Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Elusive Goal of Sounding Like a Native

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

?????? ?????????: to fly like a plane

If you ever read contemporary linguistic theory, or even scan language blogs, you will quickly discover that grammarians are divided into two hostile camps: the descriptivists and the prescriptivists. Basically, the first group describes what people say and write; the second group prescribes what's right and wrong. In the contemporary world of language study, descriptivists are the politically correct, cool group; prescriptivists are the old fogey schoolmarms.

The fly in the ointment is us: non-native speakers trying to sound native, or at least not to sound like total idiots. Russians can chat on blogs in ?????? ???????? (the phonetic spelling of "the slang of scoundrels"), where ??????? is spelled ??????? and every third word is an obscenity. But we can't. Russians can break the rules of grammar for poetic effect, but we sound like we slept through a Russian lesson. Descriptivism is fine and dandy for theorists and native speakers, but we non-native speakers need good, old fashioned prescriptivism.

To that end, I've been studying a book of prescriptivism, written to correct the mistakes Russians make in their speech. According to this crabby author, almost everything I say, read, or hear is wrong.

Take some of the redundancies that should be stricken from our language: ??????????? ???? (today's day), ???????? ???????????? (active activity), ???????? ??????? (principal principle), ?????? ???????????? (another alternative), ????????? ???? (closed circle; the pedantic author points out that all circles are closed by definition), ??????? ?????????? (purposeful purpose), ??????? ????????? (the main leitmotif, i.e., the "main main theme"). In everyday Russian this kind of repetition is called ????? ???????? (buttery butter). It's also called «??? ??? ???????» (how everyone speaks).

Ever heard someone say: ??????? -- ??? ???? ????????! (Today is my birthday!). Well, it's wrong. You should say: ??????? ???? ????? ????????.

Ever told someone: ?? ?????? ?????????? You've just said that you flew like an airplane. Try: ?? ?????? ?? ???????? or plain old ?? ?????? (we flew, vehicle unspecified).

How many times a day does someone ask you for your ?????????? ??????? (telephone for contact)? The next time they do, point out that you wouldn't give out a number that could not be used to contact you. The unadorned ??????? is just fine.

This language watcher says that ????? ???????? (new tradition) is nonsense, since a tradition is old by definition. Try ????? ??????? (new custom).

???????? ??????? (literally, "products for eating," used to mean "food") drives him nuts. He maintains that these are the end products of the eating process -- which, you will have to agree, is something else altogether.

And the word ???????? sends him around the bend. ????? ???????? ???? ?? ????? ????? ? ????????????? ????! (This word appeared only out of love for convoluted speech!) Try ??????, ?????, ???????, ?????? or ?????? -- all perfectly acceptable words for a payment.

He's curmudgeonly about using the word ????????? (complications) when you mean ????????? (difficulties), ???????? ??????? (the opposite direction) for ????????? ??????? (the reverse side of something), and ????? (super) for just about anything.

And you don't even want to know what he thinks about people who use the word ?????? (to eat) in any phrase but ???????, ??????????! (Please help yourselves!). Suffice it to say that ? ????? is "inappropriate and comical usage."

After reading all this, I had a sinking feeling. We can't speak like this either. Our language would be so correct and literary we'd sound like idiots.

Someone has got to come up with a middle-ground of language competence for native speakers, the golden mean where we don't sound like Eliza Doolittle in either of her incarnations.

??? ?????? (which I think is Russian blog-speak for "man, what a bitch").

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