Monday, September 3, 2007

Exploring Babel, Part I (On Languages)

So Julia and I were chatting in the bliny place. "Is Russian harder than Spanish?" she had asked. I answered, as I had to earlier presentations of this question, that each language had its difficulties. I said to Julia that Russian and English were certainly more related to each other than say, to Japanese or Arabic, so it was all relative. Russian may be complex with its cases (nouns change form depending on function - the last vestige of this in English is I/me, he/him, etc), but verbs to me in Russian are easier than Spanish, with two sets of endings in Russian, rather than the dozen or so sets of endings for all the tenses in Spanish. In Russian there are just a pair of verbs, with one set of endings for present and a ridiculously simple set of past-tense endings. I said I imagined it was tough to move in the other direction, to the dozen other tenses in English - in Russian there are, "ya prochitayu, y budu chitat', ya chitayu, ya chital, ya prochital" - which in English are approximately, "I will read, I will be reading, I am reading, I was reading, I have read." You choose between the two verbs based on whether it is a single, completed action or not; in a sense you are focusing on either the result or the process.

Of course, in English are additionally, "I read (present), I read (past), I do read, I did read, I am reading, I was reading, I will be reading, I have been reading, I will have read, I will have been reading, I had been reading, I had read." I think that's all of them. She admitted that it was tricky, but said the upshot was that for almost any given situation there was a tense for it. She said French was even worse, with some tenses only for speaking and others only for writing. Describing texts, she said, was especially fun.

I said I guess you could say the same thing for verbs of motion in Russian, that they are complex but precise (there is no simple "to go," but rather two pairs of verbs: one pair for going under your own power (on foot) and one pair for going in a vehicle. One of each pair is for unidirectional motion and the other for multidirectional. Yeah.) I said that this system was also complex but precise, but sometimes I really wish there was just "I go/I went". It gets especially fun in complicated, multi-step journeys.

Another difficulty of English for Russians is of course that of articles: when to use "the" or "a". My Russian professor said he considered it among the hardest things, with almost every rule you could come up with being broken in some situation.

I said Russian was nice with its heavy use of word roots, as there is a lot of building from stems, especially prefixing verbs. I said spelling was also relatively easy, except reduction of unstressed vowels and consonant assimilation. An example of vowel reduction is "thank you" - spasibo. Although written with an o, the word is stressed on the "ee" sound, and so it is pronounced "spasibah" - this was especially painful when the guy who led off at the Rolling Stones concert said he only knew one word but knew it perfectly, and then proceeded to repeatedly butcher it as "spasiboh." Mick Jagger did pretty well though.

Consonant assimilation is similar in principle to the English rule, "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." I'll admit I don't remember what that means, exactly, but in Russian the rule is, "when consonants go walking, the second one does the talking" or something to that effect. The point is that when you have voiced consonants near unvoiced consonants or vice-versa, they become like whatever the second kind is. Voiced/unvoiced consonants are v/f, z/s, g/k, etc. The only difference between each of those pairs is that in the first, the vocal cords move, in the second they don't. Anyway so if you have something like "v Kieve" (in Kiev), it turns into "f Kieve" since the K mutes the v. Fine. The point is that these two features make it difficult to know how a word is really spelled. Of course, English is far more nightmarish - rough, but through. Knife and phone, have but crave. Etc. I mean, we have spelling competitions (i.e. spelling bees). That is evidence enough of how difficult it is.

We agreed pronunciation-wise, English->Russian was largely easier than the reverse. The difficulty going into Russian is largely consonants, but going into English it's largely vowels, and vowels are a lot harder to fix than consonants. For English-speakers the only real vowel challenge is "ы" (somewhere between i in "bit" and a in "about," I think). Of course in English, we have a huge amount of vowels, but of course one of the difficulties is "sheep/ship" - especially vis-a-vis "sheet" and "beach." Ужас.

We moved on to dialects; she asked me if I'd been able to notice any dialect differences yet in Russian; she said in the north they spoke particularly fast, theorizing that because of the cold they had to conseve their breath. I said I knew of Volga (no vowel reduction) and Moscow (exaggerated reduction of o->a) and of course "hovorit'" like Mikhail Gorbachev, which is almost like Ukranian, but that overall I couldn't tell much yet. I did notice in Moscow that they seemed to say "the doors are closing" much more clearly ("dveri zakriva-yoo-tsya"). I had talked of American regional differences a bit, also with Sveta and Natasha, and said I was surprised that in our group the differences were relatively light. When I exemplified the southern drawl with Sveta and Natasha, Sveta responded with a joking acknowledgement, "the phone was greening so I pinked it up and said, "yellow!"

It was another interesting, unintended consequence of taking Russian (although my list of intended consequences numbers about zero, I think) that I was able to communicate in Kiev. The old man with the shoes said "hovorit" and "zvonit," but still. It was also interesting to somewhat be able to understand Ukranian most of the time, though some sentences I would find almost incomprehensible. Reading was more trying, as there would often be spelling differences that, until I thought it aloud, I didn't realize what it sounded like in Russian. Belorussian seemed farther away speechwise, judging from the train ride to Smolensk, but my other Russian professor had shown me some Belorussian when I visited one time, as she was doing research in it, and it seemed fairly close to written Russian, except that reductions were often written out. For example, in Russian milk is written "moloko" but pronounced "malako", with the stress on the last o, but in Belorussian it is indeed written "malako." This makes it easier to pronounce, but you lose the stems; for example, milk as an adjective is "malochniy" (stress on the o), and so the relationship is clear in Russian (молоко/молочный) but less so with the "o"s turned into "a"s in Belorussian.

So, between my exposure to Russian, some Ukranian, some Czech (trip to Prague), and a bit of Belorussian, it's been interesting to see all these overlaps and differences in these Slavic languages.

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