If you are heading out to teach in the fractious, mixed-up region of the Balkans (that
area of southern Europe comprising Albania, Northern Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria,
Romania, and European Turkey), it would behoove you to know a little bit about the
surprisingly varied and creative lengths that the various nationalities go to just to say
'yes' and 'no'- in any language, the two simplest of all lexical units. Yet despite this,
Balkan ways of expressing assent and dissent are just as diverse and confusing as the
motley assortment of peoples there who have been laying into each other for hundreds of
years. Besides punching, kicking, and smacking with an accordion, one finds several other
commonly used methods of non-linguistic communication.
First of all is the tongue-click negator. This happy little response to a question is
found generally in the Balkans, but most often encountered in Turkey. It is a very simple
way of saying 'no' or, "no, we don't got none, don't bother me by asking stupid
questions." The tongue click is performed by pressing the tongue off of the bottom of
the upper jaw and then quickly pulling it back from the teeth. This causes a temporary and
not very attractive elongation of the mouth. The sound produced should be a crisp, clear
and definitive click, the kind of response that stops a conversation dead in its tracks.
The Turkish tongue click is often accompanied by the upward eyebrow roll, another simple
way of saying "no". This is a favored expression among the Greeks; its
effectiveness owes primarily to the splendid lack of effort projected by the respondent.
Not only does the upward eyebrow roll say 'no', but it also conveys the thought, "no,
and stop boring me, I'm not interested in talking to you." This movement is easily
accomplished- just slowly and gravely roll your eyebrows up to your
forehead (sometimes this is accompanied by the word 'ochi', which is the Greek for 'no').
The common idea of both gestures is laziness, that the respondent cannot be bothered to
even formulate a reply to whatever question was asked. Unsurprisingly, Westerners tend to
take offense at the Turkish tongue click and the Greek eyebrow roll; remember that for
them, however, its simply the done thing.
Despite the humor implicit in these first two, the Balkan custom with the greatest
potential for entertainment has to be the Bulgarian head nod. In short, those wacky Slavs
have a history of getting not only their economic systems backwards, but their gestures as
well. Basically, an up-and-down head nod (which would mean 'yes' to most of us) means
'no', and a side-to-side head nod means 'yes'. This opposition to our custom comes across
particularly bizarre in actual practice. Imagine, say, that you are trying to get
directions to an office in downtown Sofia where you have a meeting. "Is it down this
street?" you demand. The Bulgarian academic-turned pretzel-vendor just grins
idiotically while waving his head from side to side, and you stare in helpless confusion,
imagining that the poor fellow just can't speak English.
So there you have it. Even without a knowledge of several odd foreign languages, awareness
of these basic Balkan gestures should allow you to achieve the most essential level of
communication. You're on your own, however, when it comes to the dreaded evil eye: if get
hit with that, I can't help you- and you probably did something to bring it upon yourself
Christopher Deliso, a native of
Massachusetts, received his B.A. in Philosophy and Greek (Hampshire College, 1997), and an
M.Phil with distinction in Byzantine Studies (Oxford University, 1999). Over the past four
years he has lived and worked in Ireland, England, Turkey and Greece. While at Oxford, he
was the recipient of three travel and research grants for Byzantine sites in Italy, Greece
He speaks Greek, and maintains an interest in research on
topics of Byzantine philosophy and intellectual culture. He was an English teacher in
Istanbul for several months in 1999, and also in Crete, Greece, for the better part of the
year 2000. Based in San Francisco, Christopher currently pursues travel and fiction
writing, and is active in Greek-American affairs. He hopes that with any luck he will be
back in the sunny Mediterranean again before too long.