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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hanging on My Ears to Drop on My Head

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- I've been learning Azeri for almost a year now. I can read it well enough, it's just that when I hang it on my ears it doesn't seem to drop on my head.

Sorry, I should probably explain. To hang on one's ears in Azeri means to listen and to drop on one's head means to understand. It's an odd language.

In fact, there's some dispute as to whether Azeri is a language at all -- or whether it's just a dialect of Turkish.

Azeris understand approximately 99 percent of Turkish and it's about the same the other way round, although I did get some strange looks on a trip to Istanbul recently when I was looking for a pair of shoes and I asked someone if he knew of a shop that sold foot boxes.

Some say Azeri has enough non-Turkish words to make it a language in its own right, and certainly there are whole columns of words in my Azeri dictionary straight from the Russian.

Anything with a 20th-century bent is Russian -- camera, suitcase, car, factory, bus. Even a lot of the more basic everyday things have been taken from the Russian, including coat, table, chair and newspaper.

Our Azeri teacher, Telman, a long-suffering man who smokes two packets of cigarettes a day, has written the first Azeri language book for English speakers. Of course, there were grammar books around for school children, but there's never been a definitive course for foreigners until Telman's slim tome was published.

Telman studied English at Baku and Kiev universities in the late 1950s. It's almost perfect -- except for the old-fashioned phrases he sometimes comes out with. At our last lesson, he told my husband he was very pleased with his homework.

"Well done," he said. "Or perhaps I should say 'Attaboy!'" And people in his book aren't fat or thin, they're stout or lean.

But he takes Azeri grammar very seriously, and is always poring over books or telephoning linguist friends to find out when to use the indefinite future tense or why fleeting vowels don't always fleet.

We aren't progressing as fast as we should, mainly because we speak Russian and almost everyone in Azerbaijan, at least in the bigger towns, does too. But that's probably just as well: Telman has four daughters, and although he should have retired by now he says he has to support them until they get married. And we're his only students.

This week we're struggling with "subordinate when-clauses in compound sentences." We're supposed to be writing essays incorporating the new rules, but I might just loosen my foot boxes and hang some Azeri radio on my ears instead.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.