Letters from Istanbul: In Search of the ‘Real’ English

(Source: Wikimedia)
(Source: Wikimedia)

On the way to work the other morning, the taxi driver, noticing I was a yabancı, asked the usual, inevitable question.

“America,” I answered.

Amerika?” the driver asked. He then surprised me by asking something different for a change:

İngilizce – ‘evet,’ ne demek?” How do you say “yes” in English? I told him.
“Yes!” the taxi driver said, somewhat triumphantly. He knew that one. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

But he seemed puzzled. Something was amiss: “İngilizce – ‘yes,’” he said. “Ama, Amerika’da ‘yeah’?”

I confirmed that – yeah, this was true.

“Yeah!” the taxi driver echoed, almost spitting out the world. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”

“Yep,” I said.

Pardon?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

It was amusing to the driver, and as we drove along, the radio playing Turkish pop, the cab echoed alternately with “İngilizce ‘yes!’ Amerika ‘yeah!’”

This little exchange got me thinking – once again – about our language, which is, for all its nuances, quirks, and faults, has been my ticket to ride on this global adventure over the past decade.

Mark Twain once wrote a splendid essay, “That Awful German Language,” in which he sent up the formidableness of that particular language.

But that was German, the 19th century. In this century, English is the new Latin, the lingua franca of the world. It’s the language of business, of money. It’s also a booming micro-industry, employing people like myself around the world.

Yet upon closer examination, it causes as much confusion, or consternation, as German ever did.

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Leaving our taxi driver, who essentially was a non-English speaker, consider the challenges this language poses for higher-level users. My fiancée, Ozge, uses English every day. She works as a guide at one of the city’s main tourist attractions, and interacts not just with British or American visitors, but with people from all over the world.

Not a week goes by that she doesn’t come home, exhausted from the tours, with some little snippet, some gem, gleaned from one of the visitors. Something as a simple as “bath.” You have the British pronunciation, in which the “a” sounds like the word “fall,” versus the American version, which of course you folks back home know.

“Which one is correct?” Ozge will ask.

Both are correct, of course.

At the weekend, or on the weekend? Elevator or lift? Car park or parking lot?

Differences in pronunciation and vocabulary aside, there are also those damned tenses. For instance, a standard English grammar book dictates that the present continuous tense (e.g., “I am working”) should never be used for ‘state’ verbs (like, know, love, etc). Yet, high above, the McDonald’s adverts proclaim, “I’m lovin’ it!” Pop songs wonder, “Who’s loving you?” Meanwhile, we talk of a friend who recently lost his job and how he’s, “really hating life right now.”

When students inquire, of course, I explain that these are colloquialisms, borne of folk and popular culture (and advertisers, I suppose).

Students carefully take note, and yet I can feel their pain. It must be confounding at times. For every rule, there is an exception, for every exception, sub-exceptions made possible by the elusiveness of dialect.

For instance, I gave them an example of Yinzer English, from my native Pittsburgh, which goes something like this:

“Yinz’ goin dawntan ta watch da football?”

Translation: “Are you all going downtown to watch the football?” Only in Pittsburgh can you say “yinz” and have it pass for a word in the English language. Whereas, in Dallas, for example, you would say, “y’all,” or “you guys,” in many other places.

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Such shades of English are a great source of fun, as well as good-natured ribbing, among teachers. Over the past decade, I’ve worked alongside colleagues from virtually every part of the English-speaking world: Englishmen, Americans, Irish, Welsh, Scots, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, even one guy from Jamaica.

One evening, at a pub in Prague, I was having beer with a colleague from Bristol. Some Czech people who wanted to practice their English joined us.

“What is the difference between British English and American English?” one of them asked.
We looked at each other, both having been asked the question many times.

“You wanna take this one?” I asked the Bristol colleague.

“Sure,” he said. He turned and addressed our listeners: “I’m BBC, he’s CNN.”

Well, that explained everything. We returned to our beer, with our Czech hosts doubtless wholly enlightened on the subject.

All of this, to our ears, sounds a bit trivial; a “kip” versus a “nap,” a “cig” versus a “fag,” a “boot” as opposed to a “trunk.”

Also, consider the new words that are constantly introduced into the popular vernacular. Words like “chav,” “bling,” “twerking,” or “ask-all” (pronounced with the same rhythm as “asshole.” Or the way we seem to make a verb/gerund of everything, especially in America. “Google it,” “Facebooking,” “Tweeting,” and all the other byproducts of social media. Actually the students, particularly the younger set, are already well-acquainted with these words, and to some extent, could probably give me a lesson or two.

Nevertheless, students really want to know: What is the real English? Perhaps it’s because there is a certain cache in knowing the language. For the students, a working knowledge of English can mean not just career advancement or education opportunities. It can also hold them higher in the esteem of their peers. In Turkey, for example, there has always been a mixture of fascination and contempt for all-things West.

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In this regard, it is important, for some Turks anyway, to feel that they are speaking not just English, but “correct” or “proper English.”

For example, one morning I popped into Café Nero for a quick coffee on my way to the school. At a booth nearby, I recognized one of our former students from the school. She’s a housewife in her late forties/early fifties, a shy woman who has been trapped in the endless desert of pre-intermediate land for years. Ostensibly, she wants to learn English for travel, but like many of her countrywomen who inhabit the foreign cafes and lounges of fashionable Bağdat Caddesi, one senses that English is for her a kind of tangible status symbol, like a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Anyway, she was sitting at the booth with a couple of other desperate Bağdat Caddesi housewives. They were having an English lesson over espresso with a woman whose accent I recognized as British.

“American English,” the shy housewife said. “For me – American English [is] not real English. England [is] real English.” Evidently, “real” English does not use the verb “to be,” but never mind.

“Oh, really?” I asked, getting the attention of the table.

The poor woman, recognizing me, blushed to to her roots. “Sorry!” she said.

My English counterpart tipped me a wink.

It was nothing personal. Besides, I’m sure my English colleagues get the same thing from time to time. For some students, raised on American television and Hollywood films, American English is the way to go. Rather than the Queen’s English, they want to speak like Steve Jobs or Brad Pitt.

So we’ve learned to support each other. If I walk into a lesson and a student asks, “Is it the ‘loo’ or the ‘toilet’” I tell them that either one is fine.

“But which one is ‘more’ correct,” they inevitably asked. “My other teacher [English] says loo. Which do you say?”

“I say ‘toilet.’ Do you need to go now?”

“Where?”

“To the toilet. Or the loo. Do you need to go now?”

“No, teacher.”

“Cool!  Shall we get on with the lesson?”

“Yes, teacher.”

Yeah.

James Tressler is a writer and teacher whose books, including “Conversations in Prague,” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” can be found at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.

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James Tressler
James Tressler is the author of several books, including Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches. He lives in Istanbul.

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