“You can’t study language with someone of the opposite sex,” a friend recently told me when he heard that Sarah and I had been being tutored by a woman.
“Why not?” I asked, incredulous. “I’ve only had women as my teachers thus far.”
“Maybe things are different where you live,” he said, “but I used to have a woman tutor, and when I would talk on the street, other men would ask me why I talked like a woman.”
Turns out, my friend was right. While it may seem odd to an English speaker, for many languages – including Kyrgyz – the men and women have certain patterns of speech that naturally divide them. While learning Kyrgyz, our female tutor taught us to greet people with one word: саламатсызбы? (which is roughly translated, “Are you at peace?”). After using my new word with various elders (this is the formal version of the greeting), I was finally asked by one of them, “Why are you saying that? Only women say that to other women!” In Kyrgyzstan, men greet each other by saying а салам алейкум (the traditional Muslim greeting, meaning roughly “The peace of God be with you”).
Now, you might think that my tutor – a professional language teacher who also teaches at a local university – would have thought to avoid teaching me to greet people like a woman would, but somehow that slipped past her attention. Perhaps it is a situation where she taught me “proper” Kyrgyz, and it simply in no way corresponded with “real” Kyrgyz. I’m not sure. It is possible she just was not very attentive to our class, as she also obviously never prepared for our class, and frequently taught us the same thing over and over again. But that’s another story.
As an American, it is fascinating that men and women greet each other differently here. Of course, in the U.S., men and women both are allowed to say, “Hello” or “Hi” or “Howdy” or “What’s goin’ on?” or whatever they please for greetings. As I’ve thought about it, I can’t come up with examples where we would correct someone speaking our language for greeting us “like a woman” (or “like a man,” for that matter).