Russian for Russian Speakers

Some (most) of us find Russian impossibly hard. The one consolation my freshman-year Latin teacher would give us was that Latin at least had less cases than Russian (and few of those mutable prepositions).
In Russian everything changes. You often have one basic verb (like “to go” or “to be”)), and you build meaning by adding prefixes to the verbs (towards, up to, into, in, from, away from, out of etc…) and pronouns (to, at, from), along with conjugating the verbs for the person and the tense (and yes, this does mean that one verb could potentially have over a hundred forms). The pronouns too change. Are you in a place? Are you going towards being in a place? Are you coming away from being in a place? Were you in a place yesterday. All different.
Considering that there are often double (or triple) indicators in each phrase clarifying the action, it seems like this could be simplified. If a language is too complex, and the complexity isn’t significantly useful, children learning to speak will automatically sift to simpler forms. So why hasn’t Russian been simplified over the centuries?
On Tuesday evening I accompanied E to his Russian course. The teacher is an older university dean who speaks some Turkish and has decades of experience teaching Russian that sometimes makes up for her bafflement at students’ inability to correctly use – or even see the point of – Russian’s uber-specificity. On Tuesday we experienced a slight outpouring of her grief over Turkish when E expressed confusion over the mutating pronouns – how does anyone understand what’s going on when nouns, verbs and adjectives don’t change when they are in different cases or plying different roles within the sentence?! How do you know, really know, whether something is giving, being given, or being received (Turkish, by the way, usually distinguishes these cases – but the adjectives do not change). How do you know if a certain word is describing an action or a thing when adjectives and adverbs are sometimes the same? How do you understand anything with certainty when every word isn’t goal-oriented and precise? To her it’s natural, helpful, guiding, what we find to be an overabundance of information in Russian. While we’re struggling to stay afloat and not garble all our verbs (and suffixes, and prefixes, and pronouns, and correct noun cases), she would feel adrift in an endless sea of relativity without these buoys and support lines.
So there you have it – Russian hasn’t simplified, won’t simplify over the years, because native speakers value – and depend on – it’s complicated rules of precision.


One thought on “Russian for Russian Speakers

  1. These are very interesting observations. I always wanted to learn a Slavic language, but settled on switching into Latin in high school. Absolutely. Loved. Latin.

    But what you say about specifics and, well, RULES got me thinking: I did one year of Ancient Greek, and it truly taught me a lot. Not only did it open up a whole new (or old?) world to me, but also ideas.

    Ancient Greeks were philosophers. I have sort of come to the conclusion that they had this tendency to explore philosophy -also- because their language so lends itself to this open exploration of the mind and concepts.

    Yes, it has these strict grammatical rules (a bit) like Latin and how I imagine you’re describing Russian to be, however -word-wise, there is just the liberty to form thoughts/words where, prior, there was only space. There are concepts that existed (or were created) in Ancient Greek that are not translatable and have, you could say, disappeared entirely.

    I would have to think that this strictness with which you describe Russian would have to be very restraining for the exploratory mind–


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s