Thursday, November 21, 2013

Swearing Correctly

As some of you may have heard, the chairman of Russia's Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin has recently faced some very unpleasant questions while giving a lecture at the Sorbonne on prosecutions and the reform of the criminal proceedings in Russia. You can watch a short video from the meeting here and read the news in Russian here.

Politics aside, I would like to comment on the Russian grammar here. What caught my attention was the phrase that a supposedly French activist yelled in Russian: “Вы преступники!” (You are criminals!). In Russian, “Вы” is either the plural ‘you’ (like in 'you guys'), or the polite form to address a person older than you, in a higher social position, or that you otherwise want to show a lot of respect to. It seems that the rebellious guy in the video put “criminal” in plural form (преступники), so we must assume that “вы” here is plural 'you'. In this case, the phrase is grammatically impeccable.

There is something that puzzles me, however. Bastrykin was only a single representative of Russia. Why would anybody address him as plural? Is it possible that the guy, who is likely a French speaker judging by his cute r-sound, pronounced a word 'prestoopnik' with a french accent, ‘prestupnique’, adding a subtle vowel in the end, so it sounded like the plural form of ‘a criminal’ to my Russian ear (prestoopniki)? If so, then “вы” is not plural -- it is a polite addressing, and the actual phrase was “Вы - преступник!” (You are a criminal!). It sounds a little bit absurd to me: why addressing someone politely to say something offensive? You are either polite or offensive, not all in one, right? So, to sound really rude, one should scream “Ты преступник!” (Ty prestoopnik), which is correct both grammatically and stylistically.

Specifying your protest

In Russian, ‘преступник’ is a general word, like a criminal in English. There are more specific words that you can use when protesting against a politician whose moral behavior is below your standards:
  • тиран - tyrant
  • убийца, душегуб - murderer
  • разбойник - a robber
  • вор - thief
  • казнокрад - embezzler of public funds
  • палач - butcher, executioner
  • похититель - kidnapper (a kidnapper of ...+ noun in Genitive)
  • насильник - rapist
  • развратник - profligate
  • лжец - liar
However, you should remember that each of those words, though not rude, imply serious accusations, so they should not be used in vain.