Dear Russian Language: Are you kidding me?!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

I apologise in advance for this post because I think it's going to get a bit dry and a bit ranty. If you've been paying attention at all, you know a few things about my life right now.
  1. I am about to move to Russia for eight or nine months to work on the Winter Olympic Ceremonies.
  2. I don't know WHEN I'm actually going, because my visa is delayed, even though my contract started last week.
  3. In the mean time, I'm trying to learn to speak, read and write Russian.
Those are the overriding facts of my life right now.  Or, to put things a bit more poetically, I spend my days waiting, translating and conjugating.  It turns out that Russian is a surprisingly complex language.  So complex, in fact, that if I'd had an inkling of its depths before I started I would almost certainly have decided to learn how to play the contrabassoon, or perform keyhole surgery, or solve quadratic equations in my head.  Instead, I feel like I'm far enough down the road that I might as well keep going (some would call this the "sunk cost fallacy"). So because it's a big part of my life right now this week's blog is going to be about what makes Russian so difficult, which might exorcise a few demons for me, and be vaguely diverting for you.  Or not.  You may want to turn back now.

Here, as I see them, are the major hurdles a native English speaker must get past when learning Russian.  First, there's the alphabet:
Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which, as you can see, is the one with the backwards Rs and Ns.  Before you can even get out of the starting gate, you have to learn your ABVs.  (As I've mentioned before, not only do the letters look different, they go in a different order.)  Some of the letters in Cyrillic are exactly the same as in the Roman alphabet (A, K, M, O, and T) which makes them pretty easy.  There are also letters that look different, but make familiar sounds: Б, Г, Д, З, Л, П, Ф and Э (B, G, D, Z, L, P, У, F and E). They're not so hard either.  Then there are letters that either look weird, or make sounds we don't have in English (or don't have a single letter for) or both: Е, Ё, Ц, Ш, Щ, Х, Ы, Ж, Я, Ч, Ю.  They're kind of fun and easy because there are no pre-existing notions about what the symbol for "ts" or "sh" or "ch" should be, so it's easy to associate the new sound with the new symbol.  (That last one - Ю ("yoo") - is my favourite letter, because I think it looks like the Starship Enterprise.)  Lastly, there are the really devious letters, the ones that look like Roman letters but make a different sound.  The worst offender is B, which makes the sound of V, closely followed by P which makes the sound of R , and H which is N. It seems to be almost impossible to overwrite four decades of imprinting with these letters.  Forcing my brain to think "V" when it sees B is frankly exhausting.  And there's the backwards N, which sounds like "ee".  I'm forever writing N instead of И, making my long-suffering Russian teacher Michael repeat over and over, "But this is not Russian."

Once you've (mostly) cleared the hurdle of the alphabet the next is not unfamiliar, at least to me.  Russian is a gendered language, meaning that all nouns are either masculine, feminine or neuter.  Even Michael, who speaks at least four languages and is a certified translator, cannot explain what possible reason there might be for assigning a gender to things that manifestly do not have a gender, like tables and shirts and drinking glasses.  I find it arbitrary and pointless and if I ruled the world I'd abolish gendered nouns in all languages tomorrow. If there are any linguists out there who can explain what purpose this serves, or how it came about, I'd appreciate it.  In French, genders modify the articles or pronouns used with the noun.  It's ma mère, mon père.  Le chien, la chat.  In Russian the gender doesn't just modify the pronoun, it also changes any adjectives associated with the word.  In English this would be like saying "my red ball" (masculine singular) or "my-la red-loo bat" (where both "my" and "red" are modified to match the noun).  Fun times. And, just to spice things up, the modification changes depending on the letters at the end of the noun in question and whether it's singular or plural. So it's not simply a matter of memorising that you add a "la" to adjectives when the noun is feminine.  Oh no.  There are charts.

Noun Case Endings
Charts, charts, charts

Moving right along... There's another concept in Russian that I'm finding very hard to grasp: perfective and imperfective verbs.  Russian verbs come in pairs.  In English we will use a single verb to denote all forms of an action, such as:  I am writing a letter.  He wrote a book. They write weekly newspaper articles.  I will have written the list.  She was writing to her grandmother.  These all use the verb "to write".  In Russian, they use an imperfective verb for actions that are ongoing, or regular, or incomplete (I am writing a letter.  They write weekly newspaper articles.  She was writing to her grandmother.).  For actions that are successfully completed, they use the perfective form.  (He wrote a book.  I will have written the list.)  The perfective form is a different word. Often the perfective form of a verb is based on the imperfective, with a prefix added (видеть "VEE-dets" and увидеть, "OOveedets", both of which mean "to see").  Sometimes they are completely different (говорить "gahvahREETs" and сказать "skahZAHTs".  The imperfective and perfective forms of "to speak").  For instance, if you say "He took a test" using the imperfective form, it means either he didn't finish taking the test, or he took it and failed, or we don't know if he passed or failed.  If you use the perfective form, then you know he completed the test AND he passed.  It's interesting if you are, perhaps, reading a blog post about Russian on your coffee break.  It's maddening if you're actually trying to become vaguely functional in the language.

Verbs of motion are even trickier.  For instance, there is no Russian verb "to go".  Nope.  In Russian you can go by foot, or you can go by transport, but you can't just go.  Also, if you're going by foot, you need to know whether you're just walking around, or regularly walking to and from somewhere (imperfective form), or whether you walked a specific place and now you're done (perfective form). Oh, and if you're just starting out you use a different verb than if you're in the middle of your journey, sort of like the difference between "I'm heading off now." and "I'm half way there."  It's the same with running.  For instance, this afternoon I'll go for a run around the neighbourhood, which is something I do regulary.  The verb for this is "BAYgal".  If, while I'm out there, I get chased by a dog and have to run away, the verb changes to "BAYzhal".

So we've talked about the alphabet, and the genders, and the aspects of verbs.  By now you may be thinking, "Yikes, that's a fair bit to take in."  Well let me tell you brother, we are just getting started.  Because the thing that really puts Russian over the top, in my opinion, is that it also has cases.  At this point some of you - likely those who've studied Latin or German - will be nodding your heads and possibly thinking, "You poor bastard..."  For those who haven't been introduced to this concept, I'll do my best to explain.  Cases are a system of modifying nouns (and, by extension, their adjectives, see above) according to their function in a sentence.  A noun that is the subject of a sentence will appear in the nominative case (which, mercifully, does not get modified).  A noun that's the direct object of a sentence appears in the accusative case.  Indirect objects are in the dative case, and so on.  German has four cases.  Latin and Russian have six.  Finnish has (I can scarcely believe this) FIFTEEN.  Case can also be determined by prepositions, meaning that I've spent the last week trying to memorise not just the vocabulary for 40-odd different prepositions, but also the case they take. ("To" is dative, "between": instrumental, "about": prepositional, "behind": genitive, "including": accusative, and so on.)

Here's what this means to the poor scholar of Russian.  Look at this sentence:  "I love dogs with long ears and sad faces."  Here, the subject is "I" and the case is determined by the preposition "with", which takes the instrumental case.  So in order to translate this sentence I need to know how to conjugate the verb to love, and then know the preposition "with" and the word for dogs (which is feminine and plural).  Then the noun "ears" (neuter, plural) which gets modified for the instrumental case, and the adjective "long", which gets modified to its instrumental, feminine, plural form.  And the same again for "faces" and "sad".  To do this correctly, I consult a list of vocabulary for the nominative forms of dog, ear and face and the masculine singular forms of long and sad.  Then I check the case that's indicated by "with" (instrumental) and then check the chart that shows me what case ending I add to "ears" to indicate plural and instrumental.  Then it's over to another chart to modify the adjective "long" to match with feminine instrumental and plural.  It is simply exhausting and disheartening.  It takes me about four different charts and ten minutes to construct a sentence, and then it's almost always wrong in some way.

Henry on the Stairs
What's not to love?  я люблю собаки c длинными ушами и грустными лицами.

The consequence of all this complication is that it's tricky to speak Russian properly, but when you do, it's very precise and uses fewer words.  Michael, the aforementioned long suffering Russian teacher, explained cases like this: imagine that words are bricks.  English bricks are all shaped the same way.  You can mash one brick up against another brick with impunity.

English Bricks

Russian bricks are shaped like this:
Russian Bricks

Each brick is modified to fit with its neighbour.  So it's trickier to construct a sentence, but if you do it right, it's stronger, more precise, and takes fewer words.  (There are no articles in Russian at all!).  Interestingly, English once used cases and still retains some vestiges of that today.  When we say "He threw the ball to ME" instead of "He threw the ball to I", that's the last gasp of the now-almost-dead genitive form.  We use "me, him, her, us, and them" instead of "I, he, she, we, they".

Lastly, I have to give you a peek at another one of the many grammar charts of Russian.  I think it exemplifies the complexity of the language in a way that, ironically, mere words cannot.  This is the table that lists all the possessive pronouns.  These are the Russian equivalents of mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours and theirs.  In English we have seven words. In Russian there are so many permutations that determining the correct possessive pronoun requires this:

Possessive Pronouns
And hence the title of this post because seriously, are you kidding me??

As you can see, if I want to say "My uncles went to Moscow." I first have to know the case that goes with "uncles" (nominative, mercifully).  Then I need to realise that uncles is masculine, animate and plural, then I can see that the correct pronoun is моих.  If I want to say, "The spoon is on our table" then table should be in the prepositional case as determined by "on" and it's masculine and singular and inanimate so the form of "our" is моём.  Perhaps now you can understand why I'm not brimming with confidence about my ability to be chatting merrily in Russian in the foreseeable future, or even, in fact, in my lifetime.

Of course native speakers don't wander around with a fistful of index cards that they consult before they open their mouths.  Just like with any language, you absorb the intricacies from birth and have them further refined and spelled out to you at school.  For someone coming to the language as an outsider - especially an outsider who's never encountered the notion of cases - it feels like a monumental and frankly hopeless peak to scale.  And I have to admit that, as a native speaker of a language with no cases that still seems to function perfectly well, thank you very much, I have a lot of trouble understanding what this level of complexity adds to a language.  Yes, Russian has Pushkin and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  But English has Shakespeare and Dickens and Jane Austen and, well, I could go on indefinitely.  The point is that they all managed to be brilliant and expressive and eloquent while scraping along with just the nominative case.

All of which leaves me wondering if there's any point in continuing to bash my head against this wall.  Then again, what else am I going to do with my time?  Perhaps I should fire up eBay and see how much they're asking for a used contrabassoon.


Laura C said...

Wow, Pam, I don't know what to say. As I read, I slowly curled up smaller and smaller, my hand becoming a fist mashed near my mouth. Wow.

I sincerely wish you good luck, and think that if anyone can tackle at least some of this (where can I buy coffee, where can I wash up before dinner) it's you. It's kind of like gears, they all fit together just so to make it go forward. Does that help? Wow.

Alexander Fenster said...

Hi Pam,

Just found your post when searching for something in google and thought that I probably have something to comment. And yes I'm a native speaker of Russian.

You write that Russian is complex, and it really is. But the main thing is that it's just different. Look, I started learning English as a second language in my elementary school and I still have problems understanding which tense I should use here and there. Just let me quote a bit of your text:

In English we will use a single verb to denote all forms of an action, such as: I am writing a letter. He wrote a book. They write weekly newspaper articles. I will have written the list. She was writing to her grandmother.

Don't you think how weird all these examples of progressive, perfect, and whatever-you-call-that tenses look for a Russian speaking person who only knows that an action can happen either in present, or in past, or in future? :) Just an example: when I want to translate a simple sentence 'я ем суп' into English, why should I think which tense to use in this particular case, I mean, do I eat or am I eating the soup? and that's easy, but when I think about something called 'the third conditional', my brain just starts melting... if I had known that English is so complex I would have never started learning it -- or something like that, that's a total grammar mess for me, and I do see that like bricks--all those 'had' and 'would'--and sometimes I just don't have any idea which order is correct.

Some more examples off the top of my head. Why you take care OF something but depend ON something? Why you have these three different verbs in English: to say, to tell, and to speak? When should I use 'a', or 'the', or just nothing? I'm sure I made some grammar mistakes in this comment, all of them show which parts of English are not just obvious for Russian speaking person. (or for [a] Russian speaking person? .... )

Languages are complex, that's true.

As for the dog, you need to say 'я люблю собак' (not собаки). Also, the word лицо is more about human face, not dog's one. We'd use морда for dog's face but that's probably not that easy as may sound vulgar in some cases; my dictionary gives 'muzzle, snout' as a translation of морда but I have no idea if any of these words are really acceptable here in English.

As for the nouns and their gender, you often can guess its gender just by looking at the noun. There is a famous phrase,

Глокая куздра штеко будланула бокра и курдячит бокрёнка

in which no word except 'и' has any real meaning -- all of them are just random letter combinations -- but the phrase is grammatically correct, and even Russian speaker will tell you that куздра is something (somebody) feminine, глокая is an adjective, штеко is an adverb, and бокрёнок is a little child of a бокр (whatever it means), and it's male, just like котёнок is a kitten.

You will definitely start feeling it when you have more language practice.

Pam said...


Wow - thanks for the long and considered response to my cranky blog post. Of course you're right, it's mostly a matter of perspective. If you grew up hearing the endings of nouns and adjectives modified for their function in the sentence, then it becomes instinctive. Just like for me the difference between "I eat soup" and "I'm eating soup" is obvious. ("I eat soup" is a general statement, as in "When it's cold out, I eat soup." If you're actually eating something right now you'd use the other form.)

And the third conditional situation... I didn't even know that had a name! Though of course it makes perfect sense to me. If this, then that.

Now about the dog. When I used собаки I thought I was using the plural, as in, "I like many dogs with long ears and sad faces." Not just that particular dog (though he was of course my favourite.) I'm sure I got it wrong anyways.

Thanks again for the comment. I'm starting to feel like I may eventually get this language into my bones, but I don't think it'll ever come easily. Then again, once I get to Moscow, I'm sure I'll be glad that I've studied as much as I have.

- Pam

Michael said...

You seriously made me laugh by comparing "Ю" to the Enterprise :)

I can only repeat two things: 1) To try and make Keanu Reeves act, yes, that's hopeless. Studying a language is most certainly not. Others have managed to do very well at it, and they had even fewer reasons to learn it than you. Secondly, if Chinese can be learned, then you bet that Russian can be, too. And I've known people who were quite fluent in Chinese, and by no means linguists. 2) As I probably said before, you are currently 99% learning on only one level, learning the endings, conjugations etc, but as soon as you actively dive into Mission: Moscow, you will start perceiving Russian on a whole different level. And things will actually start making sense.

As to the famous Russian nonsense phrase Alexander mentioned: Lewis Carroll produced something equivalent. In fact, chances are, he was first.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Michael said...

P.S. Never realized that before, but some Basset Hounds look a bit like Sylvester Stallone. Or Sylvester Stallone looks like some Basset Hounds. You pick.

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Anonymous said...

UGH I am so with you! My husband is Russian and we live in the Rep. of Georgia; he just doesn't understand why I am constantly on the floor crying...

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