I recently finished Odoevsky‘s novella Княжна Зизи [Princess Zizi], to be distinguished from his earlier Княжна Мими [Princess Mimi] (see this LH post); written in 1836 (just in time for Pushkin to be enthusiastic about it) but not published until 1839, it’s a complex story in which the narrator’s friend tells him about the sensitive, intelligent Zizi, who was hopelessly in love with her foolish sister’s husband and ended up fighting both a villain and social disapproval. Though its structure is perhaps overcomplicated and the villain is on the mustache-twirling melodramatic side, it’s well written and gripping, and as close as nineteenth-century Russian literature got to feminism—Zizi’s struggles with the paternalistic legal and social order are devastatingly portrayed.

But I’m going to focus here on a minor section of linguistic interest. Towards the end, a new character is introduced who has just returned from Paris and tends to express himself in French; this gives rise to the following reflection (Russian below the cut):

A friend of mine made a profound observation, namely that there are people who are very clever when they speak French but become indescribably trite and foolish as soon as they begin speaking Russian. This is somewhat strange, but true and understandable. We don’t learn a language, we only memorize a few thousand sentences said in the language by clever people; speaking French well means repeating these few thousand prepared sentences; these sentences both impede thinking and spare one from having to come up with one’s own; you listen and it seems that someone’s mind is emerging from the chatter, but you are deceived: it seems like sense, but when you translate it into Russian it’s vacuous, neither here nor there.

That’s exaggerated, of course, but there’s something to it; it’s easy to give the impression of having something to say by repeating well-chosen quotes. I confess, though, that what drove me to post is an example of the character’s conversation: “Comment donc! nous lui ferons rendre, gorge mordicus!” That’s the way it’s punctuated in every edition Google Books shows me, and the Russian annotation renders it “И как еще! мы у него все вырвем обратно, чорт побери!” [Indeed! we'll get everything back from him, dammit!] Both the editorial staff and the annotator are clearly ignorant of both the French idiom rendre gorge ‘to restitute ill-gotten gains’ (the English word disgorge is helpful for the semantics here) and the Latin adverb mordicus ‘by biting, with the teeth; doggedly’ (from the verb mordere ‘to bite’), which has been taken into French (Trésor de la langue française informatisé: “Obstinément, avec entêtement. Maintenir mordicus son point de vue; nier qqc. mordicus. Elle lui dit qu’il lui a changé son Watteau. Le Hon nie, la femme soutient mordicus [GONCOURT, Journal, 1856, p.297]“). Oh foolish translator, thinking you could just slip an incomprehensible phrase under the rug and nobody would notice! I must say, though, “gorge mordicus!” does have the air of a Rabelaisian curse.

I will also take the occasion to point out the early-nineteenth-century use of пошлый [poshlyi] to mean ‘common, banal, trivial,’ without the implication of philistinism that became attached to it later; see this LH post for the history of the word. Earlier in the story, one of the narrators says “я, как пошлый любовник, бродил под окнами моей красавицы” [I, like a poshlyi lover, roamed around beneath the windows of my beautiful beloved], and when reading Veltman’s Сердце и думка [Heart and head] (see this LH post) I jotted down a couple of uses: “Всё стало в глазах её обыкновенно, недостойно внимания; все люди, казалось, поглупели в ее понятиях: слова их стали для нее пошлы” [Everything became in her eyes ordinary, unworthy of attention; she thought of everyone, it seemed, as stupid: their words had become poshlyi for her]; Когда научились ловко двигаться, классические танцы стали пошлы [When they had learned to move adroitly/cleverly, classical dances became poshlyi].

The original Russian:

Один мой приятель сделал очень глубокомысленное замечание, а именно: что есть люди, которые очень умны, когда говорят по-французски, и делаются невыразимо пошлы и глупы, как скоро заговорят по-русски. Это довольно странно, но справедливо и понятно. Мы учимся не языку, но только заучиваем тысячи фраз, сказанных на этом языке умными людьми; говорить хорошо по-французски — значит повторять эти тысячи готовых фраз; эти фразы и мешают мыслям и избавляют от своих собственных; вы слушаете, чужой ум выглядывает из болтовни, обманывает вас: кажется — дело, переведите по-русски — пустошь, ни к селу ни к городу.


  1. “it seems like sense, but when you translate it into Russian it’s vacuous”: that used to be said quite often with German into English, rather than French into Russian.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    If often happens that something said in a foreign language one has a smattering of sounds so much better than it would in one’s own language, perhaps because of the effort needed to understand what is being said, as well as the slight disconnect caused by different grammar and vocabulary instead of the ones which are taken for granted and sound commonplace in one’s own language. Not too long ago I mentioned the French teenager who thought that the Beatles’ “Here comes the sun” was “génial” (not ‘genial’ but ‘genius-like’), so much better than the French translation “Voici le soleil”. JC thought the English quotation was better too, but to me it was no more than marginally better, rather than truly “génial”. Of course, there are cases such as those of well-known, admired poems (Homer, Dante, etc) which lose a lot in translation because it is impossible to reproduce the specific combinations of thought, imagery, rhyme, etc present in the original text, but those literary masterpieces are not what the Russian statement is referring to.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    LH is right about rendre gorge and mordicus. Mordicus does have the root mord- of the Latin verb for ‘to bite’ (the ancestor of French mordre) but in French mordicus is never used literally, only figuratively for how a person sticks to their statement or opinion as firmly as a dog would hold a bone between its clenched teeth so that nothing or no one could disloge it.

  4. The idea that somebody could sound profound when offering a rote-memorized phrase in another language, but that the illusion would immediately be shattered once they switched to their (and your) native language, is certainly an interesting one, but I’ve never had such an experience (which is not, of course, to say that it has never happened). For one thing, my French and Spanish skills are too terrible for me to be dazzled by a brilliant French or Spanish quotation. (I could, of course, be dazzled by the bare fact of seeming fluency in two or more languages, but that’s another issue.)
    Also, does anybody actually learn another language in that fashion (memorizing a few thousand witticisms and profundities)? This is not a rhetorical question: I don’t know, and am curious. I could imagine such an approach to French flourishing in 19th century Russia (and elsewhere), particularly among the intellectual and cultural elite, but is there reliable evidence that this occurred? And memorizing a few thousand lines (as opposed to, say, a handful of short phrases) would seem to me to be at least as hard, if not harder than, becoming more or less fluent in that language. If all one has memorized is a dozen or so short phrases like “je ne sais qua” or, perhaps, slightly longer phrases like, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” this is unlikely to create an illusion of cleverness, even briefly. Furthermore, if one did bust out with “plus ca change…” when addresing an American audience, it wouldn’t impress them because they think the French version is profound or well-constructed, but, if it was impressive at all, it would be so because a) they would be impressed that you can speak any amount of any language other than English, and b) they would likely find the sound of the French phrase more felicitous than the sounds of the banal English version. That’s not really what the writer here is talking about, which is projecting the illusion of wittiness as a result of only knowing a set number of French sentences, all of which are excellently formulated, thus sounding clever almost by accident when speaking French (as a result of not knowing how to say anything in French that isn’t a cleverly formed sentence).
    Finally, ISTM that, for this type of trick to work, the person would have to have memorized a rather large stock of phrases in order to have one that is relevant in a given conversational context, they would need to have a good eye for identifying excellent writing when they see it, they would have to be adroit at picking the best quote to drop into a given conversation, and they would have to be able to drop the quote into the conversation with impeccable timing. If one has an impressive arsenal of witticisms at his or her disposal and one can wield them with impeccable taste, judgment, and timing, is this not a skill that is largely indistinguishable from wit? The witty rarely, if ever, fashion witicisms from whole cloth, and their skill lies more in adapting existing expressions to the needs of the moment with humor and insight. If a person can skillfully imitate wit through the clever employment of memorized lines, the person is likely not a dullard, even if they turn out to be less dazzling than they initially appeared.

  5. Also, does anybody actually learn another language in that fashion (memorizing a few thousand witticisms and profundities)?
    I doubt it, which is why I called it exaggerated. But it’s an exaggeration of a real phenomenon, that one can sound profound by borrowing the wit of others, which probably works best in another language (since in your own language your quotes will be far more obvious).

  6. “Also, does anybody actually learn another language in that fashion (memorizing a few thousand witticisms and profundities)?” No, but you do pick up the commonest catch-phrases and cliches long before you learn enough to create your own witticisms.
    And you’d only have to sustain the trick over a dinner party.
    Isn’t this the same stunt as submitting articles of meaningless academese to scientific journals?

  7. “Also, does anybody actually learn another language in that fashion (memorizing a few thousand witticisms and profundities)?”
    At least partly, yes. It’s a fairly common method in China taught both in middle school and high school Chinese classes and in English classes. The teachers tell their victims that memorising a bunch of stock beautiful sentences and then peppering their own writing with them will allow them to write well. Persuading my students that actually, no, that’s a complete waste of time is surprisingly difficult.

  8. After all, for hundreds of years all over Europe people who wanted to sound scholarly, as well as those who actually were, peppered their writings with memorized Latin and Greek words and phrases. Doubtless, future pedants will cram in all the Classical English they can.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    CW, perhaps including all those quotations is indeed considered highly desirable in traditional Chinese writing, although not in contemporary Western writing.
    JC, I was thinking the same about Latin and Greek in earlier Western writing.
    Regarding “memorizing thousands of phrases”, which at first sounds exaggerated, I see a parallel with the once-prevalent custom of memorizing the text of the entire Christian Bible and being able to have a quote including “chapter and verse” for just about any occasion.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    This is the oldest thread that’s still open.
    Late-late-night comments on the “unwritable Chinese” thread:

    4. Thorough analysis of Sinitic languages at diverse periods of history as transcribed in Brahmi, Tibetan, Tangut, Khitan, Latin, Arabic, Runic, and other scripts.

    Of course, Tangut and Khitan can only be understood via reconstructions of how literary Chinese was pronounced in the times in question.
    “Runic” clearly refers to the Orkhon script. And while I am at it, there were Middle Chinese loanwords in Proto-Turkic.
    Concerning “Proto-Sino-Tibetan *kolo ‘wheel’”, I have to say that 1) there is no reconstruction of Proto-Sino-Tibetan (in the sense that there’s a reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European), nor a full consensus on the position of Sinitic within that family; 2) the Tocharian forms of that word retained the redupliduplication, Tocharian A having kukäl /kukɨl/ and Tocharian B having kokale /kokəle/; 3) my mind was blown when I saw this paper (PDF of a book chapter with 140 pages) claiming Proto-(North-)Caucasian “*hwəːl(V)kweː ‘cart, wheel’” on p. 164. See also Proto-Altaic *mori “horse” (length and tone of both vowels unknown), cited on the 5th page of this review (PDF, 9 pp.) of the Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    the position of Sinitic within that family

    I mean where within the family it is, not whether Sino-Tibetan exists; that used to be doubted as well, but has been settled (Laurent Sagart has given up trying to relate Sinitic directly to Austronesian).

  12. my mind was blown when I saw this paper (PDF of a book chapter with 140 pages) claiming Proto-(North-)Caucasian “*hwəːl(V)kweː ‘cart, wheel’”
    When I see something like that, my first thought is “Somebody who believes strongly in the relationship of IE to Caucasian is (consciously or un-) tweaking the data to get the result they want.” Not saying that’s fair or warranted, but that’s what pops into my head. In other words, if IE did not exist, would the Proto-(North-)Caucasian word be reconstructed in exactly that way?

  13. Concerning words for “wheel,” what after all could be proved in the first place using a word for a relatively late invention which is obviously imitative of the sound of a wooden wheel turning?

  14. “I was at dinner, some time ago, in company with a man, who listened to me and said nothing for a long time; but he nodded his head, and I thought him intelligent. At length, towards the end of the dinner, some apple dumplings were placed on the table, and my man had no sooner seen them, than he burst forth with: `Them’s the jockies for me!’” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  15. Whereupon Coleridge realized that the man was merely trying to appear intelligent by passing off a bon mot of Burns’s as his own.

  16. [To save anyone the effort of googling: no, that is not a bon mot of Burns’s. At least I hope not.]

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