Russian or French?

I’ve posted more than once about the prevalence of the French language in 19th-century Russia (e.g., 2008, 2013, 2014), and I’ve just run across an extended disquisition on the subject in Dostoevsky’s Дневник писателя [A Writer’s Diary] (and it was a special pleasure because he’d been ranting about the Eastern Question and the need for Russia to rule all the Slavic peoples and take Constantinople and how dare anybody object or doubt Russia’s sacred selflessness). This is in chapter 3 of the July/August 1876 issue, consisting of two linked essays, Русский или французский язык? [The Russian or French language?] and На каком язык говорить будущему столпу своей родины? [In which language should one speak to the future pillar of one’s fatherland?]; I wish there were an online translation to link to, but since there’s not, I’ll translate some of it to give the idea. He’s gone to Bad Ems for his health, as did so many Russians of his day, and from that fact he segues into language:

In Ems you can, of course, tell who’s Russian mainly by that Russian-French way of speaking which is peculiar to Russia alone and which has begun to amaze even foreigners. […] What surprises me is not that Russians don’t talk Russian to each other (it would actually seem odd if they did) but that they think they’re speaking French well. […] Russians speaking French (that is, a great mass of the Russian intelligentsia) can be divided into two groups: those who indisputably speak bad French, and those who imagine that they are speaking like real Parisians (all our high society) but in fact speak as indisputably badly as the first group. […] I myself, for example, on an evening walk by the Lahm, encountered two elderly Russians, a man and a lady, talking in a preoccupied way about something with great significance for their family life, something that clearly worried them. They were full of emotion, but were trying to explain themselves in very bad, bookish, French, in lifeless, awkward phrases, and were having such a hard time getting their thoughts across that one would impatiently suggest a word to the other; nevertheless, it never occurred to them to start explaining themselves in Russian. They preferred to do so badly and even risk not being understood, as long as it was in French.

He goes on to say that the falseness of their French is immediately apparent in their pronunciation; they exaggerate the grasseyement of the r “and do so with impudent boastfulness […] imitating for each other the language of a Petersburg barber’s errand boy.” He says they don’t realize that in order to speak really good French, you have to either be born in France or spend a great deal of time there; you won’t get it from the bonnes and gouverneurs with whom well-brought-up Russians were surrounded. He cites a story from Turgenev about a Russian who goes into the Café de Paris and orders “beftek aux pommes de terre,” only to hear another patron order simply “beftek-pommes” and be struck with terror that since he didn’t use the new chic phrase the waiters will despise him. In the second essay, he complains that Russian literature isn’t taught in school and actually compares learning French from your bonne as a child to masturbation (та ужасная привычка, “that terrible habit”)! Lots of good stuff there, and I was surprised that French was still so prevalent among Russians in the 1870s.


  1. For some reason I once bookmarked the University of Bristol’s website of French materials from pre-revolutionary Russia. Just thought I’d toss it here.

  2. SFReader says

    I would say that French is not a foreign language to these Russians, it’s more like L1 or second L1 for people who grew up in a carefully maintained environment of bilingualism (with Russian often occupying secondary position)

    Requirement that their French be perfect Parisian is in fact ridiculous if you think of it.

    It’s like complaining that Australians or upper class Indians speak bad English, because of their accent.

    Of course they would have local accent – they grew up thousands of miles from London and Paris, who wouldn’t?

    Comparison of the Russian French with the Indian English is not flattering, but I think it is more relevant than trying to understand result of bilingual education from very early age in terms of badly learned L2 as Dost seems to imply.

    Badly learned French is what he describes as “indisputably bad French” – result of learning French in school or from books by lower segments of Russian intelligentsia.

    But the French of the upper classes is another beast entirely – fluent and functionally L1, but just doesn’t fully coincide with the Parisian speech due to distance and surrounding environment.

  3. Except that that doesn’t account for his anecdote about the couple trying to converse in French and getting frustrated. Obviously he’s exaggerating (he’s Dostoevsky!), but I think you are too. There were doubtless Russians fluent in French, like Nabokov, but I suspect the vast majority fell more under his description than yours.

  4. SFReader says

    Dostoevsky’s couple are obviously social upstarts trying hard to pretend being native French speakers like the aristocracy were, but failing…

    Not sure about numbers – yes, the humble origins intelligentsia probably outnumbered the aristocracy, but it wasn’t really that big to start with.

  5. SFReader says

    French in the Russian empire is always fascinating topic, but nobody talks about German.

    There were literally millions ethnic Germans with native German in the empire, plus millions more Jews whose native Yiddish was actually a German dialect too ( closer to standard German than what the majority of Germans and Austrians actually spoke) and of course millions upon millions of Russians, Poles, Balts and others of all social origins who could speak and understand German.

    German was understood by perhaps 10 percent of the Russian population and that share in the urban population was greater still – maybe even up to a third.

  6. Very true, and Dost also has an anecdote about how he was in a train car listening to a group of Germans mocking Russia’s military as totally unsuited to modern war, assuming his German was terrible because they’d heard him talking to the conductor, but as he wrote, “I speak it badly but I understand it very well.” Which is pretty much my situation with Russian.

  7. The same situation is playing out in China these days WRT English.

  8. Makes me think of this scene from an old Soviet movie:

  9. David Marjanović says

    closer to standard German than what the majority of Germans and Austrians actually spoke

    In several ways, yes, but all remotely abstract nouns in Yiddish, including e.g. “family”, are from Hebrew (/Aramaic), so it ends up more like a cryptolect: you understand everything except the topic.

  10. John Cowan says

    Mishpokhe ‘family’ is a Semitic word because it’s affective, I think, not because it’s abstract. The WP article on Yiddish morphosyntax mentions that nouns in -ung and -hayt/kayt are feminine, which would hardly be worth pointing out if they were so rare. To be sure, some of them have Hebrew roots: miskayt ‘ugliness’, e.g.

    There’s also a productive process for making deadjectival abstract nouns with umlaut (when possible) or zero (when not): heyt ‘height’, greys ‘size’, leng ‘length’, breyt ‘broad; breadth’, tif ‘deep; depth’. Indeed, Hebrew abstract nouns sometimes become concrete in Yiddish: oysher ‘rich man’ < Hebrew 'wealth'.

  11. Where does miskayt ‘ugliness’ come from?

  12. SFReader says

    On German roots alone, it would suggest something like “wrongness”

  13. SFReader says

    With different policies, Jewish urban population of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Bessarabia would have presented excellent potential for Germanization.

    If the Second Reich annexed, say, Odessa, they wouldn’t need to do anything- it was already half German speaking in a way. Russian Poland was one third German speaking if you counted both Jewish and German population together.

    That was great worry for Russian military command during WWI – they thought that Jews would tend to support Germans, because they spoke similar language.

    Of course, nothing of the sort happened – the last thing Germans wanted was to accept Eastern European Jews as compatriots.

  14. Jews would tend to support Germans, because they spoke similar language

    Prior to US entry into the war there was lot of sympathy for the Central Powers among Jews in the US (and the Ottoman Empire as well), particularly since the Russian Empire was considered the world’s leading anti-Semitic power. Tsarist soldiers’ treatment of Jews in Russian-occupied Galicia insured that a lot of Jews in the Baltics and Russian Poland certainly favored the Kaisers when given a choice, although my impression is that people in the shtetls in 1914-18 probably saw any advancing army as more likely to be a threat than protection.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    you understand everything except the topic.

    This is the essence of communication-as-a-train. It runs smoothly when utterances are followed by other utterances, prompted (or not) by “understanding” on the part of the participants who get on and off.

    It explains why I find blog threads on linguistics so interesting.

  16. SFReader says

    This caused big trouble in the WWII.

    Many older Jews refused to evacuate following the retreating Red Army.

    “We already experienced German occupation in 1915-1918 and it was all right. Surely they can’t be much more different this time around.”

  17. A little surprised at “beftek”, I looked at the linked Wikisource. Was Dostoevsky using eye dialect in the Roman alphabet to represent the Russian mangling of the pronunciation of “bifteck”?

    What do we make of “garзоn” and “poinmes”? Are they transcription errors? It would be nice to have the original on hand to review.

  18. Are they transcription errors?

    Yes. French often gets mangled in Russian online texts (and sometimes in printed ones).

  19. J. W. Brewer says

    The notion that Jews were likely to be pro-German was part of the backstory of the Dreyfus Affair. It no doubt seems stranger in light of subsequent developments than it did at the time.

  20. >Many older Jews refused to evacuate following the retreating Red Army.

    >“We already experienced German occupation in 1915-1918 and it was all right. Surely they can’t be much more different this time around.”

    This is almost verbatim what my great grandfather said in 1941 in Kiev. He said that he did good business with the Germans in 1918. It was only because his wife told him in no uncertain terms that she was taking the family to the Ural mountains and he was welcome to stay behind that he grumblingly followed her.

  21. It is a classic trope about this or that Jewish grandfather refusing to leave and mentioning that in his days, the Germans were ok. Part of it may just be the reflection of survivors guilt… like we didn’t take gramps on the dangerous road but it was his own stubborn wish. Fleeing wasn’t an easy choice. In my father’s ancestral Gorodok it involved a hundred mile foot trek through backwoods, then loading into cattle cars at a station ablaze from incoming artillery fire. Or the kin in Komrat had their train bombed with many causalities, continued on foot to Odessa, thence the only escape was by a steamer, under bombs again. Not a smooth ride by any means.

    And the fable’s grandpa had one more disadvantage of lack of hindsight. By the time the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Holocaust didn’t yet take its final shape of a mass murder campaign. It was the ghetto, the loss of jobs and incomes, the pogroms, but not yet the death camps nor death pits. By this point, Stalin’s regime was arguably responsible for more Jewish deaths still…

  22. A part of the reason why many czarist authorities saw the WWI Jews as pro-enemy is simply the hatred and the wish to inflict more damage to the hated ones. Not too long ago I pored through hundreds questionnaires sent out by the staff of the Southwestern Front to gauge Jewish attitudes in 1915. One official responded that in his town, Jewish peddlers come to the barracks with their wares, “surely to spy.” Another explained that in my Mother’s ancestral hometown, a supply train wasn’t met with due patriotic excitement, so the military cart drivers “were forced to respond with a pogrom”. A third responder described a case of a Jew getting medical draft exemption, but forced to seek a 2nd opinion and deemed healthy enough. The poor chap disappeared rather than to report to the draft board, “obviously defecting to the enemy “, concluded the official.

  23. January First-of-May says

    I don’t actually know how my Jewish grandmother’s family evacuated from their ancestral village of Shchedrin, but if anything I’m more wondering how they knew to evacuate; my grandmother was born in Minsk in May 1941, apparently partway through her family’s evacuation, but several weeks before the main Nazi attack.

    I know even less about my grandfather’s family, having never met the man himself (he died in the 1980s) – though I do know that he was also born on the same day in May 1941, and also in Belarus (not sure if in Minsk or not). As far as I’m aware, they had not actually met until both were already in Tashkent.

  24. >if anything I’m more wondering how they knew to evacuate

    For us, it was a lucky break. We had a relative who was the train dispatcher at the Kiev railroad station. He said that the trains that were sent west with soldiers would come back mostly empty and refugee Jews from Poland would stow away in the cars. They told stories of Nazi atrocities there and that is what spurred on my great grandmother to get most of the family to evacuate.

  25. As WWII started and the Polish Army began to crumble in the West, the Polish government issued a call to its military reservists to go East, where new Polish divisions were supposed to be formed. Of course nothing of the sort happened, and these men ended up in the Soviet zone while their children and wives were being herded into ghetto’s. Not too few of them rescued some family members, bribing their way through ghetto walls and across the river Bug. My Canadian cousin’s mom, along with her mother-in-law, were smuggled with Xian id papers and brought across the river, under Soviet rifle fire, by well-paid local fishermen. Another guy whose kids’ reunion with the US branch of the family I helped to organize was asked by his mom to run across the control line. Not too few of these people who came to the Soviet side after having witnessed first-hand the opening days or weeks of the Holocaust in the 1939 Poland.

    But it was still years before the full-scale genocide would begin to swallow the lives by millions.

  26. John Cowan says

    Where does miskayt ‘ugliness’ come from?

    Apparently it got into Jewish English with the Germanizing spelling mieskeit and from there into the ODO, which says “From post-biblical Hebrew mā’ūs ‘loathsome, repulsive’ from Hebrew mē’as ‘despise, reject’.” However, the ODO definition is ‘an ugly person’, suggesting that it went through the same concretization as the purely Germanic abstracts.

  27. Thanks! It must then be the derived noun מִאוּס mi’ūs ‘loathing’, ‘loathsome thing’, something like /mijǝs/ in Yiddish, and I can see /mijǝskajt/ becoming /miskajt/.

  28. David Marjanović says

    That is where German mies came from in the 19th century (through West Yiddish and the criminal cryptolect known as Rotwelsch).

  29. John Cowan says

    I wonder if this business of all Yiddish abstract nouns being Hebrew (even if it isn’t true in detail) is connected with the Upper German deficiency in abstract nouns.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Perhaps, but Yiddish – not being pure Upper German, but about equal parts East Central – has Germanic abstract nouns that my dialect lacks, too. Of the ones you quote, mine has “height” and “size”, but lacks “length”, “width/breadth” and “depth”.

    “Family” is abstract especially in the sense that it’s Familie all over German. The closest thing to a native equivalent is Sippe (cognate with sib- as in sibling), which vaguely refers to larger clan-like entities and has been skunked by the Nazis, who zombified it after it was already more or less extinct. (Sippenhaftung “legal liability for the political crimes of your relatives”.)

  31. Wow, I just had had to look up Sippenhaftung which at a first glance seemed so quintessentially Stalinist. But the Nazi implementation has an undeniably German flavor, complete with un-confiscation of personal property of the accused family “because the furniture was paid for by an Army enrollment bonus, and the Nazi party, having come into possession of the confiscated furniture, became liable to repay the Army for the goods”, and a legal battle for issuance of the death certificate of the executed brother of the traitor, so the traitor’s sister-in-law can collect life insurance on her executed husband. Stranger than fiction…

  32. David Marjanović says

    It was justified as having been an ancient Germanic practice, LOL.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    I always thought that mies and fies were some kind of strange childspeak or onomatopoeic doublet.


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