I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights: September 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I stayed home from work sick yesterday. I'll spare you the macabre details, but I'm assigning direct blame to food poisoning, and indirect blame to the little beast pictured below. Convinced by Deniz (aka Peter)'s adorable purring and very soft fur, I've been leaving my window open overnight so he can curl up with me on his own schedule and go root through trash (or whatever he does out there) the rest of the time. Unfortunately the night air in İstanbul is getting increasingly icy as October approaches, and I think it's doing bad things to my immune system. If I'm not sniffling, I'm snuffling; if I'm not snuffling, I'm sneezing or coughing or whining about a headache. A sort of walking illness.


On arriving at work this morning, a coworker told me that I wasn't the only one. Except for him, everyone else in the office had been out yesterday too. "It was like a haunted house in here," he said. "İn cin top oynuyordu."

That turned out to be one of those awesome Turkish expressions with no English equivalent, the kind which give me endless glee and inspire blog posts. Used for lonely, empty places, it can be translated roughly as "djinn and things were playing ball." ("İn" means lair or den according to my dictionary, but in this sense it seems to be used as a sort of placeholder, as in the common fairy-tale question "in misin, cin misin?"- "are you human or are you a djinni?").

As an aside, etymology nerds might be intrigued to learn that our two words for the supernatural Middle Eastern beings come from different stems entirely. According to Wikipedia, "djinn" (singular "djinni") comes from the Arabic root ǧ-n-n meaning 'to hide' or 'be hidden'; meanwhile, "genie" derives from the Latin genius meaning "tutelary spirit", which entered English via French around 1750 when the first French translation of One Thousand And One Nights used it in place of the similar-sounding Arabic word.

Anyway. In the Western mind, the word "genie" conjures up Robin Williams' voice booming out one-liners from a dusty lantern in the Cave of Wonders, or maybe Barbara Eden comically ruining Major Nelson's day.

"First, that fez-and-vest combo is much too third-century. These
patches. What are we trying to say? Beggar? No. Let's work with me

But in Turkey, and across the Muslim world, djinn are much less... well, goofy. While mentions of them aren't particularly common in religious texts, certain examples do exist; the Qur'an, for instance, states that djinn were created by Allah from a smokeless fire, as men were made from clay and angels from light. They are believed to have free will, just as humans do, and can choose their own religion and the manner of their interference with our lives from the parallel world they are thought to inhabit. Wikipedia also has this to say about the genies: "Jinn have the power to travel large distances at extreme speeds and are thought to live in remote areas, mountains, seas, trees, and the air, in their own communities. Like humans, jinn will also be judged on the Day of Judgment and will be sent to Paradise or Hell according to their deeds."

Interesting, no? Unearthly yet fallible and accountable. As far as I'm aware, most of our own supernatural sagas have no element of conscience or liability on the part of the demons or ghosts... which makes them, to me at least, less fascinating. Maybe that's why folk tales from this part of the world, like those in One Thousand And One Nights, take on a different tone than the campfire stories back home. It's all cunning and trickery, much less of the Paranormal Activity-type senseless draggings-out-of-bed we see so much of these days in America.

Just as prevalent as djinn in Turkish superstition is the nazar, or evil eye (my source, an Actual Turkish Person, estimated that 95% of his countrymen believe in both). According to Hangama Ahmadzai here, praise or envy from even well-meaning individuals is thought to expose people to bad luck. Often blue eyes are considered by Mediterranean cultures to carry a particularly heavy dose of ill fortune, maybe because they're rarely seen- and when they are, it's usually on tourists, who are inclined to further prove their untrustworthiness by fawning over local infants, who are among the most susceptible to the nazar. Fortunately, having brown eyes and no particular fondness for babies, I am still universally popular. In case you should run across some blue-eyed fiend in your travels, though, you might consider purchasing a nazar boncuğu- roughly, "evil eye bead." You can see these everywhere in Turkey, from necklaces to paintings to airline logos.

In other respects, though, I haven't noticed that the people here are much more superstitious than we are back home. I did find an extensive list of purported Turkish beliefs here, but aside from one or two (such as throwing water after a departing traveler to ensure their return) I've never seen or heard of anybody actually subscribing to them. Much like the United States is not a nation of people inching down sidewalks on their tiptoes to avoid the cracks and fleeing in horror from black cats, your average Turk does not seem especially terrorized by the following prospects:

-A boy who drinks coffee do not have moustaches, he becomes beardless.
-Hair in comb after combing is not thrown to street; if it is thrown, it may entangle in a leg of chicken, so you may have headache continuously.
-Cackle of hen implies to bring a bad-luck.
-If girls eat something between two meals, their luck to find a husband becomes impossible. (The tragic dangers of snacking!)
-It is forbidden to jump over a child, otherwise the child remains short.

Still, I'm hoping this one is true for Jessica's sake; she was lucky enough to be pooped on by a Turkish bird during her very first week in İstanbul. When excrement of a bird falls on the head, it means that the person is lucky and will earn money. Glorious riches await!

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Dialects and conquests

As you can tell, I've become very lazy busy and important recently, and let this blog fall by the wayside. Maybe we can start off my first entry in months with a little puzzle?

The janissaries sat in their yurts eating shish kebabs, then they washed down some baklava with yogurt.

You know I'm up to something because I just shoehorned a bunch of seemingly random words into an awkward sentence. Any idea what's special about these words?

The yeniçeris sat in their yurts eating şiş kebabıs, then they washed down some baklava with yoğurt.

How about now?

Yeah, they're all Turkish loanwords. It's a pretty short list, really (I desperately wanted to include "chock a block" on the recommendation of Wikipedia, which claims it's from "çok kalabalık" meaning "very crowded". Every other source I can find, unfortunately, insists its origin is actually nautical).

The number of Turkish words which have made their way into English is fairly small. If you look at it the other way around (English to Turkish), the list is much more extensive. As a student, I find this simultaneously helpful and annoying. I like to think of Turkish as a sort of awesome, top secret code- I dont spend hours slaving over coursebooks just to be able to discuss what would happen when şarapnel hits a bungalov or the fiyasko of the rising karbon
dioksit levels. The influence of English on other languages, in its role as a kind of global compromise, gets a lot of attention. Plenty of people think it's horrible that the "purity" of Turkish, French, Russian, and so on, is being corrupted by English. Many more don't care one way or the other. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone make a case that it's strictly a good thing; the closest anyone tends to come is pointing out that language evolution is both natural and inevitable, and to take steps to block the entrance of English vocabulary in various lingua francas would be to artificially hamper their legitimate course of development. As for me, I come down on the side of the purists, with a grudging nod to the evolutionists.

Click here for an interesting essay on the role of English in Turkey!

Still, I think language interaction is pretty fascinating. I never realized, for instance, how much Spanish crops up in my daily conversation until Turks fluent in English started raising eyebrows at what I considered perfectly understandable and commonplace expressions- gracias, adiós, vamanos, amigo... things that most Americans, even the xenophobes in our midst, would probably take in stride without a second thought.

Let's back up six or seven years. I was a junior in high school studying abroad in southern Sweden, and learning a language which seemed to be under assault from every angle. Most Swedes, particularly of the younger generation, speak excellent English; that, combined with the two languages' similar backgrounds and structures, has led to a huge number of Americanisms (and okay, fine, Britishisms) establishing themselves in the common Swedish lexicon. Yet generally speaking, Swedes seemed less concerned about the influx of English than about about a related, but much more politically-charged phenomenon: Rinkeby svenska, so-called after a district of the city of Malmö home to a massive population of eastern European, African, and Arab immigrants. Rinkeby svenska, which you can read more about here, is in short an emerging dialect incorporating elements of the native languages of immigrants from all over the world, while mainly staying true to the grammatical components of Swedish. Turkish and Arabic seem to be the biggest players here, with words like "guzz" (girl, from Turkish kız) and "yalla" (let's go, from Arabic). Books have even been written in this new pidgin- for example, Ett Öga Rött by Jonas Hassen Khemiri.

And it's not only in Sweden. I read an article this morning- which prompted this entry- about the same deal surfacing in Germany. Turks are the second largest population group up there after the Germans themselves; some estimates go up to four million, making one in every twenty of the country's inhabitants Turkish. With immigration already a hot-button issue in western Europe, I'm surprised we don't hear more about this kind of stuff. Not being German or Swedish myself, I may lack perspective, but I for one think Rinkeby svenska and Kiezdeutsch are really intriguing and frankly pretty cool. I read somewhere that the rise of literacy vastly slowed down linguistic evolution (and popularized the idea that there's one "correct" English and if you don't follow it to the letter then you're objectively wrong... which is an argument for another day). Yet here we have the chance to watch other forces at work, shaping a new dialect right before our eyes. Awesome. Of course it's awfully political as well, considering how closely language is tied to cultural identity. Some people will always be upset about the implications of an "impure" Swedish/German/what-have-you. But on the other hand, it's not like blond-haired Sven Olsson, professor of literature, is going around shouting "yalla yalla" at his colleagues. And really, isn't the immigrant experience a culture in and of itself? Why shouldn't it have its own particular vernacular?

I'll leave you with one final thing...

The successes of Turkish aside, it hasn't been treated quite so well in certain other countries. The conservative Islamist Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently received a hero's welcome on his visit to Egypt- excited crowds held up signs and banners to greet him, among them one which seemed to have been translated through English and set a lot of Turks to chuckling.

İyi Cetvel Merhaba Erdoğan

"Good ruler, hello Erdoğan". Unfortunately, cetvel is the wrong kind of ruler, the kind that you measure things with. Erdoğan: effective leader or top-of-the-line office supply? You decide.

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