Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Freedom and Hot Porridge

Foot of one of the Atlantes outside the Hermitage Museum
In Russian, the words for "leg" and "foot" are the same
(ditto "hand" and "arm", as well as "toes" and "fingers")

There's no telling what small events or apparently negligible happenstances may determine the course of your life. But, once determined, these things will come to seem like signposts of destiny. Fate, you might say, is chance seen in the rear-view mirror [1]. In my case, the opportunity to learn the Russian language, if only briefly and inadequately, had a major impact on my life-choices, and so one of my most important signposts turned out to be written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

At school, in the sixth form, for some reason we were obliged to study "General Studies" alongside our chosen three subjects at A-Level, a nothing-and-everything non-subject that seemed utterly pointless. However, as an alternative for the better linguists, one of our teachers happened to be able to offer the rudiments of Russian, to O-Level standard if we chose to stick at it. I think he had learned it himself on the famous course that was offered to the brighter National Servicemen in the days when a reliable supply of Russian linguists was a national priority. Presumably they did it as an alternative to the National Service equivalent of General Studies. So a small cadre of about six of us took him up on this opportunity, and we had a lot of fun doing it. It was pretty much the same little group who had stuck with Latin when our school, having "gone comprehensive", decided to drop it as a subject, despite the fact we'd already been learning the language in traditional grammar school fashion for four years. We were intensively tutored in the lunch-hour, and all got the top grade at O-Level.

Now, Latin is difficult enough, even if you have spent your youthful years chanting verb conjugations and noun declensions, and have learned to grapple with peculiar constructions like the "ablative absolute". But Russian is really difficult, on a par, I imagine, with Ancient Greek. And, like Greek, it hides its severe grammatical challenges behind the wall of a different alphabet. Learning to read and write Cyrillic is just the price of entry. Beyond lie some true weirdnesses for anyone used to the cosy familiarity of the Romance and Germanic languages, the details of which I won't trouble you with. Suffice it to say that although I picked up a fair amount of the language I decided it was too much like hard work to get it to O-Level standard in just one and a half years.

Fast forward to 1977 when, after taking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, my extended adolescent life of studying, taking exams, and writing dissertations had finally run out of road. I needed a job. Ideally, I wanted a career, a real one, with promotion prospects, a decent salary, and an index-linked pension at the end. Even more important, it needed to be in the same town as my girlfriend's chosen teacher-training course, which happened to be Bristol; otherwise, our rather turbulent relationship would probably come to an end. So the appearance of an advert for a graduate trainee in the library of Bristol University able to deal with foreign-language material, especially Russian, seemed like several strands of destiny coming together in a fateful knot. The job, inevitably it seemed, was mine. In the rear-view mirror, a decisive junction had been successfully negotiated.

The Russians are bookish people, and hardbound classics are widely available
and cheap (these are all around a fiver each). Here you can see Solzhenitsyn's
"First Circle", once banned,  on a street stall alongside the Tolstoys and Turgenevs.

So I spent a happy five years of my life cataloguing Russian books and, in the process, developing a passable reading knowledge based on the rudiments I had acquired at school. However, until last week I had never visited Russia or even spoken with a native speaker. My Russian, such as it is, is therefore a highly specialised scholarly and book-oriented dialect. "A complete selection of contemporary plays and poems, edited and translated by Blokey Blokeyvich"? No problem. "Revised edition, translated from Old Church Slavonic and profusely illustrated with folksy woodcuts?" Easy... "Twelfth Annual Congress of the International Federation of Sanitary Engineers"? I remember doing the eleventh just last year! But I lack an awful lot of the basic vocabulary and verbal glue that make ordinary conversation between human beings possible. We had amused ourselves at school by inventing our own revolutionary slogans ("svoboda i goryachaya kasha!" was a favourite – "freedom and hot porridge!") and I memorised a number of sonorous phrases from the examples in the exemplary Oxford Russian-English Dictionary [2], but none of this is much use when trying to ask for a table for two in a busy restaurant, or when trying to explain to a hotel receptionist over the phone that your flight has been delayed by two hours and you will therefore be arriving well after midnight. This I can do in German, French, or, haltingly and possibly hilariously, in Spanish, but in Russian? Nyet.

I think the greatest single linguistic takeaway for me from my brief time in St. Petersburg has been that my pronunciation is bafflingly, and occasionally amusingly, wrong. A language learned in the head and on the page is not the same language you hear fired at you over the cash desk or on the bus. Everything in Russian pronunciation depends on which syllable is stressed, and yet there is just no way of predicting which this is. Unlike, say, Spanish, there are no simple rules to follow, and the stress will often move when the same word is inflected (e.g. water is vuhDAH, but VAWdoo in the accusative...). The music of spoken Russian is beautiful, but owes much of its musicality to these apparently random shifts in stressed and unstressed syllables. Speaking it out loud for the first time, I felt like an idiot bashing at a Bechstein grand piano.

No, let me correct that: I think the greatest single linguistic takeaway for me is that I am too freakin' old to do anything about any of this any more. I find I cannot now remember a new word from one hour to the next, without resorting to schoolboyish mnemonic tricks. I was going to write "forget about it!" in Russian just there – very witty, eh? – but now realise (1) I've forgotten the verb "to forget" (no, really), (2) can't remember, anyway, the difference between an imperative using the imperfective or the perfective aspect of a verb (don't ask), and, crucially, (3) have lost the urge to impress you with knowledge I barely possess, anyway.

Nonetheless, I am profoundly grateful to the Russian language for, however tangentially, delivering to me the life I have lived – career, partner, children, house, pension, all of it. Without a command of the Cyrillic alphabet and a smattering of vocab and grammar, things would have turned out very differently, although no doubt the trail of wreckage and skid-marks would still have made coherent sense, as seen in the rear-view mirror. And the most useful thing I have now learned to say, perfectly stressed and clearly pronounced, is:

Ya lish' nemnogo govoryu po-russki... Vy govorite po-angliiski?
(I only speak a little bit of Russian... Do you speak English?)

Increasingly, it seems, especially amongst the young, the answer is, "Yairs, bud only leetle..." Which is good enough for me.

1. Although, in a more Nordic worldview, you might also say that chance is merely oncoming fate seen through the windscreen...
2. Typical example: Po slovam Chekhova, znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch' ("In the words of Chekhov, to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury").


amolitor said...

The anglophone's willingness to put up with the most violent hash of poor grammar and accent is perhaps our greatest advantage in the world. Under abuse that renders most languages several steps past incomprehensible, the native English speaker can perfectly understand the earnest waiter attempting to explain that the fish is a bad choice tonight, and that the bathroom is over there.

Mike C. said...

I suspect you're right. Even if you speak reasonable French, nobody in Paris will ever deign to understand you; worse, they generally immediately reply in execrable pidgin English, which you are expected to tolerate, understand, and be grateful for... Which, of course, 99% of us do and are.