FIFTH COLUMN: Native Tongue No Match for Modern Life
- By Leonid Bershidsky
- Jul. 20 1999 00:00
An easy way to recognize a modern internal emigr? is by the language he speaks. It's Russian, all right, but it often sounds suspiciously like English.
I don't mean stockbrokers (the few of them who are still stockbroking), who talk about bidy, offera and spredy: there are, after all, no adequate Russian words for bids, offers and spreads. But here's a real-life conversation between two public relations managers at a large foreign-run advertising firm.
"Tanya, ty zabukala miting-rum? A agendu faksanula?" "Zabukala, no ne faksanula. U menya kontakt-report ne gotov. I voobsche polny disaster."
That kind of Russian is easy to translate after no more than a couple of lessons. Even a monolingual American or Englishman will understand that these people are talking about booking meeting rooms, faxing agendas and dealing with a disaster involving a contact report.
Most of the English borrowings in that conversation have Russian equivalents (that in some cases are of German or French origin). But what is the point of using them if the people who taught you your job spoke English? It is easier to use the original terms you learned than try to do Alexander Solzhenitsyn's work for him. The bearded prophet keeps updating his "Expansion Dictionary of the Russian Language" in which there is a Slavic term for everything. Even brokers could, with a bit of effort, relearn their professional language according to Solzhenitsyn. Deals would take somewhat longer to conclude on the cell phone.
What internal emigr?s would do with that dictionary, though, is laugh at it.
They also laugh at themselves. Hearing each other say optsiya, instead of vozmozhnost, they will cite the English-Russian pun in which Mitya ushol na miting, a Petya poshol na petting, meaning, of course, that Mitya is in a meeting and Petya has a date that involves petting.
At Moscow State University, linguistics students used to learn English by a famous text, written by Professor Olga Akhmanova, called "The English We Use." It was a purified, prehistoric version of English that we modernists at the competing Institute of Foreign Languages called "The English They Use." Now, it may be time for some American academic to write "The Russian They Use." A large part of the book would be in English, just as part of "War and Peace" is actually written in French.
Speaking of my old school: One of my classmates, an avid fan of Duran Duran (remember them?), once translated into Russian a line from a song by this romantic product of British pop culture. The line went, "My obsessive fascination is in your imagination." Neither of us could make sense of this in English, and Anton saved us with this translation: Moya obsessivnaya fascinatsiya lish v tvoyei imaginatsii.
OK, many of these stupid Russian words do not actually exist. They might emerge soon - if the backlash were not already starting. Try as the government might to keep Russian pure (there is even a rarely convened presidential commission specifically for this purpose), that will not be the way the language will survive in the end. Some of us Westernized members of the Russian middle class are already getting tired of the English words polluting our conversations. Now if only we could stop thinking in English about some things. Work, for instance.