Thursday, January 22, 2009



I don’t think I ever expected to study Russian in my life. I took Latin in high school. I took Spanish in college. I knew I’d be learning a language in the Peace Corps, but I didn’t expect Russian. Mongolian? Thai? French? Kyrgyz? But Russian? That actually might be useful in the future. If I ever manage to learn it.

Russian is a tough language. To start with, the nouns are declined. For those who only studied romance languages, you might not know the horrors this brings upon a language learner. Let’s take the word dog for example. If dog is the subject of a sentence, it is собака. If it is used in possessive, it is собаки. If it is an indirect object, it is собаке. If it is used as a direct object, it is собаку. There are also two additional cases that correspond with “with” and with “about” in many common cases. So you’d be with собакой, and you’d speak about собаке. Of course if we want dog to be plural, then we’ll have another six ways to write it.

Fortunately, there are only three major declensions to memorize, but remembering to use endings and knowing which ones to use in every day speech is a constant struggle. I don’t even know what it sounds like to a native when I talk. “Bez molokom” for example, is literally “without milk” but milk used in a case usually used when you mean “with milk.” Usually, I find, you will get it with the milk.

And the cases aren’t too bad until you start using the prepositions. If it was as simple as it sounds, it wouldn’t be bad at all. But if you want to say walked down the street, for example, you can use multiple prepositions for “down” and depending on which one you choose, the case may vary from genitive to instrumental to accusative. Fun. Oh yeah, adjectives of course have to match the number, gender, and case of the nouns as well. We won’t even talk about that.

Articles don’t exist in Russian. This makes it pretty easy in some ways, but feels awkward at times. For instance, do you want to go to concert? The concert? Or a concert? I want to specify, but I can’t. They get by without it though.

And then you learn that in Russian, there are only three verb tenses. Past, present, and future. Awesome, right? But then you learn the truth. Verbs have two aspects, perfect and imperfective. This is similar to Spanish, when you have either the perfective or imperfective endings. But in Russian, the verbs are entirely different. So if I want to say, I read a book last Saturday, there is one verb for having read and finished the book, and another verb to describe the general activity of having read a book. Often these verbs are very similar, which is both good (because they are easier to learn) but bad (because they are easier to confuse). Russian also loves to add prefixes to verbs. So the verb говорить which means to speak, can become говаривать to say repeatedly, разговаривать to converse with.

And the worst Russian verbs ever are the dreaded verbs of motion. “Go” doesn’t translate very well into Russian, because it depends on your mode of transportation. Walk, drive, fly, swim, boat. Well each of those has a different word. Go towards, leave for, return to, go through, go around, go in. Well, you better learn your prefixes for those nuances. There are actual books just about Russian verbs of motion.

To be or not to be? In Russian, you don’t need to be if you’re in present tense. I good. This delicious. Where you? If you are in the present tense, you just omit the verb to be. And if for some reason you need to use it, you use the instrumental case after it. Of course, sometimes when you omit “to be,” you use dative instead of nominative as the subject of the sentence. I don’t really understand when that happens yet.

And then, you begin to think you’re finally getting a grip on it all. Yeah, it’s confusing, and yeah, your vocabulary is miniscule, and yeah, you don’t pronounce the strange vowel sounds they have, but you’re getting there. Then, they give you something to read. And it’s in handwriting. And it looks like a whole new language. I can imagine cursive is difficult to read for people who haven’t studied it. Ms and Ns are easy to confuse. The r is a little funky, but Russian script is a ridiculous code just made to confuse people. It can be somewhat replicated on the computer with italics, but nothing really compares to getting a sentence in script and not knowing any of it. I even got someone to write out Merry Christmas in Russian script so I could copy it on my Christmas cards here. I would match the example the best I could. And even after I had just written out the words, I still had trouble reading what I had just written.

день рождения день рождения. Not so bad. Pretty readable. D is a little different.
говорить говорить Is this really the same word? Yeah, somehow, it is.

1 comment:

gamehube said...

reading that made me very, very tired. what a bitch of a language!