When ideas don’t translate

No matter how many times I tell them, Be it a Murat or a Zeynep or someone named Elif or even a Yiğitcan or two, they refuse to accept it. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis suggests that, to varying degrees, each culture-language allows people to consider, discuss and understand some ideas more and better than others do. In the linguistics of today, the linguistics practiced in departments so named, the hypothesis is dismissed as either untestable or worse, wrong. But the hypothesis holds water, a lot of it. Here is a conversation vaguely related to it.

Afiyet olsun meets internet meme absurdity.
Afiyet olsun meets internet meme absurdity.

Languages have both formulas for communicating ideas and truth values and such, as well as set-phrases for doing much the same. Put another way, in English you can convey how sure you are about something with a little adverb like “certainly” as in: “Certainly a day will come when you will understand the horrors of teachehood.” But you can also say: “As sure as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow, you will one day repent for having touched my Batman action figure.” In the first, the adverb “certainly” allows the listener to infer that the speaker truly believes that such a day will come. In the second example, the same is true, but by use of a comparative sentence similar to /a is as true as b/. These phrases are very englishy, especially the adverbial one. But they are also very indo-European-y, as they are easily translated using nearly identical (often cognate) language structures and words. In English it is the case that the certainty with which a speaker makes some assertion is important and by consequence English has formidable number of adverbial evidentiality markers (adverbs which relate how sure the speaker is about something). The preceding was meant to let the reader know that there some things that are important in English.

I remember reading the article where I learned about the number of adverbial evidentiality markers. But I remember much more viscerally my early days of Turkish learning. I wanted to convert how sure I was of what I was saying, using adverbs, but not only did I not know their Turkish counterparts, but as it turns out, they are few and far between in Turkish. For sure, evidentiality is important to Turkish speakers, but it is both conveyed differently (think endless numbers of postpositions), and also sometimes it is not as important as other things. Continue reading “When ideas don’t translate”


Ancient City, Ancient Crypt

IMG_4511So I met up with a traveler that I had said I would show around town. I had wanted to explore the Theodosian walls further south than I had before. In a past trip I found a synagogue turned parking lot and some really nice Turkish people. Nothing other than cursory research could have prepared me for what we found.

We met up at the Boğa in Kadıköy, and took the famed Metrobüs across the first bridge, across the Golden Horn, and across about half of the length of the Theodesian walls – those walls so impenetrable that only several hoards, Christian and Muslim were able to breach them at different times in history.

We got off the Metrobüs at Cevizlibağ. I got myself a two Lira Pilav, not because I was hungry, but because it is so delicious. We walked across a park across from the 1453 Museum and past a Muslim cemetery. Behind it there is an opening in the second wall, which leads to a stair way. If you climb those stairs you come out on top of the second wall and are able to walk along it, looking out the arrowslits.

Farming in the ancient moat.
Farming in the ancient moat.

Between the second and “third walls”, farmers, of yet-unknown-to-me ancestry farm the soil between the second and third walls. The farmed space is actually the land or backfilled land that exists where the moat used to be. As you walk along it, in some places, you can see small dams built, presumably to contain irrigation water for the farming operation.

Delicious. Fallen cities make the best farming.
Delicious. Fallen cities make the best farming.

The moat, in theory, stretched most of the length of the Land Walls, execpt for the new walls which were built to enclose the suburb and palace of the Blachernae on the northern end of the city, near the Golden Horn. What I call the third wall is actually a restored part of the escarpment of the moat. I wonder how much of the food I have eaten came from this area!

The spaces between the second wall and the giant yet crumbling first wall is a mass of rubble, dog-paths, trash, human latrines, homeless shelters and one ancient crypt, in short a proud UNESCO World Heratige site. A series of holes in the wall, some ancient, some modern, allow pedestrian and vehicle traffic to move between the land of th

e ancient city and the vast expanse of the modern city west and south of the byzantine peninsula. On the back, east side of the wall a motley assortment of shacks, huts, warehouses, city machinery yards and other not-so-pretty things of cities can be found.

A view roughly due west. That is the second wall. The areched doorway is were we came out. We jumped from the ledge down onto the dog-infested path.

As we passed a shop not far from Silivrikapı a man shouted at his friend to take a look at the foreigners waling by. I said hello to him and struck up a conversation.  He asked what after all we were doing in that part of Istanbul. I explained that we were just looking for old stuff. He said that between the walls, just past the Silivri gate was a small church. He told me to be careful.

We made a small stop by a man-café where they had a potbelly stove and warm çay. There, three men with binomial names ending in the name nomen “Kan” or “blood”, Serkan, Hağkan, and AliKan, told us to be careful because all sorts of “Gypsies, Kurds and other people” hang out there. Duly unnerved, we headed 100 meters down, past the Mosque and into the space between the walls.  A few feet beyond the road, sure enough there was a little semi-arched structure and some men in it. We approached, they welcomed us and we spoke breifly.  The man was kind and insisted that we go inside what was presumably his home. I was a bit nervous, though that was nuts. Turkish people are very welcoming and kind and to be very honest, I have never heard any credible stories of attact or robbery.

IMG_4495I was not sure what I expect would be inside, mostly delapidation from neglect and the sheer disinterest there is in all things pre-Ottoman.

Inside, what little winter light came in the columned doorway showed us a room from the very long past. There were at least 6 crypts all of which seemed opened. On the sides there were old carvings, but I couldn’t make them out very well.  This was the first time that I have set foot inside an unprotected, un-restored, uncaredfor historical structure inside Europe. I was fascinated, but did not want to ask the gentlemen anything. I decided to come back the next day with more light and fresh batteries.

That night I  tried to find information about the crypt but for some reason couldn’t find any. This was surprising since there is even information on already dug-up-and-covered sites within Istanbul. Site here.

IMG_4507I went out this morning, camera, tripod, flashling in hand and wearing soil-able clothes. I took another friend of mine with me, and after an somewhat uncomfortable encounter with the wall-dogs, which are far less docile than the ones who exist in the rest of the city, we made it to the  crypt. There was the man from the day before, whose same it turns out is Attila, sitting in the portico carefully cutting and apple on his make-shift table covered in the day’s tabloid.

Continue reading “Ancient City, Ancient Crypt”


Sistine-Chapel-1560x690_cAn amazing thing happened the other day. I was speaking with some new Turkish friends at this café not far from where I work, here in Istanbul. I met these guys three days ago. Our conversations deal mostly with language. I wanted to avoid the subject that day out of respect for my newfound friends. I am always afraid that people get tired (and they do) of my constant “linguatalk”.

But they insisted on talking about the stuff. After much conversation about Turkish words, English words, Arabic words etc., they finally asked a question about something that really puzzled them: “Why do English speakers always talk about God as ‘He’?”  I was floored by the question. I immediately remembered to my first conversation in Turkey with the airport shuttle guy. I had gotten him to “conjugate” being American in Turkish for me, and I realized that there was no gender in the 3rd person.

Even after I gave them the explanation I am about to give you, one of the people at the table remarked “but still… How can that be? God has no gender.” I had heard similar “but still”s coming in the other direction –from English-speaking friends asserting that things could be no different somewhere else, because God, or their perceptions of gender, society, even physics, MUST BE correct.

There is no gender in Turkish. There is only one third-person pronoun o. They add to it different endings to reflect its use in different parts of speech, but it is genderless.

In my eyes, a great contrast is drawn between male and female in Turkish culture. For example maybe 50% of the women I see here in Istanbul are covered with an eşarp. Yet my Turkish friends cannot understand why “God” would ever be anything other than an entity, above or beyond sex. They told me that it even says so in the Koran; that God has no gender. But ask an Egyptian and he/she/it will tell you that God is male. I did in fact ask an Egyptian who corroborated this.

Yet, for some Christians, the very notion of God being something other than “he” is offensive. God is male. He is God the father. Even progressive, liberal, Left-wing, pro-choice Christians refer to “God” as Him, He, and the Father, who together with his son rule the Universe. But most Christians speak language where there are 3rd person gendered pronouns and in some cases nouns with gender.

There is no difference between “language” and “culture.” Within the parts of human interaction which so-called Linguists study there is an explanation for this. I have already alluded to it. Learning to communicate with gender colors (filters, taints, skews) the way you perceive the world including the ethereal forces we only intuit or wish into existence.

In our youth we are taught to diffrentiate among some things like color and gender. But we are not all taught the same categories. Just like the popular example from the Illiad and other ancient texts (eg. The Bible) human interaction (in this case language) allows some to perceive things that others may not. For example, it is quite possible that neither Homer, nor Cleopatra nor Lao Tzu ever thought of the color blue as anything other than a sort of red or green. They were never taught that the color existed.  For my new friends the very notion that God should have gender is vexing  –God can never be anything other than O, he-she-it all in one word.

Cash for A Sunny Madrileño day


Many years ago, while watching some daytime TV, I saw a segment on saving money. You know, that sort of segment that big brother puts on to appease the poor and make pathetic, jobless loafers feel superior. In this case it was a segment on saving money. They had an “expert” on who explained that you can save a lot of money for a rainy day by always breaking a fresh bill to make your purchases. Well, I thought is was stupid, in part for the aforementioned reasons, but also because in these times who uses cash?

While living here in Spain I do use cash.  Also I am less than wealthy (this may be understatement). So- I noticed in January that I had a nice little pile of coins going and so I decided to see how far I was getting. 40 Euros was the count then. A month ago it was just under 100. Walking home from school today I thought maybe I had hit 120 or so. Wrong. 156+ Euros en la hucha. Hucha is a word for piggybank from the French word huche; de origines “peu satisfaisantes.”  LINK

Anywho, here is the picture of the savings. I will convert them into paper money for travel purposes. Otherwise EasyJet will charge me 155 Euros for the extra kilos the money supposes.

Life in Madrid, un bosquejo

At the Sherry Bar El Matritense
At the Sherry Bar El Matritense. My friend William took me here. It is ina picturesque rare visited plaza.

Spain for me has been like no experience before. Perhaps the part that impresses me least is the untold centuries of human history on display. Every corner of the city (Madrid) every hectare of land on the peninsula has reams of history associated with it, most often of a regal variety. Sometimes, when you are with interesting people who know how to tell the story,  that can turn out to be interesting, otherwise it is boring and for me unimpressive.

“You mean to tell me that people, with simple machines built this wall, which was later destroyed by other people using simple machines? Oh, do tell me more about this fascinating story about the building of walls.”

Roman mosaic on display in a museum whose main attraction is a magical well into which a child had fallen yet was saved by magically rising waters. I can't remember the name of the saint.
Roman mosaic on display in a museum whose main attraction is a magical well into which a child had fallen yet was saved by magically rising waters. I can’t remember the name of the saint.

Madrileños are people no different from anyone else in the world –except—in their habits. And when I speak of Madrileños, I am not speaking of the immigrants who provide the Madrileños with all the comforts they enjoy, because as I confirmed this weekend, they live in wholly different parts of town. Aluche is one such place.

One a sunny are warm day, a day which heralds the coming of spring, young Frenchmen show of their circus skills for the frenchwomen who are watching them off the frame. There they were the girls, letting the men compete for them, like do the femaes of hooved animals.
One a sunny are warm day, a day which heralds the coming of spring, young Frenchmen show of their circus skills for the frenchwomen who are watching them off the frame. There they were the girls, letting the men compete for them, like do the femaes of hooved animals.

I don’t know how to tell the story of my experience in Madrid, because, it is basically daily everyday awesomeness. None of the experiences are like mi hiking trips or muggings, yet they are all so profoundly enjoyable.  Sure, my wallet was stolen when I was in a bar in La Latina. But that would not make for an interesting story.

Today a friend, whom we will call Kundus invited me to have dinner at his father’s house in Navalafuete a small farming town 2 hours outside of Madrid. I went with him his lovely wife and his children –loveable devil spawn.

The day was spent visiting an overly restored castle, running into one of my coworkers, having dinner with his silver-tongued philosopher father and hiking around in the country visiting a donkey whose name I believe is Pepe.

Over restored castle in Manzanares del Real
Over restored castle in Manzanares del Real

Continue reading “Life in Madrid, un bosquejo”

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