Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Russian Phone Numbers

Old Bakelit phone
Photo by Louise Docker

Each country has its own tradition of writing phone numbers. Some countries prefer dots and some use dashes, in Europe, people add a double zero before the country code, while Americans tend not to add a country code at all. Sometimes, it is really hard to understand how to deal with a row of numbers which seems to be a phone number.

In Russia, we use the plus sign before the country code, so the companies who work globally (and have good manners) write their phone numbers starting with +7, where seven is the code of Russia. A city code follows the country code, usually in parentheses. The code of Moscow is 495 and sometimes 499, the code for Saint Petersburg is 812. City codes can be longer, if a city is smaller. For example, a code for Novosibirsk, whose population is above 1 million, is 383, while Barnaul with its population over 600 thousand has the code 3852. The place where I live now has the code 38595, that means that it is a relatively small town in the Altay territory (all Altay cities have codes started with 385-)

Normally, Russians split the phone number into three groups with dashes like this: ххх-хх-хх or, if the city is not big enough to have 7 digit numbers, its numbers look like this: xx-xx-xx. Together with the country code and city code, it would look like +7 (495) xxx-xx-xx or +7(3852) xx-xx-xx. For advertising purpose, some companies buy “easy” numbers, so these numbers may be regrouped. For example, a taxi service number consisting of triple 7 and triple 9 would be written in this way: 777-999.

Companies and people who have no international relations may write their phone number starting with 8. Why 8? For a long time, there was the only one long distance carrier in Russia — Rostelecom. If you wanted to place a call to another city, you would first press 8 in order to connect a long-distance carrier. Today, there are a few companies in Russia that offer long-distance calls, but 8 is still the first number you should press for a long-distance call. If you are in Russia and want to place an international call via a fix line, you should first press 8 and then 10 and then a code of a country of destination. If you use a mobile phone, you may just start typing + and a country code. Read more about placing long-distance and international calls from Russia here. Please note that long-distance calls as well as international calls are quite expensive in Russia, so Skype is a better choice in most cases. I use Skype and other VoIP solutions very often, and I'm satisfied with the connection quality.

You should also press 8 first (or +7, if you call from another country) if you want to call to a mobile phone number. Mobile numbers normally starts with 9. Usually mobile numbers look like: 8 (9хх) ххх-хх-хх or +7 (9хх) ххх-хх-хх. When the mobile network had just hit the Russian market, people could easily tell what carrier the number owner subscribed to. The first three numbers were a “carrier code”. So, numbers started with 903 or 905 were for Beeline numbers, 912 or 913 were for MTS. It was quite convenient, because calls within one network were significantly cheaper than calls to another carrier. Today, there are many new prefixes, like 928 and 916, so I do not always know what numbers are for what carrier. Luckily, I don't have to care about it any more, since mobile connection is relatively cheap in Russia, even between two different carriers, as long as I place a call within my domestic area.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What Is Language Like?

When I was graduating from school, I dreamed of learning a language and becoming a linguist. I thought about language as if it were an engine or machine and wanted to understand how it worked. It was my helping metaphor for approaching language.

Indeed, during the first two or three years at university, I was studying the structure of the Russian language (phonetic, morphologic, lexical level and so on), what interconnections language levels have and what are the rules of language system. The systemic-structural approach in linguistics depicts language quite mechanically. The more I thought about it, the more dissatisfied I became with the mechanical metaphor. If a language were a closed system with a structure determined once and forever, it wouldn't change through the  times. Its rules wouldn't have innumerable exceptions. The logic “If – then” doesn't work in language, because in most cases, language offers a dozen options for each “if”.

After learning cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics, I started thinking about language as about a living creature. Indeed, language is more like an organism, and its structure is more like a body than like a machine. Language's DNAs are morphs, which form cells-words, which forms organs – morphological entities (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc), which forms working systems (syntax, a level of sentences or maybe texts). Language is living, it replaces dead cells with new ones, it changes when conditions change, it has its evolution and it never stops changing until there exists a society that speaks this language. Like any living organism, language is an open system. It has different reactions to different inputs. It is balancing between sustainability and mutations. If it were too sustainable, it could never adapt to ever-changing reality, if it mutated too quickly, it would have a sort of cancer and die too, because people wouldn't understand each other.

Why it is important to understand that language is an open system, a living system? Well, first, it may help you to accept the fact that in language, most rules have exceptions. Second, it may help you to gain a deeper view on the language you are studying, since you'll stop learning it mechanically and start asking “why?” Why doesn't this verb go with this noun? Perhaps they are from different “systems”? How does this word work? What are the reasons for changing word order here and there? These are very helpful questions. Last but not least, you'll see that practice (= life of language) is more important than rules, and start talking, writing, and communicating more, which is, in fact, the only way to learn language.

Old romanian woman in Cisnadie
Photo by Husky

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Word By Word Translation Sucks

My English teacher always suggested that students read the whole paragraph first and only then open a dictionary and look up unfamiliar words. This was very wise advice, because it helped me to quit a bad habit of word by word translating. I don't like the question “what does this word mean?”. I prefer “What does this phrase mean”, because a phrase has a solid, concrete meaning, while a word may have dozens of meanings.

Strange as it may seem, but the majority of words have multiple meanings. This means that almost every word with the exception of specific professional terms, has more than one meaning. These meanings form a kind of a field (the so called semantic field) with some integrative feature in its core. If you see a word as a field of meanings, you will notice that these fields are different in different languages. Here is my favorite example. In late 1990s, a nice Russian lady visited her friends in the United States. She knew English quite well and could read Shakespeare, but, like many other people who studied English behind the Iron Curtain, she didn't know basic everyday words. One day during her visit to America, she felt bad and went to a drugstore. She asked a pharmacist: “Do you have anal candles?” You can imagine the pharmacist's feelings. After the emotional conversation, which I'd rather skip here, the pharmacist figured out that she meant just suppositories. In Russian, a candle and a suppository is one word “свеча”. What made possible to unite these two very different in terms of functionality words into one word is the shape. Something long and thing, like a pencil staying on its tip, may be called “a candle” in Russian. For example, when I see a skyscraper, I may say “What a candle!” (Ну и свечка!). So if you try to translate “анальные свечи”word by word, you'll get exactly what the lady asked for in a drug store — anal candles.

The English word “pretty” confuses many Russians, because in our school classes, we've learned the only meaning “beautiful” for it. You know, “Pretty woman”, Roy Orbison, Julia Roberts and so on. The phrase “She is pretty ugly” blew my mind when I had read it for the first time.

Being combined in a sentence and being placed into the context, each word realizes only one of its possible meaning, and we can figure out by the context which of the meaning was realized. Like chemical elements, words have different valence, and in different languages nearly same words may have different valence, i.e. different sets of words to be combined with. For example, a word “глубокий” (deep, late) can be applied to winter and fall, but never to spring and summer. For the latter pair you'd rather use “поздний” (late).

Beside the meaning, each word has its specific area of usage. In Russian, there are two words for brown — one is a general word “коричневый”, which may be applied for everything of a brown color, and another is “карий” which is used only to name a color of eyes.

So, the smart way to translate a text is working with larger units like phrases and paragraphs and base your translation on the context. Maybe, you feel a great temptation to say “thank you, cap”, in response to my article, maybe, I'm telling obvious things, but believe me, I've seen too many funny translations which are the result of the wrong approach. By the way, the title of this article translated word by word would be the best example why word by word translation sucks.

Photo by Dave Edens

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hard And Soft

Scientists discovered that during the first few months of our lives, we hear all the sounds of human speech as they are, while our brain collects some kind of statistic information. When we are 8 to 10 months old, we begin sorting important sounds and nuances out from unimportant ones, so your brain starts filtering out nuances of pronunciation that are considered to be unimportant in your native language. If there are no nasal sounds in your language, you most likely won't hear the difference between nasal and non-nasal sounds in a language where such sounds are typical and important. We have to train our ears to hear the nuances that our brain used to filter out and need a lot of practice in pronouncing unusual sounds correctly. For example, it took me about three weeks of intensive training to start pronouncing French nasal sounds in a more or less French fashion.

Russian hard and soft consonants are what many non-native speakers are struggling with because many other languages do not have hard or soft sounds. The idea of hardness ans softness of consonants looks weird to people who have never dealt with the phonetic system like in Russian.

Almost every Russian consonant letter is for two sounds, or, better to say, for the hard and soft variants of a sound. In transcription [which is normally written in the square brackets], the softness is marked with a [ ' ] sign. In English, all consonants are somewhat in between hard and soft, so it doesn't really matter whether you pronounce a sound a bit harder or a bit softer. In Russian, pronouncing a sound clearly hard or clearly softly is critically important, because often the softness or hardness of the consonant is the only difference between two words. For example, “мать” [ma:t'] means mother and мять [m'a:t'] means to wrinkle; брат [bra:t] means brother and брать [bra:t'] means to take.

In order to determine whether a consonant is hard or soft, look at the letter that follows the consonant. Vowels А, О, У, Ы, and Э follow hard consonants, while vowels Я, Ё, Ю, И, Е and the soft sign Ь follow soft consonants, they “palatalize” the consonant before.

Some consonants are always hard, so it doesn't matter what vowel comes next. They are: Ж, Ш and Ц. On the other hand, sounds Ч and Щ are always soft.

So how should to pronounce hard and soft consonants? Have you ever watched any Hollywood's movies where actors mimic the Russian accent? Then you know how to pronounce Russian hard consonants. Just try to mock the Russian accent, when pronouncing hard sounds, and that's it.

Soft sounds are a little bit softer than normal English consonants. Here are some examples:
— Russian soft П sounds like English P in “pure”
— Russian soft В is like V in “view”
— Russian soft Д is like D in “due”
— Russian soft М is like M in “mute”
— Russian soft Л is like L in “Lewis”

I think, you've got the idea.

Psycholinguistic studies show that Russian speakers associate soft sounds with cute, nice, small things. Maybe this is why many Russian affectionate words and
names contain soft sounds.

Here is my presentation on Russian consonants:

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Man Who Created the Russian Language As We Know It

Outside Russia, Russian literature is associated with names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No doubt, these writers deserve to represent Russia in the global culture. But if you ask any Russian whom he or she thinks about when talking about classic Russian literature, you'll most probably get the answer “Pushkin”. During last two centuries, Alexander Pushkin has remained extremely popular and beloved by Russian readers. Even now, with youngsters reading less and less, Pushkin's tales and poems are known literally by everyone.

A Russian reader lives with Pushkin's poems and prose all his or her life. In early childhood, our parents read us Pushkin's tales. I don't know anybody who hasn't heard about The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish. At the age of 13 or 14, we read “Eugene Onegin”, noticing mostly the love story and skipping the brilliant description of the Russian high-society life. When we grow older and become smarter, we re-read Pushkin's historical novels, and every time we read them, we wonder how could he knew so much about the Russian mentality at the epoch, when the word “mentality” was unknown, and how could he articulate it so accurately. Quotes from Pushkin's poems run through our everyday life. It seems that during his short life (he died at 37) he had thought about and felt everything that a man could.

Due to Pushkin, Russia had a literary boom in the 19th century. Before Pushkin, the written Russian language differed much from the spoken one. The written language was considered to be more “privileged”, so it was very conservative with tons of outdated words and ridiculous syntax. On the contrary, the spoken language was more flexible and lively, but it was considered as the “low” language. In fact, reading Russian writers of the pre-Pushkin epoch is torture. The word “ponderous” fits to that literature best. Pushkin made a linguistic revolution in Russia. His poems were like natural speech. When you read it aloud, they sound like you just talk in rhymes. It was a real cultural rebel, and many of Pushkin's contemporaries hated him for that. However, we don't remember the names of those who refused Pushkin's inventions, their fiction was swept away. Nobody after Pushkin returned to the old school writing, and the boom of the Russian literature was possible only because Pushkin prepared the language to be used for creative writing.

It happened so, that Pushkin was surrounded by brilliant writers. They were, probably, the most unlucky writers in the world and the happiest ones. They were talented, but Pushkin was a genius, so their poems and novels are undeservedly forgotten. They knew that the star of Pushkin would eclipse their names. And they appreciated it, and helped Pushkin to re-arrange Russian language. They supported his experiments with the language, so it was their contribution to our culture.

To those who are studying Russian literature and Russian culture, I would suggest to read at least the key Pushkin writings. They are the following:
Happy reading to everyone and happy 212th birthday to Alxexander Pushkin!