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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Avoiding Undue Stress Can Save Your Nerves

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For several months now my regular source of inspiration has been pushing me to write a column about the mistakes Russians frequently make when speaking their native language.

I have resisted for two reasons.

First of all, I cannot imagine that I will ever be in a position to point out the mistakes of a native speaker. As they say, ne rubi suk, na kotorom sidish' — don't saw the branch on which you are sitting.

Secondly, I usually can't tell when native speakers are making these alleged mistakes. Take Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, a man famous for his occasional blunders. I used to delight in listening to him speak. But for many of his compatriots, it was often like hearing fingernails scrape across a blackboard.

It seems strange that the same Russians who are so generous to foreign speakers butchering their language are less than forgiving to their countrymen who, say, make the occasional error in udareniye, or stress.

It is to those Russians — the very correct ones — that I decided to dedicate this column.

Putting the accent on the wrong syllable is certainly not a mistake made by native speakers alone. I am sure that every foreigner has made that embarrassing pisAT', PISat' — with the stress placed on the syllable that is capitalized — mistake at least once. When you stress the second syllable, the verb means to write. But shift the udareniye and you are not writing, but peeing.

Or take sozvonit'sya — that classic of Russian verbs that means "let's call each other" but does not actually place the burden of calling on anyone's shoulders. Sozvonimsya is in my opinion the Russian equivalent of "let's do lunch." Intentions may be good, but there is little chance of follow-through.

The correct way to keep in touch is to say, sozvonIMsya. But you can also hear plenty of people saying sozVONimsya — an alteration that does not change the meaning, but it does annoy people.

You hear this so often that you may start to think that sozvonit'sya is one of those Russian words with alternate stress options. Just to confuse you, there are plenty such words. For example, you may not only izBALovat' rebyonka, or spoil your child, but you can also izbalovAt' rebyonka.

The mistake for which Gorbachev was so famous was the word myshleniye, or thinking. The proper way, I have been told by native speakers, is myshLENiye. But Mikhail Sergeyevich stresses the first syllable, emphasizing mysh', which sounds like the Russian for mouse.

Just to make sure, I went to look up myshleniye in the dictionary. Now how do I tell my Russian friends that Gorbachev was justifiably exercising the optional stress rule?

Genine Babakian is on vacation. This is one her favorite previous columns.