If you are first grasping the basics of the Turkish language, whether you’re just passing through and getting by or you’re on a mission to become fluent, it is helpful to know its many ritualistic phrases. Many of them have no literal meaning that makes sense, but they are appropriate for occasions that often go unmarked in English.
If you know when to say them and how to answer when people say these things to you, you will probably impress them and possibly even deceive them into thinking your Turkish is much better than it actually is. Even when you have gotten to know people, and don’t necessarily have to stand on ceremony with them, these pleasantries will serve you well. A few of the most frequently used expressions are described below.
Buyurun – A most versatile word; it can mean, depending on the context and the inflection, something like “Step right up!” or “Here you go,” “If you please,” “At your service,” “Help yourself,” or a courteous way of saying, “What do you want?”
Hoş geldiniz – when you walk into a shop or restaurant, or someone’s home, the people who are already there will say this to you. The approximate meaning is “welcome,” which is easy enough. However, they expect a reply – Hoş bulduk – that has no exact equivalent in English.
Afiyet olsun – (lit.: “may there be appetite”) you would normally say this to people who are eating or drinking, especially if you interrupt them at it. “Enjoy your meal” or “Bon appetit” just don’t quite capture the sentiment; afiyet olsun covers most types of refreshment except maybe gum and cigarettes.
Kolay gelsin – (lit.: “may it come easy”) you would say this to someone who busy at work, sometimes as a polite way of getting their attention. It can be used as a greeting or in parting.
Geçmiş olsun – A one-size-fits-all expression of sympathy for most misfortunes, regardless of severity. Less commonly, it is used for other occasions, as well. It does not always imply condolences, however. The people in the salon said it to me just after I’d had the finishing snips done on a recent haircut, and I didn’t think it had turned out badly at all.
Güle güle kullan! – “Use it happily!” This phrase is to congratulate someone if you notice she’s got a new coat, pair of shoes, handbag or other personal item. It recalls a time when getting something new to wear might be considered a really special occasion.
A special note on sneezing — if someone sneezes, you would say Çok yaşa, which more or less means “long life.” The onus is on the sneezer to answer with any of several responses: “Teşekkürler” (thank you), “Sen de gör” (“may you also see it”) or Hep beraber (“everyone together”).
Some may find it easier, as I do, simply to avoid sneezing at all costs.