Elif Batuman - The Idiot

The Idiot

Iggy and Fyodor, meet your [Turkish] match

Early on in Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, the gimlet-eyed protagonist considers how she thinks differently in different languages. The year is 1995, and Selin Karadağ is a Turkish-American student in her first year at Harvard, where she enrols in Introductory Russian, The Psychology of Language, and Linguistics 101. In her linguistics class, Selin alights on a discarded theory about how one’s language determines the way they process events. ‘I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English – not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think about different things’, Selin says. In Turkish, she explains, the suffix -miş is used to report anything one hasn’t witnessed personally, and has a kind of ‘I heard’ meaning: an admission of one’s own subjectivity; and, when other people direct -miş toward one, Selin says unhappily, ‘you knew that you [have] been invoked in your absence – not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity.’

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