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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Sounds of Silence -- German Style

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???????? ???????: the Foreign Quarter (a section of old Moscow)

One of the joys of Russian 101 is learning how to form nouns for people out of the names of their countries. ?????? -- ?????????? (England -- Englishman), ??????? -- ?????????? (America -- American), ??????? -- ??????? (France -- Frenchman) ... Just when you think you've got the hang of it, the teacher says: ???????? (Germany) and you cheerfully produce "????????," only to discover that, once again, you've been foiled by the Great and Powerful Wizard of Russian.

So how did Germans come to be called ????? in Russian? Simple: long, long ago, there was a word in old Russian that meant "unable to speak." When the first foreigners appeared, nattering away in their language and unable to speak a word of Russian, Russians logically applied this word to them.

????? was a kind of generic term that originally referred to all foreigners from Western Europe. ????????? ("land of the Nemtsy") didn't really mean Germany; it meant "foreign lands to the West." ???????? ?????? -- which sounds like "a German dress" -- meant Western European clothing (for men or women). And in Moscow ???????? ??????? wasn't really the "German quarter" (although there were plenty of Germans who lived there), but more accurately "the foreign quarter."

Similarly, the expression ??? ???????? ???????, ?? ????? ?????? (today literally "what is healthy for a Russian is death to a German") first referred to foreigners in general. In English we usually say "one man's meat is another man's poison" -- which is what virtually all foreigners say in astonishment the first time they try a scalding hot ????, or steam bath. Well, maybe we aren't quite that polite or literate. Sometimes we say: ???? ? ??? ??????, ??? ??? (Do they have different genes or what?)

Over time the old word for ????? got split into ????? as foreigners/Germans and ????? as "mute, unable to speak." The verb ?????? can mean to lose the power of speech either literally -- ??????? ?????? (the patient is losing the ability to speak) -- or figuratively from fear or horror: ? ?????? ?? ?????. (I was speechless with horror.)

The adjective ????? can be used poetically in rather lovely phrases like ????? ???? (silent night) or ????? ?????? (wordless sorrow). It can also be used less lyrically: ?? ???? ? ??? ? ????????, ?? ????? ??????? ? ?? ????????. (He is deaf and mute to requests; he doesn't want to hear them and doesn't answer.) You also hear it in a little rhyme on table manners for children: ????? ? ??, ? ???? ? ???! (literally, "when I eat, I'm deaf and mute"). In the United States we hear a different dinner table litany: Don't talk with your mouth full!

?????? is also the verb you use to describe something that has lost feeling or gone numb. In Russian, limbs lose the power of speech; in English, they take a snooze: ? ??????? ????, ? ??? ???????. (I sat on my leg too long and it fell asleep.)

Russia has always had a large German population, reflected in hundreds of depictions of Germans in Russian literature. Although the image of Germans is varied, the adjectives mostly frequently applied to them are ??????? (honest), ????????????? (thorough), and above all -- ?????????? (precise, exact). ???????? ?? ??, ??? ??? ??????? ???????, ?? ????? ???? ?????????, ??? ?????. (Despite the fact that he's Russian, he wants to be as meticulous as a German.)

Today we like to think we are above such gross stereotypes as tidy Germans, sloppy Russians and mute foreigners. But before you get on a cultural high horse, you might recall the word that was once commonly used in English to describe a mute person: "dumb." People with speech impairments needed to point out that the inability to speak was not a sign of a lack of intelligence before that linguistic stereotype started to disappear.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.