Teaching Raffi Russian.

Keith Gessen writes for the New Yorker about his dealings with fatherhood and his native language:

I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.

But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history. […]

He discusses the debates over the value of bilingualism and quotes the psycholinguist Grosjean, who “says that the major factor that determines whether a child will become bilingual is need: Does the child have any actual cause to figure out the language, whether it’s to speak to a relative or playmates, or to understand what’s on TV?”

In our case, there was absolutely zero necessity for Raffi to learn Russian—I didn’t feel like pretending I couldn’t understand his fledgling attempts to speak English, and neither was there anyone else in his life, including the Russian speakers in my family, who didn’t know English. I did my best to create a reasonable volume of Russian in his life, but it was dwarfed by the volume of English. Finally, I had, as I’ve said, a bad attitude.

And yet I kept it up. When Raffi was really small, the only Russian books he enjoyed were the nonsense poems by Kharms and the cute nineteen-eighties Swedish books about Max by Barbro Lindgren, which my sister had brought me from Moscow in a Russian translation. But around the age of two he started to enjoy the poems of Korney Chukovsky. I had found these too violent and scary (and long) to read to him when he was very little, but as he became somewhat violent himself, and also able to listen to longer stories, we read about Barmaley, the cannibal who eats small children and is eventually eaten by a crocodile, and then moved on to the kinder-hearted Dr. Aybolit (“Dr. Ouch”), who takes care of animals and makes a heroic journey to Africa at the invitation of a hippopotamus—Chukovsky was a big fan of hippopotamuses—to cure some sick tigers and sharks. I also put a few Russian cartoons into his “screentime” rotation—most of them were too old and too slow for him to like, but there was one about a melancholy crocodile, Crocodile Gena, who sings a sad birthday song for himself, that he enjoyed.

As the months went on I could see that he understood more and more of what I was saying. Not that he did what I told him. But sometimes I would mention, for example, my tapochki, my slippers, and he would know what I was talking about. One time he hid one of my slippers. Gde moy vtoroy tapochek? I asked him. Where is my other slipper? He went under the couch and produced it very proudly. And I was also proud. Was our child a genius? Just from my repeating the same words enough times, and pointing to objects, he had learned the Russian words for those objects. It was incredible what the human mind was capable of. I couldn’t stop now.

He says of the much-discussed phenomenon of different personalities in different languages (which I think we’ve talked about at least once at LH):

I have found that I am shorter-tempered in Russian than I am in English. I have fewer words and therefore run out of them faster. I have a register in Russian that I don’t seem to have in English, in which I make my voice deep and threatening and tell Raffi that if he doesn’t choose right away which shirt he’s going to wear this morning, I’m going to choose it for him.

Do read the whole thing; it’s charming and thought-provoking. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Comments

  1. I have sung to my child and grandchild in German and in French and in Latin (but not in Russian), but of course they don’t learn those languages from that. Still, perhaps that helped Dorian pronounce the Spanish he has learned a bit of at school, as perhaps my mother’s German (though I didn’t learn it) helped me to pronounce non-English sounds.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am hoping the other semi-Russophone kids he interacts with address him as “Raffi Keithovich.” Or maybe the patronymic ends up more like Kifovich?

  3. The last bit reminds me (obliquely) of someone I worked with years ago. He was Scottish but had spent some time in Italy and was fluent, or close to it. When he spoke his native language, he was droll in a very Scottish way and physically undemonstrative, but I once heard him on the phone speaking Italian, and not only did his vocal range magnify in an operatic way, but he had the body language to suit. Very entertaining!

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Hmm, actually it looks like the given name of Keith/Keef Richards gets Russified as Кит, rather than e.g. Киф.

  5. And the word кит means ‘whale,’ which is amusing.

  6. January First-of-May says:

    At least it isn’t Кейт, the spelling that got me hopelessly confused over the gender of Keith Laumer.

  7. To complicate things, it appears that Keith Gessen was born Konstantin Alexandrovich Gessen in the USSR, and became Keith somewhere along the way.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    Keith Richards’ first name gets cyrillicized as Кийт in Bulgarian, according to Bulgarian wikipedia. Don’t know if that reflects a systematic difference between Bulgarian and Russian in how to transliterate English, or if there’s just a lot of ad-hoc inconsistency in this area.

    At least he’s Κιθ in Greek.

  9. A beautiful article, thanks for sharing!

  10. Keith goes by Kostya in his Russophone incarnation. It seems the whole family is fond of diminutives: Kostya, Masha and now Raffi, or Rafik.

    Rafail Konstantinovich?

  11. Rodger C says:

    At least he’s Κιθ in Greek.

    Well good grief, why not Kειθ I wonder?

  12. Aha, so Mr. Gessen uses masculine version of “tapocheck”, just like I do. Feminine “tapochka” is also around. And he uses the deminutive. I also use deminutive for this word much more than ordinary.

  13. When I read the headline I thought it was about this Raffi, whose surname (I didn’t know this) is Cavoukian. He was named after the novelist Raffi Hakobian, who was also professionally mononymous.

  14. Bathrobe says:

    Why is ‘marathon’ марафон (marafon) in Russian? This gets turned into марапон (marapon) by many Mongolians.

    (It’s maratón in Spanish and maraton in Indonesian/Malay, marason in Japanese and mǎlāsōng in Mandarin. Just curious).

  15. Usual Russian transliteration of Greek Μαραθών.

  16. Bathrobe says:

    So all Greek θ’s are transliterated as ф? Is there a background to this choice?

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Until recently, yes. When Christianity was introduced, Slavic had neither [θ] nor [f]. Together they were common enough in Greek to be borrowed as one loanword phoneme, rendered [f] and reportedly still considered difficult to pronounce by uneducated Russians in the late 19th century, but too rare and too similar to be borrowed as two.

  18. For many years I was baffled by one remark in The Three Musketeers. In English, it goes like this

    “Your name?” replied the commissary.
    “Athos,” replied the Musketeer.
    “But that is not a man’s name; that is the name of a mountain,” cried the poor questioner, who began to lose his head.

    In Russian, the name was Atos and the connection to Afon haven’t occurred to me for a long while.

  19. “So all Greek θ’s are transliterated as ф?” Unless borrowed through an intermediary language: театр, теория, метод, атеизм, etc. Or, as David notes, unless it’s a recent borrowing. Θεόδωρος Κουρεντζής, the conductor, is known in Russia as Теодор Курентзис.

    It’s not that [f] does not occur in Russian words of Slavic origin. As a devoiced [v], it’s common in genitive and possessive endings such as -ов and -ев.

  20. January First-of-May says:

    Together they were common enough in Greek to be borrowed as one loanword phoneme

    …though spelled with different letters (ѳ and ф respectively) until the 1918 reform.

    I wonder whether the distinct spelling ever actually represented any pronunciation difference; many of the other special letters borrowed from Greek probably never did, but a few of them got dropped well before the 20th century.

  21. In BCS the difference between Kit (Keith) and kit (whale) is that of length (long falling accent in the former, short falling in the latter).

    And re: /f/, in traditional rural dialects, Filip was Pilip, and flaša (bottle) was vlaša (one of my great-grandmothers used this form).

  22. keith100 says:

    On my visas and official document translations, I’m know as
    Кит
    Кейт
    Кэйт
    Киз

    The first two are equal first place at 4 each, the other 2 were once only.

    At least its not Ких

  23. marie-lucie says:

    D.O. the poor questioner, who began to lose his head.

    The original language of The Three Musketeers is French, in which perdre la tête is not usually ‘to lose one’s head’ but ‘to lose one’s mind’ (usually temporarily!).

  24. January First-of-May says:

    At least its not Ких

    A more plausible form would be Китх, or perhaps Кеитх (cf. ситх for sith in Star Wars… though it’s not like anyone is pronouncing that word as “shee”).

    I’m assuming that the th is voiced? Otherwise, I would have expected at least one Киф.

  25. Marie-Lucie, right. In Russian, “to lose one’s head” also means “to lose mind”. Clear calque from French. I don’t remember why exactly I quoted the English translation. Doesn’t make sense in retrospect, it’s not like it might have distracted anyone here… It’s amazing that for all riches of French literature by far the most important authors for Russian readers are Dumas and Verne.

  26. gwenllian says:

    kit (whale)

    And also a now outdated slang word for (cool) guy.

    And re: /f/, in traditional rural dialects, Filip was Pilip, and flaša (bottle) was vlaša (one of my great-grandmothers used this form).

    Yep. It was common for people’s names to be officially be written with an f, e.g. Frane, but actually always go by Vrane.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    It’s not that [f] does not occur in Russian words of Slavic origin. As a devoiced [v], it’s common in genitive and possessive endings such as -ов and -ев.

    Yes, but that means it only occurs at the ends of syllables (and as the word v), not the beginnings.

    Pilip, Vrane

    While the Serbian czars all had Stefan as their first name, the modern occurrences all seem to be Stjepan, Stipe or Stevan, the latter borne by my grandfather.

    Austria once had a chancellor named Franz Vranitzky. Some nicknamed him “Vranz”, but that was a purely graphic device: v in positions where German doesn’t allow /v/ is automatically interpreted as /f/.

  28. gwenllian says:

    While the Serbian czars all had Stefan as their first name, the modern occurrences all seem to be Stjepan, Stipe or Stevan, the latter borne by my grandfather.

    Stjepan is the Croatian variant of the name, and Stipe (acttually from the ikavian Stipan) is one of its two most common nicknames, along with the northern Štef (actually from Štefan).

    In Serbia, my impression is that Stevan is more common than Stefan in older generations, but that Stefan is now a much more popular choice than Stevan as a baby name.

  29. One of the reasons I tend to go by “Steve” is that people are always pronouncing the full form, Stephen, with /f/, which irritates me exceedingly — my descriptivist tendencies go right out the window, and I want to shout “Ignoramus! Don’t you know anything??”

    Also, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, when I started studying Russian my pal Greg Baranoff refused to call me Стёпа (which I understood was the usual nickname) because it sounded like жопа ‘ass,’ and called me Стива instead, so I’ve used that ever since.

  30. keith100 says:

    The TH in Keith is voiceless as in “thin”.

    Although there’s bound to be exceptions.

  31. The original language of The Three Musketeers is French, in which perdre la tête is not usually ‘to lose one’s head’ but ‘to lose one’s mind’ (usually temporarily!).

    But “to lose one’s head” is precisely “to lose one’s mind temporarily” (i.e. to lose one’s composure or self-possession) and therefore strikes me as by far the most idiomatic translation of “perdre la tête” in the given context.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Actually, now I wonder how a plain old epsilon managed to end up as *ě.

    people are always pronouncing the full form, Stephen, with /f/

    Huh. I didn’t know that was a thing – instead, the spelling Steven seems to be everywhere!

  33. I have never met an American named Stephen who was not known primarily as Steve. On the other hand, I have known a few called Steven who did use the full name (although they were all also called Steve some of the time). I learned then Steven spelling first, since that is my father’s middle name, and it was not until some time in late elementary school that I realized that Stephen should always be pronounced with a /v/. The string orchestra teacher, who taught me from fourth to twelfth grade and was named Stephen Nelson, was probably principally responsible for me learning the correct pronunciation.

  34. the spelling Steven seems to be everywhere!

    And that’s presumably why people don’t know what to do with “Stephen.”

  35. David L says:

    people are always pronouncing the full form, Stephen, with /f/, which irritates me exceedingly

    I am genuinely astonished by that (the pronunciation, I mean, not your irritation). But then I am close to your age and I have a brother named Stephen.

    On a related note, I was surprised some years ago to hear someone pronounce the word aphelion (the point in an orbit furthest from the sun) with an ‘f’. I always said ap-helion, pronouncing the p and the h separately, since it makes a pair with perihelion. I realize these are words that don’t come up every day but I used to move in circles (ha!) where they were not uncommon.

  36. The word aphelion is in fact “correctly” pronounced with /f/; I so pronounce it myself, having been the kind of lad who looked up unknown words in the dictionary. The fact that historically it comes from p + h is irrelevant: the same is true of aphaeresis and aphorism, but presumably you wouldn’t pronounce those with /ph/.

  37. In my experience, the most common pronunciation of aphelion (among physicists and astronomers) is /ˈapəˈhiːlɪən/, although this is not listed by the OED. There are a substantial number of terms of this form, and following the model of apogee, an additional syllable is inserted after the prefix if the stem denoting the body being orbited does not begin with a vowel. Sometimes the extra syllable makes it into the written form, sometimes not. For an orbit around Jupiter, you sometime see “apojove” (although I would not use that form myself, since it is a Greek-Latin chimera; “apozeu” would be preferable, although I would be open to a more correct suffix). However, with “apastron” (which is much more common than “apojove”), no extra vowel is needed, and it is pronounced as written.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    I always said ap-helion, pronouncing the p and the h separately, since it makes a pair with perihelion.

    The trick is that Actually Ancient Greek didn’t have a contrast between /ph/ and /pʰ/, so any occurrences of |ph| came out as /pʰ/. And then, /pʰ/ became [f], leaving Greek with rather fascinating derivational morphophonology. See also: method.

    In my experience, the most common pronunciation of aphelion (among physicists and astronomers) is /ˈapəˈhiːlɪən/, although this is not listed by the OED.

    Public service announcement: when people start making up vowels, you know your supposedly alphabetic spelling system is FUBAR.

  39. SFReader says:

    It’s somehow fitting that Languagehat’s Russified name is the nickname of Anna Karenina’s lover

  40. I am phascinated by this new inphormation…

  41. Eeeh… “Styopa” doesn’t sound like “zhopa”. He was pulling your leg. I wouldn’t call my friend Styopa, though, if I wanted to keep him as a friend. I cannot imagine a grown man called Styopa, maybe only by his mother… Sounds too corny.

  42. Well, then, I’m glad he made me change! But just because it doesn’t sound similar to you doesn’t mean it didn’t to him (almost half a century ago now); people have different reactions to language.

  43. SFReader says:

    I think he simply made a childish joke that Styopa rhymes with zhopa, which, of course, it does….

    Same joke is often made about Europe too (Evropa in Russian).

  44. I have never met an American named Stephen who was not known primarily as Steve.

    Well, I’ve never met him, but Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is definitely “STEF-an” or “Stef” for short, and given his fame it wouldn’t surprise me if the sounded-out (mis-)pronunciation becomes more common.

  45. Yes, and I dislike him for that. (I am not a basketball fan, so I have no other reason to have an opinion about him.)

  46. quaelegit says:

    Besides the name Stephen, are there any other words in English where “ph” gets pronounced as /v/? I can’t think of any.

    (Personally, I always try to ask any given Stephen how they pronounce it. Although sometimes the answer I get is “I don’t care”…)

    Re: ” The fact that historically it comes from p + h is irrelevant: the same is true of aphaeresis and aphorism, but presumably you wouldn’t pronounce those with /ph/.”

    Unlike aphelion/perihelion, I can’t think of any obvious pairs with “aphorism” or “aphaeresis” that make it clear the ‘h’ goes with the second part of the word and not the ‘p’. (I’m sure such terms exist, but they are not commonly known, and I couldn’t find them stumbling around Wikitionary for five minutes.) So it makes sense to me that an English speaker would guess “ap-helion” but “a-phorism”.

  47. Not -ph-, but there’s Townshend.

  48. The original pronunciation of nephew was with /v/ (hence the familiar form nevvy) from Norman French nevu < Latin nepos. The dictionaries still give this as a second pronunciation in the UK; it is never used in the U.S. as far as I know.

    I agree about aphorism vs. aphelion: the first is monomorphemic in English, having no evident connection with horizon, whereas the second fits with perihelion, parhelion ‘bright spot near the Sun’, anthelion ‘bright spot opposite the Sun’ (though the last has a second pronunciation with /θ/).

  49. So it makes sense to me that an English speaker would guess “ap-helion” but “a-phorism”.

    Oh, sure, it’s a totally plausible guess; it wasn’t clear to me from your original comment whether you were aware of the dictionary pronunciation (“I was surprised some years ago to hear someone pronounce the word aphelion with an ‘f’” could imply “…but I then discovered they were right” or “…and I don’t understand how they could be so ignorant”), so I was clarifying.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    Anthelios is a sunscreen company.

  51. January First-of-May says:

    The word aphelion is in fact “correctly” pronounced with /f/

    Sure enough, the Russian is афелий (and not, say, *апогелий; of course anything like **апгелий would be completely at odds with Russian phonotactics).

    That said, it is perfectly reasonable to generalize perigee:apogee::perihelion:*apohelion (and thus end up with /ˈapəˈhiːlɪən/ or similar).

    Public service announcement: when people start making up vowels, you know your supposedly alphabetic spelling system is FUBAR.

    …To be fair, IIRC, epenthetic vowels in tricky and/or unusual consonant clusters are a fairly common thing (not that I can think of any examples in English).

    I cannot imagine a grown man called Styopa

    Sergey Mikhalkov evidently disagreed – Uncle Styopa (Дядя Стёпа) of the eponymous poem series is about as grown a man as it gets.

    Rafail Konstantinovich?

    Probably, with possible variation on the first name (I personally would have expected Rafael’ rather than Rafail).

  52. David Marjanović says:

    epenthetic vowels in tricky and/or unusual consonant clusters are a fairly common thing (not that I can think of any examples in English)

    Mnuchin. PNAS pronounced “penis”. Dmanisi (in Georgia, site of Eurasia’s oldest humans). SICB (Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology) pronounced “sick bee” except for initial stress. Arguably even nuclear pronounced “nookular” (…or “nucular”, or perhaps “newkiller” as was once proposed on LLog).

    In contrast, I can think of a single example in German: Strg “Ctrl” pronounced streng “strict” (Steuerung is actually a good translation of “control”). In my family we don’t even do that, but that’s FYLOSC influence.

  53. as grown a man as it gets.

    Sure. But it was written when Soviet street lights had the colors upside down. A lot changed since then.

  54. Breffni says:

    The PNAS and SICB examples are technically epenthesis I suppose, but they’re a special case, where the name of a letter is substituted for its sound, rebus fashion. See also D’Angelo pronounced with initial /di/, Mvula with /ɛm/, Xavier with /ɛks/. That last one might be a standard pronunciation in fact; isn’t the Marvel character pronounced that way in the films?

    Speaking of films, Irish speakers often have epenthesis in the word film, mockingly written “fillum”. That might be substrate influence from Irish, where e.g. the name “Colm” is pronounced something like /kʌlʌm/. I’m not so sure about the commonly heard /’seɪfəti/ “safety”; can’t think of an Irish equivalent. My own name is often misspelled and sometimes mispronounced “Breffini”, though as far as I know it’s bisyllabic in Irish (Breifne).

  55. Bathrobe says:

    I remember “fillum” from some people in my youth in Australia. It sounded “substandard” (to use a deprecated term).

  56. quaelegit says:

    @Languagehat — I was not the original poster who brought but aphelion, but I was also not familiar with the “proper dictionary” pronunciation of, so thank you for the information anyways!

    @Y — What’s your point about ‘Townshend’? I pronounce it as if there was no ‘h’. Are you saying the ‘h’ makes the ‘s’ be pronounced /z/? Because I *think* I would do that anyways, but now I’m not sure… (If that remark was not in reply to my question about ‘Stephen’, then apologies for misunderstanding, and nvm.)

    @David Marjanović — This probably negates my earlier point about people using roots to guess pronunciation, but I would almost certainly have pronounced “anthelian” with /θ/ and failed to notice the ‘helios’ root if I saw it at the store…

  57. Rodger C says:

    I think “safety” with three syllables is probably a spelling-pronunciation. There’s also “type-a-writer,” which I suspect arises from confusion at seeing a silent e and a silent w conjoined.

  58. I remember “fillum” from some people in my youth in Australia.

    That’s pretty much standard in Hiberno-English, which is of course a substrate in AusE. In Ireland it comes from Irish itself, which always introduces an epenthetic schwa into consonant clusters.

  59. Tim May says:

    Re “aphelion”, the New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) on my bookshelf only offers «/aphiːlɪən/». Checking others online, the OED says «Brit. /əˈfiːlɪən/, /apˈhiːlɪən/, U.S. /əˈfiljən/». The Collins Dictionary of English has «æpˈhiːlɪən, əˈfiː-». The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus only has «/æfˈiː.li.ən/», though.

  60. J.W. Brewer says:

    What’s the substrate influence that causes Yogi Bear to say “pic-a-nic basket”?

  61. @quaelegit: I meant that -sh- is not pronounced /ʃ/.

  62. Probably the same that caused my daughter to say “pan-a-cake” for many years.

  63. David Marjanović says:

    Mbappé gets a syllabic m on Austrian TV.

  64. per incuriam says:

    n Ireland it comes from Irish itself, which always introduces an epenthetic schwa into consonant clusters

    By no means always. Only in a limited number of cases where certain conditions are met.

  65. … Dr. Aybolit (“Dr. Ouch”) …
    Always thought it should be something like Dr. Ouchithurts in English.))

  66. I just remembered this Kids in the Hall sketch, which uses different pronunciations of Stephen to indicate different sexual orientations.

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