Friday, October 28, 2016

Russians and their unique language ...

Warning: This entry is not meant to be taken seriously

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Ya Vas ljubil... (Я Вас любил...)

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.

(translation at)

Note: No poem expresses my unrequited love for the Russian language better than the above.

Summary: Russians aren't particularly eager to speak Russian with foreigners. Why? Some non-social science speculations.

JB Personal background (can be omitted; scroll down to "why.")

(Full disclosure: Am a child of the Cold War, the son of a brilliant and idiosyncratic American diplomat; was myself in the U.S. Foreign Service [1981-2003], I wanted to do something about the USA and USSR not atomically -- automatically -- blowing each other up).

Am no linguist. But I grew up in France in the early 50s, where my francophile USA diplomat Father sent me (and my dear brother) to an école maternelle near Paris, and my nanny was française.

Yes, French is my native language. I learned English at an "international school" in Brussels, Belgium, in the fourth grade (1956).

One USA very "American" 1950s looking gal with her cat eye glasses (today, she may look like the below lady) telling me at the International School in Belgium:

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"Why are you at this school? You don't even speak English!"

I answered -- in my perfect (?) French (or was it by then Belgian?) accent: "But dis (forget the Anglo-Saxon 'th') is an international school" ...


Later, and privileged to be a Foreign Service brat in other Western European countries and Mexico, dare I say I picked up quite a smattering of foreign languages, especially in Rome as an late adolescent (age 10-14). (I swear I can still say "vaffanculo" with a perfect Roman accent; pardon my pride).

I even learned (I hope) how to speak "fluent" English, although I still can't figure out English prepositions. (In Krakow, Poland, where I served as a Foreign Service Officer for over four years in the late 80s, there was a sign slightly away from city limits proclaiming "Welcome in Krakow." After four years, I was very much tempted to welcome guests from abroad not with the words "Welcome to Krakow," but with the more "logical" "Welcome in Krakow" ...).

Of all my years in foreign countries -- from my birth on down (I wish I could say "up")  -- I have never found any people less willing to speak in their own language with foreigners than Russians, including dear Russian friends. The French come close; the Germans are more linguistically "tolerant"; the Belgians will speak to a foreigner in any language; if you are a woman, Italians will speak to you con piacere in their native tongue, and praise you for saying "caio" senza accento; Poles will "generously" speak Polish with an American dip, but if they want a visa for their cousin (a "really serious matter"), they invariably switch into near-perfect English; in Serbia in the mid-90s, I was told by a Belgrade taxi driver (who spoke English with what sounded to me like an immaculate Oxford accent), after I had engaged in a ten-minute conversation in his native tongue: "You don't speak Serbian badly, for a Russian."


Why do Russians -- especially the ethnic Russian intelligentsia -- not particulary want to speak Russian with foreigners?

I can think of several reasons:

--Foreign accents -- especially American -- make Russians cringe ("on 'nekul'tunyi'") . In their no-nonsense, "classical" schooling Russians are taught to speak Russian "properly"; it's a matter of national pride. (Nothing worse than an "official" American, with her/his all-USA pronunciation of the letter "r," trying to speak broken Russian to a Russian audience to show how much she empathizes with the natives). There's no such "hang-up" about hearing a foreigners speaking with an accent in the USA, a nation of immigrants that in fact has never really taken "how well you speak" (or, for that matter, speech) seriously, or as a matter of national identification; is it that surprising that no one "speaks" in a Hollywood Western -- the guns do the talkin'. 

--Showing off. Like most citizens in our global village, Russians, God bless 'em, have a certain sense of national inferiority (expressed, of course, by public/official expressions of national superiority, like all of us outside of Russia, in different ways. As soon as a Russian realizes your Russian is not perfect, he'll switch to your language (or to that lingua franca, English), even if he doesn't speak it that well. (Note: Ambitious young Russians, hoping the West will welcome them, also long to improve their knowledge of a foreign language, especially English, by speaking with a "native speaker" in her mother tongue.)

--Russians, known for their shirokaya dusha (generous soul, especially under the influence of vodka and/or literature), get very possessive, if not parochial, in matters of language. Russian is "theirs"; for many psychological reasons I can't really explain, they seem instinctively reluctant to lend it -- share it -- with anybody, except with non-Russians living in Russia from whom they need various labor/domestic services. (Unlike Americans, who don't see English as a "national treasure"; after all, we Americans can't understand why not everyone in the world speaks English). ....

--Caveat: I did speak Russian while in Russia for many years. But that was (not that rarely) with cab drivers from central Asia who never accused me of speaking in the language of Pushkin badly. I was also interviewed on Russian radio; perhaps because the interviewer didn't want his audience to know what I was talking about :).

One more immortal Pushkin poem
Ja Pomnju Chudnoe Mgnovenie (Я помню чудное мгновенье)

Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
   И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.
(see translation)

The perfect poem to quote (three last lines of first stanza) when greeting a Russisan guest?; also for lovers of the Russian language who are not privileged to hear it from Russians themselves: "И я забыл твой голос нежный."

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