Thursday, January 20, 2011

Seemingly The Same, But Completely Different

Choosing a correct word from the many words with the seemingly identical meaning (synonyms) is one of the biggest challenges for non-native speakers. Why human languages have synonyms? If the work that language does is to label objects, why put more than one label on one thing? Does it mean that the human language is excessive?

My response is that by no means the language is excessive. The reason for synonymy is that naming things and describing reality is not the only work that human language does. Language is the perfect, flexible tool for communication. When we talk to each other, we not only describe the situation (reality), but also put this situation into the context. We make our speech adequate to the circumstances. An article in the science magazine and a quick conversation between two fellows can refer to one and the same thing, but use absolutely different vocabulary. In the Russian language, we call it “speech styles”. In one situation, the word “pupil” would sound better than “student”, in the other, “student” would sound adequate, while “pupil” wouldn't fit the context. So, often synonyms have the identical meaning, but belong to different styles, and can be used in different contexts. The super-goal for non-native speakers is to master the language to the degree, that the subtle nuances of meaning are clear, and the choice between synonyms is not a problem any more.

So far, the situation doesn't look too dramatic. A word has its “real” meaning and may have some stylistic connotations, so what's the problem? Check to see whether the word is neutral and use it freely, memorize that this or that word is informal (scientific, rude, poetic) and use it with caution. This is true, but the problem with synonyms doesn't end here.

A few days ago, in one language forum I found a very interesting question from the student that is learning Russian. He question was, what is the difference between “тут” and “здесь”? Both words mean “here” , so my first thought was to reply “There's no difference, they are complete synonyms” (this is actually what most Russians replied there). But then, I recalled the golden rule that I was taught when being a student: There's nothing excessive in the language, if there are two words for one thing, there should be the reason, why the language needs both. Naturally, I checked whether there is any difference in styles for these words. Some forum members did the same and answered, that “тут” is more informal and colloquial, while “здесь” is more formal. I double checked a dozen of dictionaries and found that stylistically speaking, both “здесь” and “тут” are neutral, and can be used in any context, formal, informal — any!

“What mysterious words!” I thought and started searching for scientific articles regarding this topic. At last, Lady Fortune smiled to me, and I found a brilliant article about these two words by professor M.G. Bezyaeva. Besides nominative (“real”) meanings and stylistic specifications, Dr. Bezyaeva marks out the communicative level of the language. It may sound scaring, but in fact, this means a very simple thing. When speaking, we describe some situation (labelling things), but also describe our attitude toward the situation and express our wishes, fears, wills and so on. To my luck, she illustrated this idea with the two words — “здесь” and “тут”. Dr. Bezyaeva said that “здесь” is either about place (here) or time (then, now). It is neutral and has no communicative connotations. The word “тут” is not so simple. “Тут” refers to the situation on the whole (both time and place), marks that a speakers knows the circumstances well, and also may express the speaker's opinion about the situation. Russians tend to use the word “тут” when they consider the situation relevant to their own interests, feel that the situation is under their control or is going out of their control and think that the described circumstances are good or bad for them or for other participants of the communication. Eureka!

Communicative level is like another dimension of the language. What couldn't be explained with the nominative meaning, can be easily clarified in the light of communication tasks. Of course, native speakers always feel communicative meanings of the words and phrases, but rarely focus on it, taking it for granted. Many “meaningless” things like interjections (“же”, “-ка”, “-то”) and exclamations (“ой”, “ох”), indirect word order and so on – all this expresses what in IT-language may be called “overhead information”, the information about what we think of the situation, our interlocutors, ourselves and much more. Is it possible to learn the language so well that start “hearing” these meanings? I'm sure, yes, it is. The best way to master on it is to deal with the real language — watching movies, listening to the Russian radio stations, reading books and talking to native speakers.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Russian Words Derived From The Place Names

The Russian language, like many other languages, has many words that derived from the names of geographical places. The French province Champagne gave the name to all sparkled wines in Russian. Though French wine-makers insist that only wines produced in Champagne can be called Champagne, in Russia the word “Шампанское” (Shampanskoye) became the label for all sparkled wine.

Советское шампанское
Photo by Leonid Prokopchuk

Same happened to Cognac. The noble brandy from the France became the category name. Any brandy, including Greece' Metaxa and famous Armenian brandy, are called “коньяк” (konyak) in Russia. Port wine, the wine made in the Portuguese city of Porto, shared the fortune of Champagne and Cognac. Despite the international regulations, the whole sort of sweet fortified wines are named “Портвейн” (Portwein) in Russia, doesn't matter where they were made. The word Скотч (Scotch) competes with the general name “Виски” (Whiskey), though the latter is more common. Since whiskey is not so popular in Russia as Cognac or Port, there's no well-established word for this class of beverages.

The word “одеколон” (odekolon) came to Russian from the French "Eau De Cologne" that meant "the water from the Cologne" (a German city). The word was inherited about two centuries ago, and today not many Russians know its origins. Also not many people would recall the Spanish isle Menorca when adding mayonnaise (“майонез” in Russian) to their salads.

Geographical places gave names not only to beverages and food where they were originated from; some types of clothes and footwear also inherited their names either from real countries of origins or from what people thought was a place of origin. Thus parkas, a type of heavy jacket with a hood, in Russia are called “аляска” (alaska), and flip-flops, an open type of outdoor footwear, sometimes are called “вьетнамки” (vietnamki, after Vietnam). Like in English, capri (pants), bermuda (shorts) and bikini undewear in Russian are "капри" (kapri), "бермуды" (bermudy) and "бикини" (bikini) correspondingly.

What names Russia gave to the world? These are gzhel (гжель), a style of ceramics which takes its name from the village of Gzhel, and khokhloma (хохлома), a wood painting handicraft named after a trade settlement Khokhloma. Sometimes I meet the word “Russian” as a name alone with “dance”, “dall” or “soup”, but all these things has their original names that have no word “Russian” in them: “казачок” (kazachok), “матрёшка” (matryoshka) and "борщ" (borsch).

The list of words that brought world-wide fame to the geographical places is by no means complete. Would you like to continue listing with examples from your language?