This is not a post about etiquette. It is, rather, a post about language.
In the summer of 2013, I did preliminary fieldwork in Istanbul, Turkey. Preliminary fieldwork is a sort of trial run, if you will, where doctoral students in anthropology go out and test the waters, in an attempt to make sure their yearlong dissertation project will be feasible. For me, this involved a lot of time hanging out with a group of Kurdish university students. Having just gone with a single contact and no idea who I might be spending time with, my inner higher education professional (I do, after all, have a master’s in the subject) was very happy with the way things turned out.
One day, as we were chatting, my main contact in Istanbul insisted that I learn how to say “thank you” in Kurdish. Spas. “It is an important word for you,” he said.
I have, up to now, focused on learning Turkish for my fieldwork. Shortly after my time in Istanbul, I spent eight weeks in Bursa, Turkey in an intensive Turkish language program. This was followed, in summer 2014, with another intensive Turkish program in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. However, when I go to Istanbul in a couple of weeks, I will not only embark on research, I will also start my journey into learning the Kurdish language. I am excited to finally learn Kurdish, the “mother tongue” of many of those with whom I conduct my research. Sometimes, I think if I could go back and choose my doctoral field of study again, I would choose linguistics. Languages fascinate me.
Turkish and Kurdish are not at all related. They are, in fact members of two different language families. Turkish is part of the Altaic language family, related to other Turkic languages such as Azeri, Uzbek, Uyghur, as well as Mongolian, and arguably Korean. Kurdish, on the other hand, is a member of the Indo-European language family, most closely related to Persian, but also to languages as wide-ranging as Hindi, Greek, Russian, German, French, and English.
My contact in Istanbul was right. Spas has been very helpful. I still, sadly, know little more than this in Kurdish, but every time I utter it, it is met with a smile. Often a spas xweş (you’re welcome). Frequently, what I interpret as a sense of happiness that I care enough about the Kurds with whom I conduct my research to be making an effort with their language.
“Thank you” is such an essential phrase. In any language.
I have often called myself a collector of phrases. I refer you back to my fascination with languages, stated above. I love those lists of words and phrases that don’t translate well into English (like this one). One of my favorite phrases to collect is “I don’t know.” It can be useful, and it’s more fun for me than the cliché “I love you.” My preferred ways to say “I don’t know” are in French: Je ne sais pas, and Turkish: Bilmiyorum. Each just rolls off the tongue so nicely.
But, my list of ways to say “thank you” is perhaps the most useful. Think of how many times you say it each day. Being able to say it in the language of the place you’re visiting is invaluable. Learning even this one little phrase is a sign of goodwill to those you meet on your travels. And remember, whether you like it or not, you will be seen as representative of your home country by those you meet. Learning a bit more than thank you, or using a phrasebook, will take you even further in being able to communicate and making connections. In my experience, it’s been through these types of interactions that the most meaningful travel happens.