The Turk As A Shopkeeper
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I troubled myself a great deal with the Turkish tongue, and gained at last some knowledge of its structure. It is enriched, perhaps overladen, with Persian and Arabic words imported into the language chiefly for the purpose of representing sentiments and religious dogmas, and terms of art and luxury, entirely unknown to the Tartar ancestors of the present Osmanlis; but the body and the spirit of the old tongue are yet alive, and the smooth words of the shopkeeper at Constantinople can still carry understanding to the ears of the untamed millions who rove over the plains of northern Asia. The structure of the language, especially in its more lengthy sentences, is very like to the Latin; the subject-matters are slowly and patiently enumerated, without disclosing the purpose of the speaker until he reaches the end of his sentence, and then at last there comes the clenching word which gives a meaning and connection to all that has gone before.
The Osmanlis speak well. In countries civilized according to the European plan, the work of trying to persuade tribunals is almost all per-formed by a set of men who seldom do anything else; but in Turkey this division of labor has never taken place, and every man is his own advocate. The importance of the rhetorical art is immense, for a bad speech may endanger the property of the speaker, as well as the soles of his feet and the free enjoyment of his throat. So it results that most of the Turks whom one sees have a lawyer-like habit of speaking connectedly and at length. Even the treaties continually going on at the bazaar for the buying and selling of the merest trifles are carried on by speechifying rather than by mere colloquies, and the eternal uncertainty as to the market value of things in constant sale gives room enough for discussion. The seller is forever demanding a price immensely beyond that for which he sells at last, and so occasions unspeakable disgust in many Englishmen, who can not see why an honest dealer should ask more for his goods than he will really take.
The truth is, however, that an ordinary trades-man of Constantinople has no other way of finding out the fair market value of his property. His difficulty is easily shown by comparing the mechanism of the commercial system in Turkey with that of our own people. In England, or in any other great mercantile country, the bulk of the things bought and sold goes through the hands of a wholesale dealer, and it is he who higgles and bargains with an entire nation of purchasers, by entering into treaty with retail sellers. The labor of making a few large contracts is sufficient to give a clue for finding the fair market value of the goods sold throughout the country. But in Turkey, from the primitive habits of the people, and partly from the absence of great capital and great credit, the importing merchant, the warehouseman, the wholesale dealer, the retail dealer, and the shopman, are all one person.