Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

An emigrant doctor’s linguistic journey on crutches

Zeynel A. Karcioglu
Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

Figure 1. A photograph of Kemal Atatürk
unveiling the new Turkish alphabet in 1928

I am a linguistic cripple like many other immigrants. When I came to the United States as a foreign medical graduate I was rather young, but the neurocognitive linguistic skills of my Turkish mother tongue were already established in my cortex. The Turkish language, as inherited from my parents, was the “purified” form of Ottoman-Turkish taught after Kemal Atatürk’s language reforms were instituted following the formation of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s.1,2

Ottoman-Turkish had its foundation in the Turkic tongues of Central Asia (Ural-Altaic languages), but during the last 1000 years of Seljuk and Ottoman domination, it was heavily influenced by Arabic and Farsi, and after 1800s by French technical and scientific terms.3 Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, had a deep desire that his nation craft its own science and literature, to be studied in its own language, Turkish. He understood wholly that the young Turkish Republic’s future depended on its abandonment of religious and traditional dogmas and its embrace of scientific principles. In order to achieve this goal, and to overcome the hurdle of difficult-to-learn Arabic based lettering, he commissioned linguistics experts to create a new alphabet suitable to Turkish phonetics but with Latinized symbols (Figure 1). The new, and ultimately very practical and teachable script—still in use today—is much less complicated than the Arabic and Persian cursives, ligatures, and diacritics used by the Ottomans.

The earliest references to the origin of the Turks (and the “Oğuz,” a sister tribe) are found in the Chinese chronicles, and they are referred to a nomadic peoples living in northern Mongolia and Siberia. In the eighth century they left their native soil and migrated toward the southwest. By the eleventh century most of those who had reached the Near and Middle East were settled, converted to Islam, and began to be heavily influenced by the Arabic culture. Their original language family, later coined as Chagatai Turkish, included a host of tongues including Turkmen, Kazakh, Azeri, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uighur, which boasted a rich vocabulary necessary for nomadic life but deficient for expressing theological, philosophical, and scientific information. Therefore, the learned amongst the Turks adopted the Arabic and Persian alphabet and vocabulary, because of the shortcomings of their own language and also partly due to Islamic influence.

As the old Turkish saying goes, I could have traveled by caravan from Istanbul to the Great Wall of China speaking just one language—Turkish. However, I traveled in the opposite direction and it became quite obvious early on that my Turkish was not going to be much help to me in my westward journey. So when I came to this country, I was armed with this old language spoken by less than 0.0001% of the American population. Worse yet, I thought I knew English, which was taught in high school. By Turkish standards, my high school was a fairly good one, particularly its English lessons. However, the curriculum, which was loaded with grammar, Dickens and Shakespeare, proved not helpful in the US even to buy fuel for my car. The way I had learned it, “gas” was what I had in my belly when I ate too many beans, and a “station” was where the locomotives pulled in when we went to pick up my father when he returned from business trips.

So I had to learn this new tongue, American English. I did it as well as I could to maintain my daily life and work. It was a challenge I gradually overcame,  if one overlooks incorrect pronunciation, and a few personal pronoun problems here and there. At times it was a disheartening journey. Like the time I learned that The Oxford English Dictionary defined my old identity, “Turk” to be “a barbaric person.” Moreover, John Dryden, a demigod of English literature in Restoration England, was repetitively complaining that my new language is “a barbarous one.”

Resigned to being characterized as a barbarian of one form or another, I carried on, and like many other adult émigrés, even after forty-five years, my written English is much better than my spoken one. Fortunately, American English has become a truly global language, with millions of excellent translations of practically everything from all languages, including books written in Turkish.

Figure 2. The author’s cartoon rendering of “6, 7, 8 and 9,” sketched to complement the essay.

After several decades, my Turkish also became broken; my vocabulary got rusty, not only because it atrophied due to disuse, but also because of the expansion (in my absence) of the modern Turkish language. The problem there is a little different from English; my pronunciation of words I learned at age four is very good, but when I speak, I notice that my sentences are different from others’, and the right words do not readily come to the tip of my tongue. Once more, like English, Turkish is more fun to read these days; and happily there is plenty of good material, including works of a recent Turkish Nobel Prize winner in literature.

When one looks at the genealogical classification of languages, one cannot identify any shared features between English, which belongs to the Germanic subgroup of Indo-European tongues, and Turkish, which belongs to the Turkic subgroup of Altaic languages.4 Bouncing back and forth between these two entirely different languages over the years has utterly convinced me that they have absolutely nothing in common, except for a few borrowed words such as “yogurt” in English, and “supermarket” in Turkish.

However, some months ago, an uncanny commonality came to my attention while I was sorting out reading materials for my young grand-daughter Elâ (“Elâ” is hazel, like the eye color, in Turkish). I was reading the old joke that children enjoy when they first learn to count:  “Why is 10 afraid of 7?” The answer is, of course: “Because 7 ate 9!”  It occurred to me that, incredibly, this word-play could be the alike in Turkish, with a slight shift towards six from seven (Figure 2). The Turkish version of the joke would be: “Why is 9 afraid of 6”? The answer: “Çünkü, (because) altı (6) yedi (7) sekiz (8).”  “Yedi” is the number “seven” in Turkish, but at the same time means “ate”—the past tense of “eat” (the infinitive is “yemek”). This was hard to believe, considering that the etymological origins of the words and numerals in these two languages are entirely different. The modern Turkish numbers six (altı), seven (yedi), and eight (sekiz) stem from the Uighur language numerals “alte”, “yet’te” and “sekkiz”.4

Now I wonder what the odds are of this sort of a linguistic coincidence. Could this simply be a curious happenstance, or is there some pataphysical relationship between the two languages?


  1. Lewis G: The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. Oxford University Press, London, 2002
  2. Edwin T: Who was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk? Extensive research on Atatürk.Quara, 2016 https://www.quora.com/Who-was-Mustafa-Kemal-Ataturk
  3. Hagopian VH: Ottoman-Turkish Conversation Grammar: A Practical Method of Learning the Ottoman-Turkish Language. Heidelberg, 1907
  4. Haspelmath M, Dryer MS, Gil D, Comrie B: World Atlas of Language Structures. Oxford Press, Oxford, 2005
  5. Eren H: TürkDilininEtimolojikSözlüğü. Ankara, 1999

ZEYNEL A. KARCIOLGLU, MD, is a medical/surgical physician, researcher, and medical educator specializing in ophthalmic oncology and pathology, presently practicing and teaching at the University of Virginia. He has written numerous scientific papers, book chapters and books and has given many presentations at regional, national, and international meetings. His tangential interest has been the diseases of the artists and the effects of health problems on their work. To this end, he studied on particular instances of writers’ and artists’ diseases, and has produced a variety of works in general medical humanities.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 9, Issue 4 – Fall 2017

Winter 2016 



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.