Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish

It is not a secret that many tales migrate from one culture to another. Sometimes it happens naturally, and sometimes we know who exactly helped to accommodate a tale to the new cultural environment. The tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, also known in the Russian speaking world as the Tale of the Golden Fish originates from Germany. The Brothers Grimm included the story about the fisher and his greedy wife (Vom Fischer und seiner Frau) in their collection of folk tales. The Brothers Grimm's book had become a European bestseller in early 19th century. Eventually Alexander Pushkin, a student of the the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg, read this tale in the Lyceum's library and remembered the plot, and put the story into verse many years later. Pushkin re-worked the story and made the tale sound so genuinely Russian that generations of readers have never suspected it was borrowed. Actually, for me as a native Russian speaker, it is hard to imagine that this tale didn't exist in Russian before Pushkin.

In Pushkin's poem, an old man and his wife had a small hut. Fishing was all they could do for a living. One day was particularly bad for the family: the fisherman threw in his net a few times and pulled out no fish, just seaweed. When he threw the net for the last time, he pulled out one tiny fish which happened to be golden and capable of human speech. The fish pleaded for its life, promising any wish in return. However, the old man said he did not want anything, and let the fish go. When he came back home and told his wife about the golden fish, she got mad at her husband and told him to go and ask the fish for a new trough, as theirs was broken. The fisherman felt frustrated and didn't want to bother the fish with the stupid trough, yet he did what his wife told him to do. The fish happily granted this small request. The next day, the wife asked for a new house, then for a palace, and so her wishes were escalating, until she asked finally to become the Ruler of the Sea and to subjugate the golden fish completely to her boundless will. She had already been made a czarina by that time. As the man went to ask for each item, the sea became more and more stormy, until the last request, where the man could hardly hear himself. When he asked that his wife be made the Ruler of the Sea, the fish put the greedy woman back in the old hut and gave her back the broken trough.

This poem has become very popular in Russia. It is safe to say that every child in Russia has read this tale at least once or watched this wonderful old-school cartoon:

The phrase “to be left with the broken trough” became a proverb. Another phrase from this poem that has become popular is the question the golden fish asked the old man every time it saw him on the sea shore: Чего тебе надобно, старче? (What do you need, old man?). Probably, you won't find старче in a dictionary, because it is an obsolete vocative form of старик, an old man. In the 1960s, “old man” was how young people, friends, called each other. It was similar to “dude” in American English. It is still can be used sometimes between close friends. The quote from the Pushkin's poem sounds funny when put in that context, like “What's the problem, dude?”. Considering that the golden fish in Russian is feminine and diminutive (золотая рыбка), the phrase can sound even more playful, since старче here becomes more like “daddy”, an old patron. But enough of cultural contexts.

What the original German and Russian tales have in common is the moral: greediness, like gambling, is about not knowing when to stop, and it will unavoidably be punished.

P.S.: My new shop on Etsy offers a T-shirt with the quotation from this tale.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Russian Proverbs About Wolves

Proverbs are concentrated common wisdom. Catchy phrases and proverbs often have “twin-brothers” in different languages, maybe because common wisdom looks pretty much the same in various cultures, or because popular sayings migrate from one area to another. Translators like to explain a proverb in one language with its equivalent in a target language, however, sometimes results can be misleading.

I was looking for Russian proverbs about wolves for my new project and found that to understand the meaning and the flavour of the Russian proverbs, one has to know how Russians see wolves in general.

Russians have been sharing their habitat with wolves for centuries. Russians observed wolves and learned their habits, in order to cope with such dangerous neighbours. No surprise that there are so many tales, lullabies and proverbs about wolves in Russia. Wolves in the Russian folklore are, first of all, aggressive, but what is more important, they have no compassion. Wolf is a beast that knows no mercy, trusts nobody and, very often, has no friends. Wolves can collaborate and even build some social ties, but their community is always based on the might of the strongest and the only reason for wolves to co-operate is to improve their efficiency in hunting.

Wolves appreciate their freedom and untamed state. Unlike dogs, they can not be domesticated and can not serve a man. Dogs are faithful servants, while wolves always pursue their own interests and wouldn’t hesitate a moment to betray their master.

I don’t know whether these observations are correct and can be used as guidance for wildlife watchers, but they can definitely help in understanding some popular Russian sayings.

“С волками жить - по вольчи выть” (live with wolves, and you’ll learn how to howl) is often seen as the equivalent of “In Rome, do as Romans do”. Well, up to a point, those two proverbs look similar, yet, the Russian phrase is not about how wise it is to act in accordance with the social norms of the society you are currently dealing with. The Russian proverb is about how society forms your personality. If people around you are like wolves - merciless, selfish, cruel individualists - sooner or later, you’ll become like them, and your soul will cry in desperation (this is how Russians interpreted wolves’ howling - a cry of desperation).

Another proverb, Сколько волка ни корми, он всё в лес смотрит (the wolf that is being fed enough nevertheless is looking to the woods) is about people who, like wolves, never feel grateful and have no attachment to those, who love them and are good to them. It is also a warning to those who think that if you are trying your best to please another man or woman, you can eventually bond him or her to your company. The Russian proverb is unequivocal here: no, you can’t change someone else’s nature, no matter how well you treat him or her.

To finish on a brighter note, here is a proverb that is playful and ambivalent: “Работа не волк, в лес не убежит” (Work is not like a wolf - it won't run into the woods). I used to think that this saying is a great excuse for procrastinators: why bother about the work to be done if you can always do it later? Find the right work/ life balance and be happy! However, while browsing the Internet and searching for translations of it, I found many people (both native speakers and learners of Russian) believing that this proverb means quite the opposite: why procrastinating? The work is not going to be done on its own, if you don’t do it, nobody will do it for you. I honestly don’t know which explanation is correct. Perhaps, both - this proverb is not the only one in Russian that flips its meaning easily.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Q&A: Accents in Russian

Hello, sorry if I'm bothering, but I've been wondering something about Russian accents, and I was hoping you could answer me. In my country, northern accents are viewed as wonderful, and are mostly associated with intelligence and culture, whereas people with a southern accent are often considered to be ignorant, backwards, and stupid. So I was wondering, do any of these stereotypes exist within Russia? Are all accents appreciated? Thanks for your time. Sorry if I wasn't clear!

Thank you for the interesting question! In Russia, pronunciation is more or less standardized, and accents are generally considered to be a sort of deviation from the “normal” pronunciation. The norm is based on the Moscow accent and has two variants - the old norm (old-style norm, almost non-existent now) and the new norm (young norm). There are a few clearly distinctive accents - the so called okanye, when there is no reduction of non-accented ‘o’. This accent was widely spoken in Russia’s European North and today is considered to be rural. I’ve never met anyone who speaks like that. Another clear accent is the so called “south accent” with wider vowels and g like /ɣ/. This accent is associated with Russia’s Southern areas. Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and the last president of the USSR, is known for the Southern accent, for example.

There is the so called “akanie” - the type of accent with wide ‘a’ and many vowels morphed toward [ee]. This type of pronunciation was considered to be normal for people from Moscow. People from Russia’s provinces used to mock Muskovites for that. However, because of migration and many people from other areas moving to Moscow, I haven't heard this accent for quite a while.

There are also a number of stereotypes of how immigrants from various areas speak, but I don't want to translate them here for many reasons.

As I said before, the idea of the norm is (or, at least was, until the very recent times) strong in Russia. The only dialect that is considered to be prestigious is the old-school dialect of Saint Petersburg, which has some subtle pronunciation nuances and some vocabulary different from the Moscow norm.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Monday, September 1, 2014

Perfective and Imperfective Russian Verbs Of Motion

I often hear from students of Russian that verbal aspect (perfective and imperfective verbs) and verbs of motion are the two grammar topics most difficult to comprehend. As a native speaker, I can only guess how scary and confusing it can be when one has to choose which verb of motion to use and whether it should be perfective or imperfective.

I like explaining difficult grammar nuances as simply as possible, so I have developed my own explanation for different aspects of the Russian verbs of motion. Some of my students have found it helpful, so I decided to share it with others. This particular explanation works for the Future tense, but it also can be transferred to the Past with some adjustments.

First, let me remind you that the Russian word for go is идти (on foot). This is an imperfective verb. By adding a prefix you can modify its meaning and make a perfective verb out of it:
  • по+идти = пойти (to start moving, to leave)
  • при + идти = прийти (to come, to arrive)
So, imagine you are going to the park. Imagine time as a line with you in the present at the very beginning of the line and the park somewhere at its end:

Your way to the park starts with leaving a house and ends with arriving to the park. Those two major events can be represented as the vertical lines between you in the present and the part in the timeline:

Any action that can be represented as a vertical, a thin slice of your time line should be translated into Russian as perfective. For the first line, leaving home and starting your way to the park, you may use the word пойти: Сегодня я пойду в парк. (Today, I'm going to the park). For the second line – your arrival to the point of destination – you may use the word прийти: Я приду в парк через час. (I'll come to the park in an hour).

Imagine that you decide to take a walk to the park. You expect the road to take you about one hour. In your timeline, this hour is the space between the two vertical lines. It is not an event that takes only a thin slice of your timeline, it is rather a process. Any action that can not be imagined as a dot in the time line, that has no clear “borders”-vertical lines, requires an imperfective verb. In this case, we have to use an imperfective verb идти. Я буду идти в парк час (It'll take me one hour to reach the park).

It works for other verbs of motion too. For example, лететь (to fly, imperfective):
  • В понедельник я полечу в Москву. I'm going to Moscow next Monday.
  • Я прилечу в Москву в полдень. I'll arrive to Moscow at noon.
  • Я буду лететь в Москву четыре часа. I'll be flying to Moscow 4 hours, the flight will take 4 hours.

I hope my explanation helped you to understand the difference between perfective and imperfective verbs of motion. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Your questions are always welcome!