#4: Learning Turkish (1891)

But the main task confronting us at first was to acquire a working knowledge of the Turkish language. I was glad that it was Turkish, the one general language of the government and the people, whereas our predecessors had of necessity stressed the Armenian and the Greek. Turkish was a noble tongue as we were taught it in those days, though it seemed as hard for Anglo-Saxons as both German and French. Like other Turanian tongues Turkish is agglutinative in structure. That is, various meanings are carried each by a single syllable or short word, and these are compounded in lengthened words, where our American and European speech would make separate words of the several parts. For instance, the phrase because-I-shall-not-be-able-to-come was expressed in one Turkish word of seven syllables. It was fine for telegrams, but with the difficulty that writing or reading the Arabo-Turkish of those days was essentially writing or reading rebusses, and positive and negative were often confused! The lack of relative pronouns and the use in their place of a vast and intricate system of gerunds was quite baffling to some foreigners. The phrase he (or she or it)-struck-my-heres included an adverb, used as a substantive, in the plural number, with possessive suffix, and in the dative case. But the Turkish grammar was more astonishingly regular than any other I ever studied; and I learned to enjoy the language very much and to feel measurably at home in it. I estimated in time at 14,000 the number of the verb forms that I knew and could use readily, but that seemed a possible exaggeration until I found someone else reckoning 17,000 as his range.

I never acquired the width of vocabulary, the diction and idiom of my native English, but could address or meet any group or individual up to generals, pashas and prime ministers, any ordinary audience in church or school, reasonably sure of communicating any message I had to offer, or of receiving any information offered me. I sometimes would use Turkish in my personal prayer as better suiting my mental mood than English, say at the end of a tense day or evening with some public church service, or discussion of some knotty problem with a committee or other group. Still I never mastered my Turkish with its confusing Arabic script so thoroughly as to undertake a second missionary language. I did venture to undertake preaching my first sermon in Turkish in the Marsovan Church in November 1891, a year after we reached the country. My text--was, "Beloved now are we the Sons of God," etc., a verse used as a theme of a Moody hymn."

NEXT: Mountain life (1892)