Last week I started running through the masochistic minefield that is Russian language practice. It’s brutally good though! Each new word: a speck of grit gained on the upward ascent. Each phrase: a step-and-jump over a chasm as progress is made. Oh yeah, we were running through those nagging, snagging moments that cause progress to waver. Here are more of them:-
“Isn’t the Russian alphabet really difficult?”
Well, the Russian alphabet consists of 33 Cyrillic letters, 5 of which look and sound like their English counterparts: A, K, M, O and T. Then things go decidedly awry, with 2 letters that make no sound, but determine whether the previous letter is hard or soft and others that approximate English language sounds without necessarily corresponding to specific letters that we are familiar with. If that sounds “hard”, then I’m presenting it that way. In practice it is surprisingly easier than you may at first think. Perhaps it’s the fact that some of these characters are so idiosyncratic that they have also become quite memorable. Their uniqueness is in itself an aide to recall. So in much less time than it took for you to learn the English alphabet, you’ll likely be running through the Russian one by the spoken sounds themselves (if not their character names). So no, it’s not that hard.
“I’m translating Russian to English but the sentence makes no sense!”
This is because the Russian language does not have a rigid word order. Yes, you read that right, it’s something that makes little sense to us (at least initially) and is probably one of the hardest stumbling blocks to traverse. Although there are common conventions, where certain word combinations tend to appear in the same order, the aforementioned case system allows for words to be placed in various configurations whilst maintaining the integrity of the sentence. Yes, it’s back to the case system, there’s no avoiding it. We don’t have an English equivalent, so the relative status of ‘objects’ is defined by supportive language. This also makes it harder for native Russians learning English of course.
To paraphrase an example that I found online: you would say case-suffixed versions of “cats” and “mice” in Russian to define their relationship, where the actual word order is irrelevant. In English, a direct translation could look like any of the following:-
“Cats eat mice”, “Eat cats mice”, “Mice cats eat”, “Cats mice eat” – and so on. So, direct translations will look like nonsense. The consolation is that Russians will always understand your English word order, even if you don’t understand theirs.
Why is “X” or “Y” a rule?
Stop right there, for that way lies madness! The rules and conventions of any language have evolved over time; some of the rationale behind them may make sense, most of it may not. A lot of it is lost to history, or studied by advanced linguistic scholars – of which you are not one!
In any case, will knowing why someone introduced a certain linguistic rule at a certain time actually help you to memorise and utilise the rule itself? Probably not. It is what it is. Get used to it.
Be careful out there.
[Photo by clarita]