FOUR HUNDRED AND FORTY FIVE

From The Idiot by Elif Batuman.

“I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix -miş. I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet. The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip. I recognized that this was true, but had never consciously grouped those forms together or tried to articulate what they had in common. In fact it was really hard to articulate what they had in common, even though it was easy to follow the rule. One of the most common uses of the Turkish inferential, the book said, was in speaking to children. This, too, I remembered: “What seems to have happened to the doll?” The inferential tense allowed the speaker to assume the wonder and ignorance that children live in—that state when every piece of knowledge is basically hearsay. There were things about -miş that I liked: it had a kind of built-in bewilderment, it was automatically funny. At the same time, it was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others. It compromised and transformed everything you said. It actually changed what verb tense you used. And you couldn’t escape. There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations. You were forced to use -miş, just by the human condition—just by existing in relation to other people.”