Speaking Freely

Monday, February 13, 2012

Many Americans dismiss foreign languages, perhaps because much of our exposure to them comes from immigrants and exchange students who are here trying to learn English; we assume that because so many people in the world strive to speak our language, we don’t have to learn theirs. But language is about more than what is said. It’s also about how things are said. In my own studies I’ve learned that the ways we express ourselves affect our experience.

My first attempts, as a young American interested in other languages, were frustrated. Even though my mother had lived in India for five years, she could teach me only to count to ten in Hindi, no matter how many times I asked for more. I had to resort to paging through a travel-size Hindi phrase book and piecing together insults to satisfy my foreign-language craving. I realized later these must have been grammatical atrocities, but all I knew at the time was that it was fun to call my brother a “little headache” and have him not understand. My high school French progress was hindered by budget cutbacks, which caused several classes to be combined, so that my fourth year was a repetition of the third. But Russian was the language I worked hardest at, and also where I encountered the most difficulties. Of course I would decide to study it the same year my college cut the department. I was the last Knox undergraduate to declare a Russian major, which I earned entirely through independent studies and a semester abroad. And though learning Russian was no easy task—I wrote and studied hundreds of flash cards, watched several seasons of a bad Russian soap, and dutifully worked through course books without any classmates to practice or commiserate with—acquiring a new tongue allowed me to think about culture, perception, and even my craft as a writer.

I have a theory that Russians were linguistically prepared for communism. Instead of saying “I have a house” or “I have a car,” they say “Around me there is a house” or “Around me there’s a car.” Put this way, what’s ours is defined more by temporary proximity than by ownership. While there are possessive adjectives equivalent to what we use in English—my/moi, your/tvoi—they are far less frequent, because there is also a multipurpose possessive adjective, svoi, that always reflects back the subject, be it you, we, or she. This word svoi extends beyond simple possession and can also express belonging within a group, sort of like saying “one of ours.” In Russian, when making a distinction between friend and foe, svoi is the word used to convey “friend.”

Thus the idea of a community is captured in a word that we English speakers typically translate into our divided possessive adjectives. What’s more, often neither moi nor svoi is required and possession is implied. In Russian, you brush teeth and you comb hair, and don’t have to specify whose teeth or hair unless they belong to someone else. English speakers, with our frequent haves and mys, would have had a harder time adapting to a sense of the communal. Or a communal apartment, for that matter. We like our privacy, something that doesn’t quite translate. Two words are close: chastny, for “personal,” and lichny, for “privatized.”

More superficially, Russians may have been predisposed to favor all things red because it is, at its root, the most beautiful color. The famous Krasnaya Ploschad’ does indeed translate to Red Square in modern Russian, but once it meant Beautiful Square. Beautiful is now krasivaya, and the close relationship between the two can still be heard. Prefix “very” before “red” and the resulting prekrasnaya means “fine, splendid, excellent.” It must be easier to rally around an army that, at least subconsciously, is associated with excellence through the color red.

Of course, there were many factors other than language that led to the political differences between the United States and Russia. But as I’ve learned each of these linguistic gaps, I’ve observed that the way something is expressed reveals how we think about it. There are words I didn’t know I needed until I learned them. Like koe-shto, one of the many ways to say “something,” which is used if the speaker knows what the thing is and the listener doesn’t. That’s the “something” I wish I could have used when my brother asked what my tortured Hindi meant, so that I could withhold the answer while simultaneously emphasizing my superior learning.

Even with my “superior” learning, I wouldn’t claim fluency in Russian, because fluent is such an intimidating word. It seems to me to require a level of competence rivaling how we speak our first language, and I will never know another language the way I know English. But Russians don’t ask whether I’m fluent. They ask if I can speak svobodna, freely. And this I can do.

I can talk about how the stereotype of Russians being lazy workers, with no motivation to exceed quota during Soviet times because there would be no personal gain, is practically built into the days of the week. Saturday, subbota, named for the Jewish sabbath, is followed by voskresenya, or resurrection, after the Christian day of rest. Monday, although it starts the work week, is still defined by the weekend: ponedel’nik, “after holiday.” The week itself, nedel’ya, means “no work.”

We might assume that with all that resistance to work, Russians would be occupied with having fun, but that’s not exactly possible. Americans in Russia often fumble for some equivalent to “have fun,” but the closest they can come without grafting in English (there’s no Russian word that quite means fun) is veselitsya, or “to enjoy oneself,” from the same root as jolly, and prevlekat’sya, which literally means “to distract oneself.” A Russian friend once explained to me that for them, enjoyment either was found or was not, but it was never manufactured, nor was it possessed (that troublesome English have again).

Maybe it is because we Americans are working so hard at having fun that our idea of tiredness does not quite translate either. At a morning Russian lesson, an American will often answer, “How are you?” with “Ya ustal(a).” This is usually met with a correction: “You can’t be tired yet. It’s too early. To be tired, you must have done something.” In English the student might protest, “But I am tired!” However, that would require the present tense of the verb “to be,” which is omitted in Russian. This makes it rather difficult to talk about the way things are. I mean, they manage to express “is” and “are” through em dashes (“Me—Tarzan, you—Jane” would be correct Russian if only that “me” had been an “I”), but there is no natural way while speaking to emphasize the punctuation. The present tense in general feels weaker in Russian because of a dimension called aspect. Russian verbs are paired—with one version for completed actions and one for incomplete—and only the incomplete, or imperfect, aspect can be used in the present tense. Perfective verbs exist to talk about the past and the future but never about the way things are.

Another state of being that’s expressed differently is thirst. In Russian, instead of saying “I’m thirsty”—which seems to set up a need that must be met—you say, “I want to drink.” To me, the second sounds like a matter of personal desire that can wait for fulfillment. In that way, Russian has taught me patience. In fact, much of what I know about writing in English I’ve learned from Russian, a language that requires me to circumlocute every time I want to say “creative writing.” It has taught me that being tired is not an option until something has been accomplished, but at the same time life should not be centered on work. I’m still learning to resist my impulse to always write about the way things are. This becomes easier when I keep in mind that the stories I write aren’t really mine; I’m surrounded by them temporarily. While they’re around me, I’m going to use all the words I have and speak freely, even if I never feel I’ll quite be fluent. And when I can’t find the words, I can measure weeks in the things that aren’t work, months in moons and years in summers. From that perspective, enjoying myself while writing doesn’t seem like such a chore.

Sometimes, say walking down a Moscow street with ten-story-tall ads affixed to buildings, I would feel a kind of sadness I did not know how to express. But the graffiti on those very same streets taught me the feeling was just a suppressed question I had not known I wanted to ask: zachem. This word, spray-painted across the country, is one of two ways Russian has for asking “why.” The other, pochemu, is the kind of “why” we usually use in English, and it asks for causation. Why did I take up Russian? Because people told me I couldn’t learn it. Zachem, however, is a question we ask less often—“what for?”—and it can’t be answered with a simple “because” phrase. So I ask myself, “All this work learning Russian, zachem?” and honestly the answer isn’t to prove wrong those people who told me I couldn’t do it. Not really. It’s to learn how to express the questions I didn’t know I was asking.