Monday, January 9, 2012

Language Mutates

The Russian language is changing. It is changing really fast. I don’t mean new (imported) words or new slangs -- these mostly harmless things come up regularly and disappear soon. I don’t mean the popular linguistic game with the alternative spelling called scums’ language (язык подонков). Russian language is changing deeply at the level of meanings. Let me explain.

Language is a very dialectical thing. Its development is the result of two opposing trends. They are, on one hand, acquiring and adapting ever-changing reality and, on the other hand, remaining unchanged. Both trends are equally strong and equally important. Because language is flexible and productive, we can invent not only new things, but also their names. We discover the world around us and rearrange our environment, we make simple ideas more and more complex. Yet language serves our needs with amazing efficiency. To be capable of describing reality adequately, language needs changes. However, if it could change limitlessly and freely, we wouldn’t understand each other. Language is a convention between people about words and rules. Why is a cat “a cat”? Only because all English speaking people agree to label this animal with that word. If one part of a society changes rules too frequently, it will no longer share the same conventions with the rest of society, so a Babylon-2 disaster will come about in short time. Keeping the balance between the two needs -- the need for changes and the need for immutability -- is what any (spoken) language manages very, very well.

Some changes are really useful, like, say, adapting new words from other languages (these days, mostly from English) along with new things, like “Internet”. But some changes really upset me. Let me give you an example from a very interesting article of my colleague Irina Levontina. There is a word “накануне” (na-ka-noon-eh) that means a night/day before some event. There is another word, “вчера” (fche-rah), that means yesterday. The first word has one remarkable nuance -- it should be used only when you mention some event. In the sentence “I hadn’t napped the night before the exam” it would be proper to say “накануне” (the night before the exam). What I hear on TV is that journalists use this word instead of “yesterday” without referring to any specific event. They probably think that it sounds more official, but, in fact, they are using this word incorrectly. “The thunderstorm that hit Moscow the night before can come again today” they say. The night before what? Why not just say “yesterday”? It seams that a lot of Russian speakers do not see the difference between the two words any more. It is a slight and subtle mutation, but there are a lot of them in modern Russian.

Why am I talking about all this stuff here? Because I’m trying to find a right answer to the question: when learning a foreign language, should a student learn a classic (stable) version of the language and be able to read books in this language or should (s)he try to speak on one language with the street? What language would you prefer to learn - the one of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy or the one your Russian friend is speaking?

pushkin ang birds
Photo by hnumus