The discovery of the Russian language is an ongoing journey. If that’s comes across as romantic in any way, then believe me, it wasn’t intended. A journey over rocky terrain, dragging an anvil – possibly. Romantic? Certainly not. Interesting and rewarding? Definitely.
Something of the stubborn masochist in me keeps me plodding onwards however; past milestones advertised on web sites claiming you can become fluent in: 3 months, six weeks, six months – whatever, take your pick! Quite simply, in the words of another travel cliché: “it’s too late to turn back now”. Any split-second doubts are quickly dispelled in shame: I hate quitting- and have often not known when to.
The case system is the real crippler for Western students of the Russian language – speaking generally. It makes the initial assault of vowel-scarce, rapid-fire consonants seem like child’s play by comparison. Well, for a gifted child at least. As native English speakers, we are used to the relative solidity of nouns for instance, and certainly proper nouns. Your name doesn’t change mid-flight during conversation, right? Well in Russian it does – or at least can. “Tolstoy” becomes “Tolstoga” (and more) under certain contextual conditions. For context is what it’s all about: who (figuratively or literally) is doing what to whom, and in which circumstance. Adjectives are not safe, even relatively innocuous finite verbs do not pass unscathed; each enduring up to 6 mutations to their termination depending upon the case in question.
Add to that an icing of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter and the result is a verbal minefield/bird’s nest that you will become ensnared in, over and over (and over) again.
The good news however is that: although you may sound like a village idiot (or just a “dumb tourist”) as you mash up nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, prepositional, male, female and neuter instances; you will (probably) be understood if you know basically how to string a sentence together in Russian and have a ‘reasonable’ vocabulary – but infrequently (or even frequently) get the words wrong. Some guides for Russian language-practice even recommend just waiting for the correct form to ‘click’, through some hidden osmosis/intuition whilst ploughing ahead with the expansion of essential vocabulary.
Sure enough; I’ve made a conscious decision that at my modest level, time is better spent on learning 6 new words, rather than 6 words for “would”, for instance. The case process does have its own logic however and I assume that once I’m familiar with the principles, then the correct form should follow. Fingers crossed.
The other good news, like discovering foreign films (yes, the ones with subtitles), is that with some perseverance, the rewards are positively rich. Language is undoubtedly the key to any culture, without which we are just standing on the outside looking in. Not only is the Russian language telling me about the pure mechanics of conversation – how to convey basic information for instance – but it presents an insight into the mentality behind the words themselves. The classic Russian ‘abruptness’ for instance is reflected in the abrupt nature of the language. There is very little mincing of words – which has become something of a questionable artform ‘over here’ – lest someone somewhere becomes offended somehow. Paradoxically, this goes hand-in-hand with very formalised forms of politeness and deference to status. You could almost add “politeness” as an extra Russian language case. The vocabulary is there, and it matters.
So, am I going to get the hang of all this? Well: “when a lobster Whistles on top of a mountain” perhaps; my current favourite Russian expression, equivalent to “When pigs fly”. Yes, when they do, I’ll be there, spouting Russian faultlessly! Ok, hopefully sooner with continued effort.
More Russian language delights next week.
[Photo by FidlerJan]