Hey Language Nerd,
I’m about to head to Turkey to visit my goofy sister and was hoping for a bit of help. Can you craft a list of useful phases (how to be polite, purchase things, and whatnot)? I don’t want to just hop on over there and be a total goober to the locals.
Sure thing, though I think we all know who the really goofy one is around here.
Before you get into this, you might wanna get ready for pronunciation with this post on the sounds spelled out by the Turkish alphabet. Most important is that Turkish c is our “j,” Turkish v is “v” at the beginning of a word but “w” in the middle, and ş and ç are “sh” and “ch.” Plus there’s no such thing as a “silent e” in Turkish – güle is pronounced kinda like “goo-lay.”
Merhaba. “Hello.” But all the cool people drop the “h” and say Meraba.
Nasılsın? “How are you?” You can answer with İyiyim, “I’m good,” but the more common answer is just…
Teşekkürler. “Thanks.” Pronounced like “teh-sheh-koor-ler,” sorta. If that’s too easy you can go with the more polite Teşekkür ederim.
Lütfen. “Please.” Point and say bu “this” or şu “that,” then lütfen, and what what, you are requesting things!
Var. This word is something like “exists,” but it’s used as a handy combo of “there is” and “I have.” So Restoran var, “there’s a restaurant,” or Arabam var, “I have a car.” “Car” is just araba; the –m is on the end means “my,” so the sentence is really more like “My car exists.” You can throw that -m onto just about anything, by the way, to show that it’s yours.
Şoför bey! İnecek var! A really handy var phrase. Şoför is “driver,” like “chauffer,” and bey means “Mr.” Together, this is how you tell your bus or dolmuş driver that you’re at your stop.
Yok. The opposite of var. If you ask for a chicken döner in the middle of a tragic chicken drought, the waiter will weep and tell you Tavuk döner yok. People will also often just make a tsk noise (or “c,” in some languages) to mean yok. This feels kinda rude to an English-speaker at first, but it is in fact totally polite and normal.
Mi. This word is magic. It basically means “?” and turns anything you say into a question.* Because Turkish doesn’t need an “is” or “are,” you can just throw this down after a noun, like Mavi Cami mi? “Is it the Blue Mosque?” Turist mi? “Are you a tourist?” Whatever, you plop that sucker down and you’re good to quest. Now you’re set up for a whole slew of interactions, including the all-important Tuvalet var mı?
Evet/Hayır. Regular ol’ “yes” and “no.” For when people answer all your questions.
Nerede? “Where?” This comes at the end, as in Mavi Cami nerede?
Buyurun. “Here you are,” or “go ahead.” What people will say when they give you your food and whatnot, and what you can say as you nicely hold the door open for little old ladies with grocery bags. Also what street food vendors tend to call out to attract your attention to their delicious wares.
Afiyet olsun. Like “Bon appetit,” what people say when they’re about to eat. And when they’ve finished eating. And if they see somebody else eating. Really anytime they’re near food. And for drinking, there’s –
Şerefe! “Cheers!” Two notes on Turkish cheers-ing: first, younger people clink their glasses against the bottoms of older people’s (the rim of your glass hits the base of theirs). Second, often people will thump beers and other heavy glasses against the table after clinking and before drinking, as shorthand for “…and may we meet up and do this again sometime!” Try to control your enthusiasm if doing this with wine glasses, she said with hard-earned wisdom.
Ne kadar? “How much?” For asking prices, mostly, so let’s get to –
Bir, iki, üç, dört, beş, altı, yedi, sekiz, dokuz, on. The numbers one to ten. The next nine are easy: “eleven” is just on bir. Yermi is “twenty,” and the high end of most meal prices. But just in case, “a hundred” is yüz.
Little little into the middle. “Some of everything, and we’ll share them.” Alright, this is an English phrase, but if you say it at a restaurant the Istanbulites will know what you mean. It’s from Turkish comedian Cem Yılmaz’s joke about going abroad and asking for his food Turkish-style – “Everything, but little little into the middle.” If you want to be more Turkish about it, ask for the meze “appetizers,” and the waiter will bring over a tray and start putting tiny dishes down. When you’ve got stacks of them heaped about the table and the chairs and the dinner guests’ heads, say yeterli, “enough.”
Çok. This dear friend means “many,” “much,” “very,” “too,” “so,” and probably a half-dozen other things besides. It’s a huge pain for Turkish speakers to learn all the gradations and differences in usage of our “very”-type words, but coming the other way, all you need is çok. “Very beautiful”? Çok güzel. “Too many people”? Çok insan. “I have loooots of money”? Çooook para var. Doge would be much less complicated if it were a Turkish meme.
Hoşça kal/Güle güle. “Good-bye.” Like Korean, “Good-bye” is split into two, one for the person staying and the other for the person leaving. Hoşça kal means “stay nicely.” Güle güle, more weirdly, means “smiling smiling.” It’s the first bit of a longer phrase that means “Go away smiling, come back smiling.” Bye bye is also acceptable.
Hoşgeldiniz. “Welcome.” What people say when you walk into their shops, and what I’ll say when I see you at the airport. Looking forward to it, bro!
The Language Nerd/Your Sis
*This and many other Turkish grammar bits are subject to vowel harmony, which means that it can be mi, mı, mu, or mü depending on what vowels are in the word before it. But bump that noise, you’re only gonna be here a week. Say “muh” and people will get it.
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Most of my references this time are my awesome coworkers, who are impressively patient with my constant pestering. Thanks y’all. If you would like to learn Turkish but sadly do not have awesome Turkish coworkers on hand, there are some good books out there. I like Colloquial Turkish by Aarssen and Backus and Teach Yourself Turkish by Çelen-Pollard and Pollard. There are also some nice podcasts, including Turkish Tea Time and Learn Modern Turkish. The latter is where I learned why on Earth people leave each other with “smiling smiling!”