Apr 5, 2011

Примирение (On Russian language, part 2)

So I dropped in to the post office with a simple task - to prepay the postage for a parcel with a stated value.    I said three words, and I was on my way.  How, you ask, is that possible?  Well, it's possible because I said it in Russian.

Sorry about the sideways one.  And on that first picture, you have to search a little bit, but there's a verb "to prepay the postage (on)," just a bit up from the bottom.  The reason I included the entire page is because, incidentally, that is the single most useless passage in my entire dictionary, stretching from "photostat machine" to "Francium," and featuring such go-to standards as "yaws," "Thracian," and "phrasemongering."

But as the Russians say, 'that to the matter does not relate (translation mine)'.  Mostly, I wanted to show those two postage-related terms to highlight the surprising economy, and strangeness, of Russian language.  I've played this game before - in this entry from Irkutsk, I've already written a comprehensive, and if I can say so, definitive introduction to Russian language, which requires no elaboration or updating.  On the other hand, I'm in Russia again, and the whole 'language' thing still comes up a lot.  Today's entry is about language, too.

It's been three years of globalization since I wrote that old entry, but alas, Russians still speak Russian.  And they're zealots about it, too - casual conversations are in Russian, letters and books are in Russian, and even when they want to speak to a foreigner, they still use Russian exclusively.  And when they have symposia and conferences, and people write and present papers?  Russian.  This last unpleasant reality affected me personally a week ago.  The foreign language department held a "English Olympiad," in which students competed in phonetics and grammar contests, and then wrapped it up with a big round table conference with the theme "Tolerance in Pedagogy," for which I presented a short historical paper.  You might notice that my paper has nothing to do with the theme "Tolerance in Pedagogy" - they changed the theme after I started writing it, totally not my fault.  My paper was about Barack Obama.  While I was reading to the conference, I trusted my camera to a Russian friend of mine, which is always a gamble. She took a few photographs, practically identical, but increasingly zoomed in on my head until I'm too blurry to be recognized.  Here are the first two in the series:

This is the part where I'm dazzling them with my bilingual eloquence, pounding my fist on the lectern to drive home some shocking revelation.  Maybe the part were I said "Barack Obama was born in 1961."

This is the part where, after everybody has left, and the lights have gone dark, and the country has moved on, and I alone remain, speaking my piece whether or not the world wants to hear it.

I read for about fifteen minutes, and I'd even say I read pretty well.  The paper discussed how Barack Obama, born to this world amid the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement, carried the torch of Martin Luther King, and before him Lincoln, all the way to the highest office in the land.  And in doing so, how he unified a divided populace under his banner of mutual understanding and respect, and as a nation, how we finally found our more perfect Union.  Threw in a "post-racial society" here, a "justice is colorblind" there, a few amber waves of grain, pretty standard.  It wasn't a total fluff-piece - in the conclusion I did mention how that was only for a few weeks, and everything is a mess.  I structured the paper that way so that it would fill the entire fifteen minutes, and so I could learn a few new Russian words along the way.  So even though ultimately, the moral foundation of the United States is crumbling, eaten away by greed and vanity and venomous politics, at least Barack Obama taught me how to say "reconciliation" in Russian.  Primirenie.  Four more years!

Returning to the topic of language, the above exemplifies my biggest problem in Russian, one that has plagued me since I expressed my first halfway-intelligent thought in Irkutsk.  What's happened is that my Russian has developed along academic lines, in academic settings - my grammar is more or less sound (if I put in the effort), and my vocabulary is weighted towards the "reconciliation" and the "mutual understanding" side of the spectrum.  Sounds good, right?  Problem is, if I use too many 'college-level' words, Russians assume I'm some kind of savant who can taste prime numbers, and never has to hear a Russian word twice.  Then, whatever they say next is invariably too complicated for me to understand, and I stare at them like an idiot until they grasp the situation.  In general, I speak a lot better with teachers than I do with fellow students, whose colloquial speech I have trouble following.

The worst stories are the ones that involve "verbs of motion," a particularly baffling corner of Russian grammar.  It's unfortunate, because those are the stories that sympathetic Russians assume are the simplest, because the idea is simple - dog ran across the road, crash taxi crashed, pedestrian ran for his life.  But it comes out as a huge string of prefixes, suffixes, and roots that no foreigner could possibly decipher in time for the punch line.  So every time, I wait for the end, assume that something unfortunate happened related to transport, and then I laugh, because hey, that's funny.  That fools 'em maybe 50% of the time.

So as the Russians say, 'the process continues' (translation mine).  Americans might say that, too.  The process continues.  After an initial language-shock (downgraded from the full culture-shock last time around), I've started to pick up some of what I'd lost, which is making life even more enjoyable than it already was.  I'm only here for another two months, so I can't afford to complain too much.  There have been two small hiccups recently, one stemming from an overdose of antibiotics when I had flu, and resulting in something I will not discuss in any forum, public of private.  The second hiccup was actually a bit worse (hiccups are often that way), but I won't discuss that incident any more than I already have with this sentence.  Hopefully that's enough to put all your minds at ease.  God willing, it is already mostly resolved.  That was a hint.

I'm really, really hoping for nicer weather, so I can head into the mountains and take in some local natural beauty.  I'm in the Caucasus, but so far, my experience has been limited to Maikop, while there is a great wealth of culture, history, and scenery in the surrounding regions.  The larger region does tend to be moderately, mildly explosive at times, so options are slightly limited.  Still, I hope my experience here, and as a result, my blog, will broaden a bit before I leave in June.  I've also got some dacha work ahead of me, a favorite pasttime from Irkutsk that I'm eager to start again.  All that and more, coming soon.  Stay tuned.  

And leave comments, I got a grand total of zero last time around.


beth said...

yeast, blisters, rash???

Carrie said...

OK, I'll bite. Here's a comment.

I trust you threw in a few "YES WE CAN" blurbs in your talk, and possibly an "I wanna Barack you tonight." Yeah? No?

Ben said...

today, in dc, the rain goes.

Kam said...

"The larger region does tend to be moderately, mildly explosive at times, so options are slightly limited." Am I supposed to interpret that as a metaphor for the ongoing medical saga?

But that to the matter does not relate. I'm sure you are itching to get to some mountains. In terms of scenery, though, that classroom looks pretty attractive! Like, yeah the floors are pretty retro, but it works. Likewise with that huge banner of Putin. I wonder what that dour girl thinks about the PM monitoring her laundry. Would it be so far fetched to think there might be surveillance cameras built into the eyes?

Joanna said...

It looks like there are lots of fancy things in that room you were speaking in. Therefore, I think more highly of you.

Andrew said...

Don't worry, I'll send you a copy of the Hadith. If your hiccup hasn't been resolved, better start brushing up on that stuff.

Iosif Markovich said...

Wooohooo, comments!