Friday, February 18, 2011

Small Talk? Not in Russian

“You Russians are so honest!” my colleagues exclaimed me after my critical presentation in a business meeting. I wasn't sure if I should have taken those words as a compliment, but I thought that there was nothing wrong about being honest. I didn't worry too much about that notice, however, I started thinking about why my conversational style is so different. After some analysis I came to the conclusion that there is no small talk in the Russian culture. We may say “easy talk” (непринуждённая беседа), or “pleasant talk” (приятная беседа), but never small. Russians rarely discuss trivial topics just to fill up voids in conversation. If a pause does occur, Russians would rather move to a hot topic that is relevant to everyone. If a Russian says “What a nice day!” he really means this, he really wants to attract your attention to the enjoyable weather and great view. (Jokingly, but still quite true, one Russian woman wrote in her book, 'if you ask a Russian “How are you?” be ready to listen to the speech about how he or she actually is, because your Russian interlocutor thinks that you've specifically requested this information').

Why do people talk? Among others are the following reasons: the need of expressing one's needs or desires, exchange of information (to let other people know something really important), revealing the truth by disputing, persuading somebody to do/not to do something, self-promotion (making other people think that you are a nice, smart, trustworthy and reliable person). Small talk only serves the last purpose and doesn't fit all the rest. Russians consider small talk just a waste of time and revealing that you have nothing to say.

Penguins' Small Talk by Michael Berenz

Here are a few words that describe a conversation as a good or bad one. A good conversation is “разговор по душам” (literally, soul to soul or heart to heart talk), “откровенный разговор” (honest, upright), “глубокий” (deep talk, when the deeper views of the discussed problems are expressed). A bad conversation is “пустой” (literally, empty, resulting in nothing noteworthy), “поверхностный” (superficial, when problems are just touched upon, but not discussed properly), “мутный” (a slang word meaning shady). A conversation in Russian culture is more than just a casual talk, this is a mutual involvement into the process of information and emotional exchange. Any communication has to be meaningful, but it doesn't have to mean “full of words”. You can keep silence and still enjoy the conversation. A wise man said, “A friend is a person with whom you can keep silence and feel comfortable with”.

I'd like to end my post with a quotation that supports my statements on the Russian culture of communication. This is from the famous poem “Eugene Onegin,” by Alexander Pushkin:

Onegin was assessed by many
(critical judges, strict as any)
as well-read, though of pedant cast.
Unforced, as conversation passed,
he had the talent of saluting
felicitously every theme,
of listening like a judge-supreme
while serious topics were disputing,
or, with an epigram-surprise,
of kindling smiles in ladies' eyes.
(Translated by Charles Johnston)

The writer described a superficial person, who honors every subject and avoids serious topics. Isn't that what small talk is all about?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies

How do we hear our language? Why are we not very good in hearing sounds that do not exist in our native language? Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another -- by listening to the humans around them and "taking statistics" on the sounds they need to know.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gender of Nouns vs Gender of Adjectives

One of the first things students learn about the Russian grammar is that Russian nouns have a gender. This means that each noun can be one of three genders — masculine, feminine or neutral (or “middle gender”, as we say in Russian). Though one may find it pretty awkward to call things “she” or “he” instead of “it”, the idea of noun genders is quite simple. In English, people call ships and cars “she”, however, it is pretty obvious that neither ships nor cars have any feminine characteristic by nature. Russians went further by placing gender labels onto all nouns. Nouns “possess” genders and can not change them. The word “душá” (soul) is always feminine, while the word “дух” (spirit) is always masculine (some language philosophers see here the resemblance with Yin and Yang).

One of the easiest (though not reliable) way to determine the noun's gender is to take a look at its ending. Most (however, not all) masculine nouns end with a consonant. By the way, in some way, this is true for English too. Look at some masculine names like Nick, Rick or David and you'll see what I'm talking about. Most feminine nouns end with “a” or “я” (again, like Lisa or Julia in English). Most neutral nouns end with “о” or “е”. This is not a rule, though. The word “папа” (dad) and “мама” (mom) have the same ending, though for obvious reasons, the first one is masculine and the second one is feminine. The large group of nouns ending with the soft sign (-ь) can be masculine or feminine, so it's necessary to check every word in the dictionary.

Unlike nouns, adjectives can change their gender; they “borrow” genders from the relative nouns. What do adjectives do in language? Adjectives describe nouns. Adjectives are not “independent”, as they always “belong” to nouns, they inherit a host's gender. In order to add an adjective to the noun, the adjective should use the same gender as the noun: “белый кот” (a white male cat), but “белая кошка” (white female cat), and “белое молоко” (white milk, where milk is neutral).

Picture by Vasya Lozhkin

Adjective endings are much more predictable than those for nouns. Thus, in the nominative case, adjectives in the masculine form end with -ый/ий or -ой; adjectives in feminine end with -ая/-яя; adjectives in neutral end with -oe/-ee. When you see a pair “adjective + noun”, in most cases, you can guess what gender of the noun is by the ending of the accompanying adjective.

  1. Nouns “own” genders, while adjectives “borrows” them from nouns.
  2. Adjectives are always of the same gender with their respective nouns.
  3. Masculine adjective endings (Nominative case): -ой or ый/ий
  4. Feminine adjective endings (Nominative case): -ая/-яя
  5. Neutral adjective endings (Nominative case): -ое/-ее