Language of the Month – June is RUSSIAN!

In our new series this year, Language of the Month, we are looking at twelve of the world’s nearly 6000 fascinating languages, one each month. Join us on this trip around the globe and discover facts, trivia and insider information about some awesome languages!

Russian

FACT SHEET
русский язык (russkiy yazyk)
Language family: Balto-Slavic (part of the Indo-European family)
Number of speakers: 150 million native speakers
Writing system: Cyrillic
Official language in: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
The Russian language sits on the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European family tree which makes it a (very) distant cousin of French, Spanish and Italian as they all developed from the same prehistoric language, the so-called Proto-Indo-European.

In the beginning there were many smaller dialects that made up the Old East Slavic language. Old Church Slavonic, Turkic, Gothic and Old Norse all played a part in moulding the Russian language up until the 15th century, when Moscow became the political centre that meant the need for some centralisation. Today’s standard Russian has developed from this Moscovian dialect, after some modernisation of the language in the 18th century.

Today it is a widely spoken language in several countries, especially in the former USSR member states.

USEFUL PHRASES
Hello!                                  Здра́вствуйте! (Zdrastvuyte!)
My name is…                     Меня зовут … (Menya zavout …)
Yes                                       Да (Da)
No                                        Нет (Net)
Please                                 Пожалуйста (Pozhalooysta)
Thank you                          Спасибо! (Spasibo!)

WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
While many might have got the impression from Hollywood movies that Russian is a harsh language, it could not actually be further from the truth. As Elena, one of our English to Russian translators tells us, “Russian has a variety of styles and ways of conveying the speaker’s attitude to the subject of conversation. Russian can come across in different ways: it can sound assertive and direct, but equally, it can sound deep, dreamy and philosophical.”

“It actually takes a certain leap of the imagination to describe how a language you know well might sound to someone with no knowledge of it,” says Paul – who translates Russian into English – when he is asked about the melody of Russian. “How does Russian sound, in the literal sense that you hear only sounds without meanings? It depends, obviously, on which languages you do understand, in particular your native language. There is also the historical, political and cultural context. The sounds of a certain language will create an automatic impression in certain other countries, often especially if they are not understood. So, Russian will sound one way to a Pole and another way to a Korean. For a British English speaker, Russian probably sounds rather complex and alien, possibly more so than it actually is. Not even mentioning recent developments, I think to some extent a residual Cold War mind set determines English people’s attitudes to Russian, making it the epitome of everything strange and foreign, whereas, in reality, Russian and English have a surprising amount in common, in terms of, for example, vocabulary. However, most educated people in this country at least have an awareness that it is also a language of literature and high culture.”

Although there are some similarities between English and Russian vocabulary, there are some major differences, and not only in the writing system: “Apart from the Cyrillic alphabet, perhaps the most striking differences are the case endings and declension, and the absence of articles (‘a’ and ‘the’),” explains Elena. “Cases are used to express the relationship between words in a sentence, whereas in English this role is performed by prepositions.” Russian, just like Spanish, German or French has grammatical genders: “All nouns in Russian are masculine, feminine or neuter. The perception of a particular inanimate object or animal as ‘male’ or ‘female’ often does not match the general perception in English: for example, ‘fox’ is feminine in Russian, while ‘ship’ is masculine.”

Paul highlights syntactic points: “Perhaps the most striking difference is the free sentence structure of Russian compared with the very rigid structure of English. Russian speakers sometimes find English surprising in this respect: ‘How can English possibly have any poetry with a structure so inflexible?’ one highly educated Russian once asked me.”

No Language of the Month blog post would be complete without asking our translators to tell us about their favourite word. Of course, when you ask linguists to give examples of their beloved phrases, you might get some surprising answers. Linguists might prefer something based on grammatical merits, not necessarily on how beautiful the meaning is. (We are a strange bunch like that!) Take Paul, for that matter, who mentions “раскулачивание” (raskulachivaniye). “It is an interesting word”, he says, “one that shows the inventiveness and impressive succinctness of Russian in comparison with English, which often seems so prolix, as well as practically requiring a history lesson for those without some knowledge of the history of the USSR.

To dissect it: ‘рас-кулачивание’ – if you had to devise an English equivalent, you might say ‘de-kulakisation’, ‘кулак’ meaning literally ‘fist’ but here a pejorative word meaning rich peasants owning land and employing poor peasants to cultivate it, who were the subject of political repression at various times, starting in 1930. Here ‘рас’ is a prefix denoting a change in state, and ‘кулак’ is turned into an abstract noun referring to the socio-economic phenomenon of the rich peasant.

It is not a very happy example, but it does at least show how Russian can express an idea in a single word that might require a whole phrase in English. Also, you can build vocabulary around such terms: the verb ‘раскулачить’ for example, which also has a reflexive form, so we also have ‘to de-kulakise’ and ‘to be de-kulakised’, each idea expressible in a single word.”

Isn’t it fascinating how efficient and ingenious languages can be?

Russian literature is famous all around the world, so we cannot really let you go without some beautiful poetry! So, here is Elena’s favourite from Tyutchev, about the first thunderstorm of May. (Just try to read it aloud with the help of the phonetic transcription and enjoy all those roaring rs!)

Люблю грозу в начале мая,
Когда весенний первый гром
Как бы резвяся и играя
Грохочет в небе голубом.

[Lyublyu grozu v nachale maya
Kogda vesenniy pervyi grom
Kab by rezvyasya I igraya
Grochochet v nebe golubom]

I love a storm in early May
When springtime’s boisterous, firstborn thunder
Over the sky will gaily wander
And growl and roar as though in play.

[source of translation: PoemHunter]

 

If you have any questions about Russian or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at enquiries@firstedit.co.uk or by telephone on 01223 356 733.

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