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

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year’s Resolutions Vs. Wishes

Have you heard about New Year’s resolutions? If you are from North America, you certainly have. In case the tradition of annual resolutions is not so popular in your country, this is a commitment that a person makes to one or more personal goals. “Next year, I will learn another foreign language” is a good example of a New Year’s resolution (and one of the most popular ones). What makes resolutions different from everything else is that they should be something that you could strive for as a person.

In North America, you are supposed to try hard to achieve your goals, but Russians hardly make any resolutions at all. We wish each other good health, joy, peace and happiness, and a lot of things (normally, less abstract, like a pile of money, a new car, a new romance and so on) to ourselves. It doesn’t mean that a person who wishes for a new car has a plan on how to get it or is going to work hard to achieve this goal. This is a desire, and, in a big part, a hope for good luck.

The concept of luck is very important in the Russian culture. During the ages of economic instability and multiple social and political crises, many people in Russia have learnt that success is often not a result of hard work, but rather of good fortune. Why commit your time, energy, or mental capacities for anything that could be smashed in a moment by forces that are much, much stronger than you? Just to mention a few, poor weather can destroy your yields, corrupted authorities can acquire your business, and financial crisis can annihilate all your savings.

However, if you can not take control by rational means, you always have a bunch of irrational tools, like signs and superstitions of all kinds. I know many well-educated young men and women who read their horoscope regularly. Many online and printed media in Russia offer their suggestions on the way you should spend New Year’s Eve in order to attract Good Luck and scare away any misfortunes. Just this morning, my mom told me, half joking, that I made an awful mistake by choosing a chicken for New Year’s Eve dinner, because eating chicken during New Year’s Eve this year may attract bad luck.

Ancient Russian pagan beliefs, like fortune-telling and card-reading are popular too. The Twelve Days of Christmas (Святки, Svya:t-ki) that start in Russia on January 7th is the best time to probe for fortune and make specific magical rituals. At the age 13-15, my friends, teenage girls, and I tried to tell our fortune with the help of a wax candle and water. The shape of a wax drop in the water was a hint - what it reminds you of is what will happen to you next year. Looking deep into the reflections of two mirrors and watching for subtle shadows was also a popular fortune-telling technique. Of course, coffee grounds would meet success among us, but it was hard times in Russia, and the best you could get was instant coffee, which has no grounds.

Language is an obedient servant of the mind. There’s no direct translation for “New Year’s resolutions” in Russian. The closest is “новогодние обещания” (New Year’s promises), though “новогодние желания” (New Year’s wishes) is more common.

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?

Bees Wax Candles
Photo by Chris Campbell