I’ve finished Radishchev’s Journey (see this post), and the final chapter, on Lomonosov, was actually reasonably interesting. In the course of discussing Lomonosov’s thirst for learning, acquired in part through mastery of foreign languages, Radishchev writes (I quote the Leo Weiner translation, published by Harvard University Press, 1958):

Thus the student, upon approaching an unknown language, is confused by strange sounds. His throat is exhausted by the unfamiliar rustling of air escaping from it, and his tongue, compelled to wag in a new way, grows lame. The mind grows stiff, reason is weakened by inactivity, imagination loses its wings; memory alone is wide awake and ever keener, filling all its convolutions and openings with hitherto unknown sounds. In learning languages, at first everything is repulsive and burdensome. If one were not encouraged by the hope that, after having accustomed his ear to the unusual sounds and having mastered the strange pronunciation, most delightful ways would be opened up to him, it is doubtful that one would want to enter upon so arduous a path. But when these obstacles are surmounted, how generous is the reward for perseverance in overcoming hardships! New aspects of nature, and a new chain of ideas then present themselves. By acquiring a foreign language we become citizens of the region where it is spoken, we converse with those who lived many thousand years ago, we adopt their ideas; and we unite and co-ordinate the inventions and the thought of all peoples and all times.

And, approaching the end of Slezkine’s wonderful Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (see this post), I’ve run into the following striking quote from the Nanai author Petr Kile (born 1936; I assume “Kile” has the stress on the second syllable—anybody know?):

There is no point in writing in my native language because out of eight thousand Nanai living in this world, if anybody reads poetry, they read it in Russian. There is no need to translate Pushkin into Nanai. I love Pushkin in the element of Russian speech and I cannot reject it. In any case, writing poetry in any other language strikes me as strange. And who knows to what extent Russian has become my native language?

This is from Идти вечно [To always go/walk] (1972), which Slezkine calls Kile’s “remarkably fresh memoir.”


  1. aqilluqaaq says:

    I assume “Kile” has the stress on the second syllable—anybody know?):
    «ударение […] всегда падает на последний слог слова, независимо от его морфологической структуры.» (Аврорин, 1959)

  2. Спасибо!

  3. I particularly identify with the first quote, I believe that the most effective single means by which you can understand a people, a culture, a country, is to learn their language (and then, of course, use it to actually communicate with those people). Never forget that the true purpose of language is communication, it’s not really there to serve as an interesting little mental puzzle for you to solve, though some people may treat it as such and that’s fine.

  4. I disagree. I think that the true purpose of language is to serve as an interesting little mental puzzle for me to solve. Of course some people may treat it a means of communication, and that’s fine.

  5. I agree. I think the true purpose of communication is to pose mental puzzles in the form of language. As Talleyrand remarked: “Language was given to man to disguise his thoughts”.

  6. Blasphemy! Languages were created to confuse and scatter humankind so that they couldn’t build a tower to heaven, and that’s that. Moses also spoke all the Hebraic dialects in the Pentateuch, BTW.

  7. Random etymological fact: Spanish lástimar ‘injure, damage, offend, pity’ is a semicultismo, or learned word with popular modifications < blasphemare.

  8. I believe there shouldn’t be a stress mark in lastimar. This is the infinitive, and has the default stress on the final syllable. The noun lástima, though, needs a stress mark over the first “a”, since writing it without any stress mark would indicate that it is to be pronounced *lasTIma. In fact it is pronounced LAStima, as I happen to know from the everyday exclamation Qué lástima ! = “what a pity”.

  9. Jim: Blasphemy! Languages were created to confuse and scatter humankind so that they couldn’t build a tower to heaven, and that’s that.
    At last: somebody here who can provide discussion-free guidance about languages ! What is the correct Christian position regarding skyscrapers ? My inclination is to avoid them in future – look what happened to the Twin Towers.

  10. I hear they’re building one in Dubai so tall that those in the penthouse will be able to reach up and strike the firmament with hatchets until its waters flow forth. That’s no good. There may soon be several different languages in that region, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Google Translate suffered mysterious technical problems.

  11. Yes, thanks, Grumbly. I accidentally copied the stress from lástima.
    My Spanish consultant says that the verb is rare in any sense except ‘injure’, and even that is found mostly in Galicia and America; the rest of Spain says hacerse daño ’cause damage’ or a more general verb like doler. There are a few fixed phrases like su honor lastimado ‘your offended honor’. Such are the perils of relying on dictionaries: they don’t sort out the ordinary from the unusual senses.
    James: I thought it was going to be in Iraq, at Tell el-Muqayyar.

  12. There is only one true language. Are there any very tall buildings in the Low Countries?

  13. James: I thought it was going to be in Iraq, at Tell el-Muqayyar.
    As you know, John, history doesn’t repeat itself — it rhymes. Speaking of which, they’ll probably go at it with chainsaws, not hatchets. That would explain rising sea levels better than the sparse evidence for global warming!
    There is only one true language.
    One upped again, you bastard!

  14. marie-lucie says:

    JC: hacerse daño ’cause damage’
    I think this means ’cause damage to oneself, hurt oneself’, as opposed to hacer daño (a …) ’cause damage, hurt (someone)’.
    Similarly in French: se faire mal ‘to hurt oneself’ (by falling, cutting oneself, etc by accident or deliberately) vs faire mal (à quelqu’un) ‘to cause damage to, hurt (someone)’. If for instance you bump your elbow against a hard object, you can say Ça fait mal ‘It hurts!’

  15. Apparently hacerse daño can mean either ‘hurt oneself’ (reflexive), ‘be hurt’ (pseudo-passive), or ‘hurt’ (pseudo-passive with active sense), at least in Spain.
    Such active semantics are not uncommon in Spanish: reír and reírse both mean ‘laugh’ (though *reír de whereas reírse de ‘laugh at’); piénsalo ‘think about it’, piénsatelo ‘think about it hard/thoroughly/for a while’. Some semantic shifts are even more drastic: combinar ‘combine’ vs. combinarse (in the plural) ‘take turns’; acusar ‘accuse’ but acusarse not ‘be accused’ but ‘confess’ (shades of the Inquisition)!

  16. Confess yourself to heaven.
    Repent what’s past. Avoid what is to come.
    And do not spread the compost on the weeds
    To make them ranker.

                        [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4]

    I say, will you confess yourself, Goody Nurse ?

                        [The Crucible]

  17. marie-lucie says:

    JC, there are similar things in French: rire de ‘to laugh about’ (as a spontaneous reaction) and se rire de ‘to laugh mockingly about, not to take s. seriously’ (as an attitude)(the latter is an older, more literary phrase). Quite often the plain verb designates a plain action (or reaction) while the pronominal verb adds a connotation of duration or habit.
    Why should Spanish acusarse mean ‘to be accused’ rather than ‘to accuse oneself’? In French too, during confession (to a Catholic priest) you are supposed to say Je m’accuse (de …) lit. ‘I accuse myself’, meaning ‘I confess, I take the blame (for … [having sinned])’.
    Grumbly: Perhaps confess …self in the quotations are calques (literal translations) of French se (etc) confesser ‘to confess one’s sins’ (during confession to a priest).

  18. Why should Spanish acusarse mean ‘to be accused’ rather than ‘to accuse oneself’?
    Yes, I saw that as soon as I hit the Submit button — which indeed does inspire submission to the inexorable workings of the Machine. I once saw a cartoon of an IRS (U.S. tax collector) office with the auditing of a fearful taxpayer well under way and the famous quatrain from Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat framed on the wall:
    The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
    Singularly apropos.

  19. @John Cowan: in my experience (native Rioplatense speaker, 10+ years in Spain), acusarse ‘confess’ is obsolete, and combinarse ‘take turns’ is strictly a Caribbean/Mexican usage; neither would be acceptable in any of the dialects I speak.
    It’s long been my opinion that speaking of ‘passive voice’ in a Spanish context is a misnomer. The be+VBN syntax usually designated by this term is just one of several semanticall-equivalent alternatives, and by no means the most frequent; in spoken discourse, the pronominal construction is much more common (e.g., se construyó instead of fue construido). In the present tense, in fact, be+VBN is usually unavailable.

  20. Alon: Thanks. How much have you consciously adjusted your dialect since moving to Spain? I’m curious.

  21. @John: I codeswitch. I speak (a passable imitation of) the Castilian standard to Spaniards, and my native Rioplatense when back at home.
    A few months in Salamanca soon after I’d moved to Spain convinced me that using any dialect but the local standard was about as communicatively effective as speaking English or French— perhaps useful for short-term transactional purposes but a disabling barrier to any kind of long-term relationship.

  22. Fascinating! I’d never have guessed it would be that much of a problem.

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