A Russian Typewriter.

In Muireann Maguire’s Facebook feed I found a link to Maxim D. Shrayer’s memoir of his father, David Shrayer-Petrov, for Tablet, A Russian Typewriter Longs for Her Master. It’s long and full of good stuff; here’s a passage on language (the family emigrated to the US in 1987):

My father’s deep knowledge of popular and peasant speech amazes me still today. He used to be able to place a person by region and province of Russia. In January 1998 I accompanied my father on his first trip back to Russia (I had already been back a few times). After a reading not far from Arbat Street, where in February 1987 my mother stood amid a small group of protesters facing plainclothes KGB thugs, father and I hitched a cab. Punctuating his mellifluous speech with undulations of his right hand, the driver delivered his opening tirade about the intolerable Moscow traffic.

“You must be from Smolensk,” my father said to the driver.

“Right you are, a smolyak,” the driver smiled broadly. “How did you know?”

“I have my ways.”

“You must be good with languages.”

My father just nodded, without saying “yes” or “no,” and the driver from the Smolensk province pried on.

“You look like a military man,” he said. “Oh, I think I know. You teach at the Military Interpreters School.”

My father beamed and fired off: “You’re right, I’m a Translator General.”

The driver loved it so much that he didn’t want to charge us.

Later, he writes:

Growing up in postwar Leningrad, my father heard several tongues. Yiddish, the private domain of his grandparents’ home, reminded him of his roots. Soviet newspeak taught him to discern threads of truth amid publicly spoken untruths. A richly polyphonic Russian was both the language of street culture and high culture.

And of course there’s a fair amount about typewriters; at one point he recalls being given “a portable Sarajevo-made UNIS tbm de Luxe,” and I was suspicious that the odd-looking “tbm” was a typo — but no, it’s a thing. (It allegedly stands for tvornica biro mašina, translated as “office machine factory,” but I’m suspicious, since if you google the phrase you get only references to the typewriter, and I don’t think a sequence of three nouns in the nominative works in Serbo-Croatian.) There’s a reference to “Jewish refuseniks who had returned their tickets to Soviet paradise,” which of course is an allusion to Dostoevsky (see this post). And the sentence “In the final cut, you hear the ringing of bells, the staccato of keys, and you see a close-up of the top of the page with the emerging story” links to a video I’m glad I clicked on, because after Dan Rather interviews the Shrayers he talks with Anatoly Rybakov about his then-unpublished blockbuster novel Children of the Arbat (Дети Арбата; see this post), and you see the stack of typed pages of the manuscript. The whole thing is good reading, and now I’m interested in the elder Shrayer’s refusenik novels.

Comments

  1. Mine was Wanderer Werke, a трофей hauled from the vanquished Reich on the gramps’s Jeep 40 years earlier. There weren’t enough Cyrillic keys so we has to contend with filed-off German ones.

  2. Smolensk dialect example:

    U mianie skora u harodi svaje hurki budut́. Sianni budu pastivit́ karou nʺ harochvinniku. Byla matka žyva, usich harnula k sabie, a tiapieŕ pʺrʺzʺjechʺliś chto kuda. Ina hʺmanucha, a ty maučunnia. Ina ž dievyčka spakojnyja, ni harieznica. Dakieda vy učora prʺpaloli? Jany pʺdravnivʺly siena, ti što tam kasili. Dočka mnie havorit́: čaho ty hajdyrʺm chodiš?

  3. By the way, творница биро машина does make sense in Serbo-Croatian because биро машина is a compound noun in gen. pl. It just happens that for feminine nouns ending in -a, nom. sg. and gen. pl. are homomorphic.

  4. Thanks! Obviously my knowledge of S-Cr is minimal at best.

  5. Very glad you enjoyed my piece in Tablet Magazine. Thanks, Maxim D. Shrayer

  6. I certainly did; thanks for writing it!

  7. Typewriters take up rather more space than other collectibles, but Soviet-era portables have a certain charm and we’ve been trying to find space for some in our growing collection.

    We have a Czechoslovakian Consul 232 from 1966 with this wonderful Eastern Bloc mod manual.

    I’ve got a bright red UNIS tbm de Luxe favorited on Etsy. The ones online mostly seem to be from Ukraine for some reason. In moments of weakness the discount offer on eBay of roughly free (before shipping) for a Москва 8, sometimes claimed as the worst typewriter ever made, is tempting.

  8. Expanding on Toma’s post:
    Biro mašina = nominative singular for office machine.
    Biro mašinā = genitive plural, with a long final A.

    In Croatian, the words stroj or aparat would be more appropriate.

    Tvornica is the Croatian word for factory. In Serbian, it’s “fabrika”.
    So TBM is the rather prosaically named “factory of office machines” – or more idiomatically – office machine factory.

  9. “My father’s deep knowledge of popular and peasant speech amazes me still today. He used to be able to place a person by region and province of Russia.”

    This really doesn’t sound like a very impressive achievement, unless he could do it at incredibly high levels of precision. Smolensk is a big city and not particularly close to Moscow (370km), and I would expect that as a result it has a noticeably different accent. It’s hardly Henry Higgins placing a man to within three streets. It’s more like noticing that your London cabbie grew up in Newcastle, or that the woman next to you on the Paris metro is actually a Marseillaise.
    Or are Russian regional accents extremely similar to each other?

  10. Arguably, Smolensk dialects could be described as dialects of Belarussian, not Russian.

    The example I posted above is hardly intelligible to average Muscovite.

    Or are Russian regional accents extremely similar to each other?

    They used to be very different, but no longer.

  11. This really doesn’t sound like a very impressive achievement

    Give the guy a break, he’s talking about his dad! My grandsons are the smartest and nicest kids in the US, and I will brook no contradiction.

  12. Or are Russian regional accents extremely similar to each other?

    They used to be very different, but no longer.
    Exactly. In my experience, there is much less of a difference in accent and intonation between speakers from different areas of Russia than there is in England or Germany. Being able to distinguish these slight differences actually is quite a feat.

  13. I remember people in Penza speaking with rather a peculiar accent. And a relative says that when she was visiting her daughter in Rostov/Taganrog, locals could spot her right away by the way she spoke.

  14. I think real local dialects are either dead or spoken only by very old people.

    Current generation has traces of old local dialects in terms of accent, intonation, some surviving dialectal words, etc in what is otherwise perfectly normal standard Russian.

  15. January First-of-May says:

    I think real local dialects are either dead or spoken only by very old people.

    Current generation has traces of old local dialects in terms of accent, intonation, some surviving dialectal words, etc in what is otherwise perfectly normal standard Russian.

    Pretty much this; it doesn’t help that many of the western dialect areas (including, I believe, the vicinity of Smolensk) were utterly devastated by the Nazi invasion in the early 1940s.

    In addition, villages probably preserve (or, at least, used to preserve) a lot more actual dialect than cities, so you might still be able to hear real Smolensk dialect in a village near Smolensk (or, at least, might still have been able a few decades ago), but hardly in Smolensk itself.

    Modern people tend to notice the few remaining (mostly lexical) differences and call them “dialect”. No, I apologize, but Saint-Petersburg doesn’t have a different dialect from Moscow just because they talk about kura and porebrik in there (though I’ve been told that they do still have a subtly different accent as well).

  16. Yes, they do. Don’t you hear it in Putin’s speech? Peter’s manner of speaking (let’s not call it a dialect) is more crisp compared to Moscow, with more precise articulation.

  17. In my experience, there is much less of a difference in accent and intonation between speakers from different areas of Russia than there is in England or Germany. Being able to distinguish these slight differences actually is quite a feat.

    The same’s true, I’m told by native speakers, of the US – at least west of the Mississippi, there is very little variation. Supposedly this is recent settlement by English speakers (so not enough time for different accents to develop) and a fairly mobile population consuming the same broadcast media. I wonder what the reasons are in Russia? Centralised media and large amounts of (forced) population movement?

  18. AJP Crown says:

    there is much less of a difference in accent and intonation between speakers from different areas of Russia than there is in England or Germany. Being able to distinguish these slight differences actually is quite a feat.

    It’s remarkable how you Russians are treating this so casually and as if it wasn’t a generally agreed, much-discussed characteristic of Russia & Russian. If it had become the case in Norway or Scotland or France or the US, everyone would have gawn bananas and we’d never hear the end of it (especially from linguists, obviously). Was there a Soviet policy to wipe out dialects and other speech differences? I was just reading somewhere (NY Times, I think) how Stalin’s Georgian accent was distinctive during his late night postwar booze-ups with Molotov, Beria, Khrushchev & the rest, who all sounded like the Muscovites even when they weren’t – so maybe this has been the case for quite a while? What about the Soviet republics: surely, like Georgians, the Uzbeks and Ukrainians speak Russian with distinctive accents or is that too obvious to mention? Is or was class a factor in regional dialect as it is in France, the UK & US? Is Tsar Nicholas II portrayed with a distinctive accent (and his German wife, of course) as George V or Victoria might be in an English TV “drama”? How about Tolstoy?

  19. David Marjanović says:

    west of the Mississippi

    “You can learn to tell a Texan from a Montanan, but it’s like two villages in Norfolk twenty miles apart.”
    – J. B. Rye

  20. @AJP Crown: I can’t answer most of your questions; internal migration, the influence of education and the media etc. must all be a part of it; there certainly was a Soviet policy of bringing culture and cultured speech to the masses, and my impression is that dialect features have been and still are seen by most not as signs of “authenticity”, but as signs of lack of culture and, a worse indictment in Soviet times, ideological backwardness. I think it’s meaningful that the one specific accent that comes to everybody’s mind when talking about significant regional Russian accents is the one of St. Petersburg, the former capital, which is regarded by many, and certainly by its speakers, as more cultured and refined than the standard. By the way, the accent that won out is not the old Moscow accent, but a pronunciation that is close to the orthography.
    What about the Soviet republics: surely, like Georgians, the Uzbeks and Ukrainians speak Russian with distinctive accents or is that too obvious to mention?
    Yes. 🙂 Especially the Russian accents of the nationalities of the Caucasus, Transcaucasus, and Central Asia are distinct and are often parodied and mocked in Russian popular culture.

  21. I was just reading somewhere (NY Times, I think) how Stalin’s Georgian accent was distinctive during his late night postwar booze-ups with Molotov, Beria, Khrushchev & the rest, who all sounded like the Muscovites even when they weren’t

    I can’t answer for Molotov, but it’s certainly not true for the rest. Stalin’s Georgian roots and Khrushchev’s Ukrainian ones were always clear.

  22. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hans, ajp

    The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him [Gorki] into his study…then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encounter with mixed feelings. “It was as if I had met…a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’.

    Source: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/genius-and-laborer
    Maybe you can find something more in Russian. My memory is that G felt intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings and had a chip on his shoulder, Tolstoy made his guest feel like a peasant but I think it was more a perceived tone than a class accent.

  23. I’m sure it was, and of course he was quite correct — Tolstoy loved the “common people” the way many aristos of all nations have always done, but he couldn’t stop being an aristo, and his snobbish attitude must have been clear to anyone from the lower orders he was talking to.

  24. I’ve read somewhere that proposed orthography reform aiming to bring standard spelling of some words closer to the variant used by comrade Khrushev was cancelled after his fall in 1964.

    Don’t remember all the proposals, but one struck me as very funny – zayets.

  25. zayets

    Which was duly parodied in Kabachok 13 Stulyev”:

    -Tell me how to spell right: zayets or zayits.
    -You’d better write
    krolik.

  26. Hans’s answer, I believe, more or less covers it. Another thing to keep in mind is that Russia was predominantly rural into the 20th century. And when mass movement of peasants to cities and towns happened it was easier for all this other factors to play out. Had modernization happened earlier and more gradually, such commercial centers as Nizhny Novgorod would probably retain they distinctive accent.

  27. January First-of-May says:

    By the way, the accent that won out is not the old Moscow accent, but a pronunciation that is close to the orthography.

    …Well, close-ish, but with Central Russian reduced vowels (so none of that okanye thing, despite the spelling).

  28. Родина за языковым барьером
    Почему в России мигранты второго поколения плохо знают родную речь и что с этим делать
    (Fatherland behind a language barrier: Why second-generation migrants to Russia have a poor command of their mother tongue and what to do about it)
    (In Russian)

    https://fergana.ru/articles/114699/

  29. January First-of-May says:

    I’ve been told in Israel that children of immigrants from Russia tend not to learn that much Russian, and second-and-a-half-generation immigrants (children of those who themselves arrived at a young age) often don’t speak Russian at all and have to communicate with their Russian-speaking relatives through a translator.

    I should have realized that the same thing was probably happening with immigrants into Russia… never thought about it, to be honest.

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