Carol Yalcinkaya-Ferris (USA/Turkey) is now a retired English-language instructor who spent many years teaching at colleges in the USA and at many universities in Istanbul (Bosporus University, Koç University, Okan- and Piri Reis University). She lives and writes in Istanbul and San Diego.








Neue Sprache – neue Welten. Carol kam als junge Amerikanerin in die Türkei, wo sie jahrzehntelang als Sprachenlehrerin den Dingen auf den Grund gehen konnte. Mit viel Witz und Empathie erzählt sie uns ihre linguistischen Abenteuer vom Ausstieg aus dem Zug am ersten Tag bis zum Besuch der nachfolgenden nächsten Generation einige Jahrzehnte später am Bosporus. Was wie „Bier“ klingt heißt eigentlich „eins“ und es gibt Zahlen, die man mit „Sex“ in Verbindung bringen könnte … Wir reisen nicht nur mit, der folgende Beitrag ist auch ein Crashkurs in Türkisch für alle, die einigermaßen des Englischen mächtig sind. Machen Sie sich gefasst und werden Sie mit Carol Sprachdetektiv*in! 


Kurze deutschsprachige Einleitung von Helga Neumayer












One of the greatest thrills of my longish life was taking the Istanbul Express train from München, Germany, all the way to Istanbul in 1983. I had no idea what to expect, not even which language was being spoken in such a far away country. It might have been Arabic for all I knew way back then in 1983 but, of course, this was not Cairo which was how I actually had imagined Istanbul to look and sound. I had imagined camels being tied to trees with sand blowing around their feet.  What really amazed me was the juxtaposition in 1983 of Mercedes busses passing over the high-level Istanbul bridge connecting Europe to Asia with horse-drawn wagons at the same time.  Pedestrians were forbidden to cross by foot but imagine horse-wagons clomping their way from one continent to another. 


My Istanbul Express train had slowed at the edge of Sirkeci Gar/ Train Station on the European edge of Istanbul and pulled in on the same track as the Oriental Express once did. The high, open canopies of the train station had a slight umbrella effect on rainy winter days and offered a bit of shade in summer. I don’t recall that anyone checked my passport within the train station. That had already happened on the train. Reality began once I stepped onto the shiny marble floors and wandered into the waiting room. Pigeons were in there too and a scream escaped from one covered woman when an unwanted drop hit her scarf. Pigeons might have liked the colored scarf, but the trajectory was unfortunate.


A kind conductor whom I had met on the train offered to take me to an affordable hotel off the coast road in Aksaray. A taxi shuttled us there and the conductor explained in Turkish that I needed a room. He politely left me to check my room with a balcony. Later, he returned with fresh and dried fruits. He assured me that I would be safe and left to go home to his family. An AMTRAK conductor would not have been so overwhelmingly helpful. Once on my own, I had to begin learning how to communicate on Atatürk Bulvarı. That began with a receptionist from the East of Turkey who spoke very limited English. That was Mustafa Arguç; he and his wife, Mercan, remain friends to this day in 2020, although they now live in Winterthur, Switzerland, where he owns a local restaurant. I didn’t have any trouble getting help as a young American woman. I mostly needed directions. One of the things which I needed to buy was a bilingual Turkish-English dictionary. It was a standard yellow Langenscheidt, one whose pages began to fall out one by one. I began writing necessary Turkish words in the back, blank end pages of the dictionary.


I had studied Latin and French in high school, and German in graduate school, but Turkish seems like the first real foreign language which I truly needed. Starting from the Turkish numbers, I began my journey into “acquiring” Turkish. What a new learner naturally does is point and offer a number—not kilograms but pieces. The vendors wanted the number to mean ‘kilograms’ and they still do in the street markets. Selling their tray of produce as fast as they can is their goal.  Buying three whole figs, the first I’d ever seen, was my goal. I had eaten Fig Newtons all my life without having seen a fresh one. It was easy to say “bir” which sounded like “beer” in English and meant “one.” The Turkish word for “fig” is “incir” pronounced /in jir/. Each step away from my small hotel helped me to encounter more Turkish words. When I bought and held my bilingual dictionary in an underground passage near Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque, I learned that “sözluk” means “dictionary.” Each new word was like a shiny gold coin to me. Each new word added real value to my stay, my adventure, ultimately, the last half of my life and, later, meaning to the lives of my children and grandchildren, the last being Layla! Some words, I could figure out without a dictionary such as “Pamuk Bankası.” I learned that “pamuk” means cotton. Such bank names reminded me of the good old days when each bank served a certain group of merchants. There was not only “Cotton/Pamuk Bank, but Şeker/”sugar” Bank, Yapı Kredi/Building credit bank, Turkiye Iş/Work Bank, and Halk/People’s Bank. 
Every window in town advertised its occupant such as “Avukat”—a lawyer’s office,wedding gown makers, kırtasıye/stationery stores, etc. For years, I rode mini buses and studied words painted on building windows.


My pocket book was small but my heart grew big with each new verbal discovery. I loved these Turkish words. Some phrases were a bit more complicated such as “teşekkür ederim”—I thank you.  Of course, I learned how to say: “I love you”—“Ben seni seviyorum.” Slowly, I observed similar endings on some words, “Istiyorum”—“I want …” and then, suddenly, noticing the negative form, “İstemiyorum.” From time to time, a dear soul explained that the infinitive form looks like “istemek”—to want, or “yapmak”—to make or do. One drops the “infinitive ending “-mek/-mak to form the various tenses:  present (istiyorum), past (istidim), future (isteyeceğim). Turkish university graduates expect a foreign professional to speak grammatically, but a small town or village person will be delighted to hear a sprinkling of Turkish, especially “merhaba”/”hello” or “teşekkür ederim.” No matter which word you dare to pronounce, just give a smile. 


After a while of reading window signs and billboards, a tourist notices some difference in the letters: an umlaut “ ö “ or umlaut “ü” or a soft ğ or a cedilla ç or ş. A leisurely, diligent traveler will be looking up lots of new words. There are partner words too: bride and groom/ gelin ve damat, for example. Turkish just isn’t Turkish. You can spot French words, German, even Spanish being used in Turkish, besides English. I had no idea for many years that the supermarket, Carrefour, is a French name or that “asansör/ elevator,” is a French word. You may not get a German word exactly but find a German name on a big window and you figure that a German has married a Turkish partner, settled down here, and opened a business. Then, you may have an English name selected by a German: “Rainbow 48 Apart/Hotel.” Of course, you have to be a genius to explain the name even if it is in English. Probably, there are 48 apartments in the two adjoining buildings painted a pastel yellow. If Spanish, you are in luck if you are looking for the “televisión”! You may also want a “sigara/cigarro” while you watch TV. “Lavabo,” “banyo,” and “koridor” are all recognized words in both Spanish and Turkish.


In English, we say “get/git out” to a dog, for example. In Turkish, one also uses “git” to shoo some animal away. The opposite of “git” is “gel”—“come.” That is with a hard “g” sound, not the English /j/ sound. Many Turkish words have easily slipped into English and many English, native speakers wouldn’t even realize it. Consider: şiş kebab, kismet, divan, and baksheesh.


There is also body language that one notices, such as lifting the chin and nose in the air to mean “no.” In English, one shakes his head from left to right to mean “no.”


There are Turkish words that “sound” English but have a totally different meaning. “Piç” in Turkish, which sounds like “peach” in English, means “bastard.” “Sik” in Turkish has an affinity to “penis.” One should definitely avoid “sick” (“sik” in Turkish) “ill”  is advisable: “She is ill.” My young son used to get quite a kick out of “Seksen bir” (81) which sounds like the English “sex an’ beer,” if slurred. Students get a big charge out of this mistake if the foreign language teacher is not informed.


One needs to know “no,” for sure, “hayir”! and “stop,” using “dur.”  That familiar red and white octagonal-shaped sign has “dur” in the middle, not “stop.”


As in any language, one needs to recognize “men’s room” versus “women’s.”  In Turkish, “Bay” indicates “men’s room” and “Bayan”—“ladies’.” Silhouettes of men and women are very helpful.


Other funny situations may be words that sound similar:  “muhallebi” (pudding) might be confused with “muhasabe”—accountant. Or, “sarmaşık/ivy” for “sarımsak/garlic.”


One should keep the sentence pattern/type in mind if he likes grammar:  in Turkish, you use Subject/object/verb.  “Ben seni seviyorum”—I you love; in English, we use: Subject/verb/object (I love you.)


Once you recognize some Turkish words, you will notice them in Arabic:  Turkish, “şemsiye” (umbrella); ”şems” in Arabic, “sun.” “Dunya,” in both Turkish and Arabic, is “world.” You can hear these same words in Farsi and Hindi.


Finally, just a reminder: Turkish is not a derivative of Arabic. Turkish is an Altaic-origin language.  The Ottoman language did use Arabic letters until Ataturk ordered that modern Turkish should use Latin letters. Many European words can be found in Modern Turkish and certainly plenty of English ones. In moderate-sized towns, one sees quite a few Arabic signs these days due to Syrian refugees and Arab travelers in search of green vegetation and water, and more relaxed ways of dressing. The world actually grew smaller while the world’s languages, especially Turkish, reflect many foreign-related words. If you are a fan of Bollywood films or Iranian ones, once again, you can pick out similar Turkish words. One becomes a language detective. These days, a traveler hardly needs a bilingual dictionary; he just needs a polyglot Google translator. And remember your numbers: 1. bir, 2. iki, 3. üç, 4. dört, 5. beş, 6. altı, 7. yedi, 8. sekiz, 9. dokuz, 10. on. You stop at “dur”; you tell the vendor, “hayır.” And when you really admire someone, you might venture to say, “Ben seni seviyorum.”