My Father and I, each being a language enthusiast and lover of diction in our own right, used to have long and memorable conversations spanning their merits from the logic in spelling to the simplicity in phonetics of English versus Turkish. Perhaps, calling them conversations is not the accurate term; scholarly arguments or simply teasing would better define our discussions. It would be redundant to mention that Babacim's knowledge and logic unfailingly won, leaving me in a flustered state of miserably failing to defend my beloved English – the subject which I had supposedly mastered to prepare myself for a career of teaching it to native speakers of the language. Needless to say again – I never admitted that to him, although, now that I am older, I'm certain that my crestfallen appearance, which I could never hide, must have betrayed my state of shattered linguistic ego.
Perhaps it was the fervor of my twenties that propelled me into desperate searches with the hopes of finding one tiny flaw, one minor exception in Babacim's notations – or his clever examples which would convince him beyond a shadow of a doubt that English is a beautiful language, in spite of its lack of rhyme or reason. And perhaps it was that very inherent characteristic, that youthful chaos she possessed, or the acceptance of words from other tongues she welcomed which became the pied piper of my non conformist youth, who was thrilled at the existence of a kindred spirit albeit – through a language.
Babacim devoted his retirement years to creating a two volume English Turkish Dictionary. It took him almost twelve years to get ihis work ready in print ready format. During those years, when he and my mother lived in Ottawa, I visited them often with my young family. I used to spend hours with Babacim in his study, discussing and arguing the exact nuance of a word, its synonyms, usage, and form sentences to include as examples in his Herculean endeavor.
Although we often did not see eye to eye, both of us agreed that English was invented by people, not computers, and accepted that it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, by the way as Babacim pointed out, is not a race at all. Not in Turkish, anyway, which had a different word for each meaning. Our eye to eye seeing periphery was unfortunately not very wide. While Babacim played the devil's advocate I, unaware of his motive then, used to defend English with the passion of all the female saints put together. Deep down I knew I was martyring myself, but I enjoyed the winding roads which pointed to my inevitable sainthood - at least in my imagination.
Although both of us loved a good linguistic repartee, we often got off the track of our intended purpose and lost ourselves in laughter, marveling at the unique lunacy of a language in which one filled in a form by filling it out, one's house could burn up as it burned down, or an alarm went off by going on.
He questioned why people have noses that run and feet that smell; or why there is no egg in eggplant, ham in hamburger and neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
I could never explain how a slim chance and a fat chance could be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy were opposites. More often than not, I conceded defeat as I pretended to look hurt, but knew deep down that truth was unbeatable.
A decade or so earlier, I remember how confused I was when I found out that sweetmeats were really candies, while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, were meat and mincemeat contained almost everything - including alcohol - but meat ! I owe this moment of serendipitous enlightenment to a glorious summer afternoon, when I was sprawled on the chaise lounge in our back yard, totally immersed in Pearl Buck's Imperial Woman and had developed a craving for sweetmeats – although I was a newly budding rebellious teen vegetarian. Nor did I understand why one would sweeten one's meat instead of salting it. Should I run to Babacim and betray my beloved English, or should I let him find out for himself ?
Over the years, when I taught the grammar, spelling, as well as its poetry and the literature of this language, which I acquired not by birthright, but more as my destiny and result of blood, sweat and tears, I found myself mellow more like Babacim and echoed similar, challenging questions to my students.
Are you too close to the door to close it?
The bandage was wound around the wound.
Was the farm used to produce produce?
The insurance for the invalid was invalid.
And make them aware of the incongruities, inconsistencies, and those unique, humorous idiosyncrasies of their mother tongue, so that they could love and have fun with their language. Use it well and let it fit their purpose like a glove, leaving no room for doubt in the clarity of their expression of content. Because, I believed that we own only what we know thoroughly - and only then can we have the license to manipulate it.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
When you see the tear in your coat, please don't shed a tear.
Since there's no time like the present, we thought it's time to present the present.
Thus when I remember Babacim and how he pursued his passion, these memories return to me - precious pearls in their own shells – and my mind travels back to 1980's Ottawa. Bookshelves rise to the ceiling covering three walls. A desk full of references. An early model Macintosh computer. Floppy discs. A laser printer. I pull a chair next to his desk and we start talking.
"So Tatarcim, tell me. . . Why is it when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible?"
I know there is no way I am going to win this discussion. Besides, I have traveled those roads by now, Babacim, and I have understood your playful wisdom. I concede. I might as well join your game.
No idea, Babacim, but did you know that quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.?
"You are a teacher. Tell me this. If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?"
Bilingualism or Multilingualism is a blessing. The more languages a person speaks, the more his/her world expands. One gets to question and even understand concepts which may not even exist in her own culture. It's like the opportunity or the gift of flying, and being able to study cloud formations from both or many sides, and making some sense of their illusions. Or getting into someone's train of thought and riding together for a while until you make some sense of what failed to make any before.
To quote Lee Iacocca :
“Talk to people in their own language. If you do it well, they'll say, 'God, he said exactly what I was thinking.' And when they begin to respect you, they'll follow you to the death.”Because, I also believe that life isn't only about making a lot of money, but it's mostly about being part of the big picture and helping to make that picture the most beautiful one we can. We can do so only by breaking down the barriers and understanding each other.
Speaking of Iacocca. . . Quick! Why doesn't it rhyme with Buick ?
Füsun Atalay ~ Copyright © Will of my Own - 2012