Apr 7, 2008

Язык мой, враг мой (On Russian language, part 1)

This verb is usually reserved for ax-throwing contests, or really any situation where axes become airborne.

This little oddity makes it very hard to request a single cowberry in a restaurant.

If you're talking about Whitsunday with your boss, or writing about it in a paper, you can't use this word. You may only use this word for Whitsunday when discussing Whitsunday with friends or family.


Now I may not know what a cowberry tastes like, or the difference between Whitsunday and Regularsunday, or why I'm still in Russia, but I'll tell you one thing - the English they speak here is impossible to understand. It's not just accent, like in Ireland or Canada... it's like they use completely difference words, for everything. Some of the letters don't even look the same. You really should hear it for yourself, but I swear... it's like the Russians don't speak English at all. It's awful. Today, I wanted to talk a little about the dialect here, which locals maintain is actually a completely different language - Russian.


Did you know, that in "Russian," you can say

"In a squatting position while dancing, almost with his face touching the ground, the artist drank a cup of tea through a lump of sugar he was holding in his mouth" ...

... in just FIVE words? Check it out:

Five words.

Or here's another - I overheard this conversation in a Crash Taxi this morning, and ran to the dictionary to decipher it. In Russian, as it turns out, you can say

"The green bridge loomed over the cabinetmaker while he worked. Earlier, in his home located at the foot of that bridge, he had caught a chill from sitting in a draft, so he had taken a warm shower, using a piece of bast as a bath sponge" ...

... in 8 words?

I wasn't sure how to express this in American English, but for the record, I used a colloquial form of the verb "to be a cabinetmaker."


Many language experts (especially Russian ones) maintain that language can dictate the character of the nation that speaks it, and even affect its history. It sounds silly, but facts do seem to back it up. Take, for instance, German: word order in German is extremely rigid. I'm no expert, but the first website I found on Google says that words in a sentence must follow this order: subject-verb-object-modifier-'other information'. So expanding this discipline and rigidity to the culture as a whole, this is why Germans are indistinguishable from the precise machines that they build, never make mistakes, and have no feelings.

The Russian word for "German" comes from the root "dumb," as in, "unable to speak." Want to know why? Because Russians hate Germans. But that's not the only reason. Russian is on the opposite end of the language spectrum in its construction. In Russian, word order is extremely lax; you basically spit out the first word that comes to mind first, the second one second, and so forth. At least I do. As you might imagine, this makes Russian a very flexible langauge. Add to that tons of interchangeable prefixes, suffixes, and other tricks to intensify or soften words, and a huge wealth of colloquialisms, the language is basically like building with an endless supply of legos - or for a foreign student, having fistfuls of legos thrown at you for 7 months.

Russian, therefore, has enormous potential for literature and self-expression, nuance, intensity and emotion. As for the national character, this is why Russians scream and cry and laugh and love and dream, and can believe in a perfect utopian future, but can't organize traffic well enough in the present to avoid the pointless, devastating car wrecks that happen almost hourly. The longer I live here, struggling with the language and watching how fluent speakers conduct themselves, the more I believe that language plays a huge role in culture, not just the other way around.

I'm not sure what the supporters of that theory say about English. But the more you think about it, the more believable it becomes. French sounds nasal and haughty, and French people usually treat you like crap. Mongolian sounds harsh, even grating, and Mongolians burn your cities to the ground, and slaughter you and your family like livestock.  Abstract theory aside, though, certain terms and words directly reflect the culture, like in any language. In Russian, for instance, there is no separate word for joy - they just use "vodka." And instead of a unique word for "delicious," the Russians simply say "not poisonous." Had I paid more attention in Russian class back home, I'd have known to bring spices, sauces, and stomach medicine, just from the subtleties of the language alone!

After this year, I really do believe that the only true way to access a foreign culture is through its language. I also believe English is the greatest language of all, and that more people ought to speak it. But I can't seem to convince anybody here.


Today's entry is shorter than most, because I actually intended to write about Mongolia, but changed my mind at the last second. I wrote most of the Mongolia one, and uploaded all the pictures, most of which are of goats (you'll see why), but couldn't organize it so it made sense. For the record, though, I was in Mongolia, it was wonderful, and gave me all the moral support I needed to survive until the end of May.
In general, I'm feeling pretty good, about my life here, about my return home, even, i dare say, about my Russian. Not without excpetions and embarassment, of course. Example: a few weeks ago I was getting a little ahead of myself, and decided I had learned all the Russian I needed. That same week, I had to give an oral report about Perestroika. In the time of Perestroika, it was very fashionable to talk about the NTR - Russian for "Scientific-Technological Revolution." However, I saw on the news not long ago a story about a "NLO"-sighting in the Caucasus - Russian for 'UFO.' NTR, NLO... You can probably guess where this is going. So in my over-confidence, I mentioned UFOs at least 5 times in my analysis of Gorbachev's reforms. So the process continues.
I do have some bad news, though. At least, bad for those of you who read the blog, but don't bother to write me personally. I think the blog is winding down. I'll post about Mongolia, but beyond that, the enormous, final wave of work has started to gather strength these last few days, and looks pretty serious. I need to register for classes, think about an honors project maybe, which requires thinking about a topic, which i gather requires thinking about what sort of work i want to do in the future. Ha. On top of that - several 10-15 page papers, in Russian, which you now understand will be torturous, and then the daily pressures of studying here/constantly dodging death. So write me emails - I'll respond to those. joseph.kellner@gmail.com.
Also, write comments. I even have a prompt this time, since frankly, you've all been slacking quite a bit on the comment-front.
This is a textbook on Russian culture. Using the hint-words in English on the left, try to guess what the chapter is about! (If you can't read them, the words are "pumpkins of immense proportions," "abandoned gay," "sincere friendliness," and "a feeling of the indissoluble link.")