Can and John
by John Tumpane
When I arrived in Turkey in May 1958, the first thing I bought on the
local market was an English-Turkish dictionary. I was a member of the
advance team for our company, which had just received a contract to
maintain the U.S. Air Force Bases in Turkey. We arrived in Istanbul via
Pan Am after midnight. On the way into the city, all the neon signs
looked so strange to me: Tuzcuoglu, Haci Bekir Lokumlari, Koc. I thought,
I'll never be able to learn this language. Then I saw a sign reading Is
Bankasi and I was sure the word "bank" was lurking somewhere in there
Since I knew one word of Turkish already, I decided to stay.
I love language. (They say marriages succeed or fail, not on sex or money
problems, but on language alone.) And I love foreign languages almost as
much as English. In high school and college I had taken five years of
Latin, three years of French, two years of German, and loved them all.
Now, here I was in a new country with an exotic new lan- guage to
conquer--Turkish! Additional signs along the way such as Cinar Otel, Pera
Palas, and Anadolu Sigorta, only fortified my decision to stay since I
saw clearly in those neon lights the words " hotel, " " palace , " and
The next morning, before my teammates were out of bed, I left the
Istanbul Hilton and hopped a "taksi" (another Turkish word I grasped
easily). I ordered the driver to take me to Istiklal Caddesi
(Independence Avenue) where I had seen on my tourist map in English, the
"University Bookstore." I leapt out, telling the driver to "Wait!" (I
knew he understood that word because I hadn't paid him), and charged into
"Do you speak English?" I barked at the young, beautiful, dark-haired,
dark-eyed girl standing behind the cash register.
"I want to buy an English-Turkish dictionary," I shouted, "Chabuk!"
(Quickly). proud of another Turkish word I had learned the night before.
The pretty girl started shaking. "Yes, sir! Please follow me, sir!" She
ran to the front of the store and grabbed the Redhouse English-Turkish
Dictionary off a shelf. "Here!" she said, almost throwing it at me.
I flipped through the pages and discovered that it had no phonetic
pronunciation of the Turkish words. "You wretched girl! How am I to know
how to pronounce Turkish words without the phonetic spelling?"
She looked bewildered and started trembling again.
"Bring me an English dictionary and l'll show you, said. "Chabuk!"
She reached into the front window of the shop and pulled out a copy of
Merriam-Webster's Second Collegiate Dictionary of the English Language,
"Good" I said, flipping it open at random to the first word on the page.
"look, archaeology. and in parentheses ar-ke-ol-i-je. You see?"
She started to apologize for no parentheses in her Turkish dictionary.
but it was getting late so I said, "Oh, never mind, I'll take it. How much?"
I got back to the Hilton at 10:15 a.m. and found our whole team sitting
on their luggage outside the entrance of the hotel. We were scheduled to
fly to Ankara at 11:15 a.m via THY (Turk Hava Yollari-Turkish Air Lines).
"Hurry. John!" said Nila Springer, the only female on our advance team.
"We were about to leave you here." She was our Mother Hen, our Personnel
Director, but I knew she wouldn't leave without me. I ran up to my room.
threw the Redhouse into my ditty bag along with my airline ticket
passport. Polaroid camera and Baby Ruth bars (l had al- ready packed my
suitcase), and was down in three minutes standing beside Nila, waiting
for the "otobus" to take us to the airport.
After we boarded the THY plane to Ankara, I sat down beside Nila. She
opened up her thick, loose-leaf notebook of SOPs (Standing Operating
Procedures) and started revising them. I opened up my Redhouse Dictionary
and learned immediately that all Turkish vowels were Latin or European:
[a] as in father
[e] as in bet
[i] as in machine
[o] as in boat
[u] as in tutu
Then I learned that most of the consonants were the same as the Roman
alphabet, with a few exceptions:
[c with a cedilla under it] is pronounced ch as in China
[s with a cedilla under it] is sh as in shell
[j] is soft as in the French Jacques
[c] is a hard j as in jazz
Suddenly I realized that Turkish was completely phonetic. Every word was
pronounced exactly as spelled: Amerikan, bambu (bamboo), kanser (cancer),
fotograf. I got a hot flash thinking of my shameful behavior in the
University Bookstore that morning. No wonder that pretty girl must have
thought I was mad--demanding a Turkish Dictionary with the pronunciation
in parentheses. Oh, Allah, forgive me!
Just then I realized how to write my name John in Turkish. The J was hard
[C], the o was the sound of [a] in father, the h was silent (ridiculous
and unnecessary), and the n was no problem. I got so excited, I pulled
out an air- sick bag from the pouch of the seat in front of me and
printed on it in capital letters :
I showed it proudly to Nila.
"It's in the back," she said, jerking her thumb toward the rear of the
Mr. John Tumpane is the author of Scotch and Holy Water, a book about his
life and escapades in Turkey. Scotch and Holy Water is a best seller.
This particular story will appear in a sequel to Scotch and Holy Water.
You may order Scotch and Holy Water by writing to :
St. Giles Press POB 1416 Lafayette, CA 94549
To: Suleyman Sadi SEFEROGLU
Date: Sat, 13 Mar 1993 07:41:21 PST
Sender: Turkish Cultural Program List
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