to me or strike up a conversation. Now I embrace it.

Kit -- I first heard about Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) years ago, when I knew a lot of people from Cuba. In essence, it's the Spanish version of Yiddish, though I'm sure real, professional linguists would not approve of that definition, since it has more to do with Spanish than Hebrew.

JR -- Your comment made me laugh out loud and almost spill my (non-salty) coffee!

I suspect the salt-in-the-coffee test could prevent a lot of unwise unions, but unfortunately, people here still get divorced. Personally, I think some of them cheat, even though I've been assured this is very hard prospective mothers-in-law tend to taste the salty brew to make sure.

Adrienne -- I hate having to seek out English speakers too, but that's what I've had to do here. I've made some great friends -- Güzin is an incredible person -- but the friendships you forge with people who don't speak your language make for such entertaining experiences.

Güzin reads my blog sometimes, and she posted her reasons for not asking above. The recent tensions with Israel and Turkey bear out the wisdom of her decision.

Meg McKinlay said...

Mary, I'm late to this post as I've been travelling in the wilds of Hokkaido, where I have picked up many stories thanks to also being a confirmed nutter magnet (my husband says it's because I make eye contact - "Don't make eye contact!". But I think once we decide not to look at people, all is lost. Or at least, many interesting stories...).

Your post and the comments have reminded me of how often I use French in Japan - sometimes just to confound people and undo their assumption that all 'Western'-looking foreigners must be English speakers and sometimes just because I know my Japanese is better than their English and I just want to get things done.

I think this began when I went on the school trip with my Japanese high school and at almost every tourist site we visited, students from another school group would approach me and ask me to answer questions in English. It seems a lot of them are given tasks to conduct at places like Hiroshima - interviewing hapless foreigners about world peace and so on, whereas in my mind, I was just another student on their school trip. Eventually I just started saying, in Japanese, "Sorry, I'm French. I don't speak English."

I sometimes use Japanese defensively at home in Australia, too, come to think of it, but that's another story, and this is already too long.

Catching up on several of your blog posts at once is one of the pleasures of having been away!

Mary Witzl said...

Meg -- I did that ALL THE TIME in Japan! It used to irritate me when so many people assumed anyone Caucasian must be American and must speak English. It also frustrated me that every conversation I had in Japanese covered the same old ground, boring me and giving my Japanese no boost at all. So I took to being all sorts of different nationalities, changing them as the spirit moved me: Polish, Armenian, German, Israeli, Finnish, Mexican. I had a real blast -- and hoped I was shattering a few stereotypes too. I still feel guilty for all the lies I told, but they were in the service of a greater good.

I also quickly learned to distinguish between people using English just to show off and people who were learning it because they really wanted to communicate. With the latter, I was myself and I spoke English. The true communicators would often switch to Japanese later anyway.

My daughter and I love being able to speak Japanese here. Any Japanese person listening to us would laugh himself silly at some of the ways we butcher the language, but we can still get our points across very well.

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