Tolstoy’s Youth.

I’ve finally finished Tolstoy’s Юность [Youth]; it took me twice as long as it should have, because for a couple of weeks I only read one short chapter a day. This wasn’t just indolence — it usually takes me a while to get into a long work, but here I felt like I was slogging through molasses. There were some fine character sketches and nature descriptions (always a Tolstoy specialty), but the viewpoint character, sixteen-year-old Nikolai Irtenev, is a smug, preening little aristocrat whose main goal in life is to be comme il faut and to look down on anyone who isn’t, and while Tolstoy has fun with the disasters this leads him into, it gets boring having a succession of episodes that can be boiled down to “although I liked X, I treated him/her contemptuously because they weren’t comme il faut, and then I was surprised they didn’t like me!”

Part of the problem is that Tolstoy himself wasn’t old enough to have a fully adult detachment from the character, so there’s an element of “And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true” about it. Although the story is not autobiographical in detail, the general arc is true to his experience: he himself flunked out of the Department of Arabo-Turkic Languages at the University of Kazan in 1844, having spent the year in drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels. (He then enrolled in the Department of Jurisprudence, dropped out when he inherited Yasnaya Polyana, tried to devote himself to estate management and self-improvement, but got bored and returned to dissipation, this time in Moscow.) Still, I was glad I persevered, because whenever the narrator turns his attention outward there are fine vignettes, including descriptions of the university examination system and the Yar restaurant, a Moscow favorite for generations. And of course I was immensely gratified by the following passage, from Chapter XLIII, about the fellow students he is trying to study with (despite not having paid attention to either the reading or the lectures):

Это чувство возбуждали во мне […] в особенности их манера говорить, употреблять и интонировать некоторые слова. Например, они употребляли слова: глупец вместо дурак, словно вместо точно, великолепно вместо прекрасно, движучи и т. п., что мне казалось книжно и отвратительно непорядочно. Но еще более возбуждали во мне эту комильфотную ненависть интонации, которые они делали на некоторые русские и в особенности иностранные слова: они говорили ма́шина вместо маши́на, дея́тельность вместо де́ятельность, на́рочно вместо наро́чно, в камине́ вместо в ками́не, Ше́кспир вместо Шекспи́р, и т. д., и т. д.

This feeling [of dislike for them] was aroused in me […] especially by their way of speaking, of using and pronouncing certain words. For instance, they used the words glupets instead of durak [‘fool’], slovno instead of tochno [‘as if’], velikolepno [‘splendidly’] instead of prekrasno [‘excellently’], dvizhuchi [i.e., instead of dvizhushchii ‘driving (force)’], and the like, which seemed to me bookish and repellently uncouth. But what aroused even more strongly in me this comme-il-faut loathing was their improper accenting of certain Russian and especially foreign words: they said máshina instead of mashína [‘machine’], deyátelnost’ instead of déyatelnost’ [‘activity’], nárochno instead of naróchno [‘on purpose’], v kaminé instead of v kamíne [‘in the fireplace’], Shékspir instead of Shekspír [‘Shakespeare’], etc. etc.

The last is especially amusing: the English stress is vulgar, only the French will do!


  1. Are any of these “improper” words and pronunciations now part of the standard? Or are they still persisting on a lower register as in his day? Or just defunct?

  2. Every one of those examples of creative stress placement was new to me. I was surprised to learn that any native speaker ever said any of that seriously. Ма́шина is an actual word, and it means “Mary’s”.

  3. Most of the “improper” words seem to me perfectly ordinary, and I suspect it was just that they were non-U (to use an anachronistic term): aristos were supposed to use another word. The pronunciations are not in the least standard; I’m not sure to what extent they still exist at all, but I’ll let Russian commenters speak to that.

  4. And Glossy snuck in while I was typing!

  5. Stress is phonemic in Russian, so when you move it around, you sometimes change the meaning. “Mashina” stressed on the second syllable means “machine” or “car”. Stressed on the first syllable it means “Masha’s”, with Masha being a diminutive of Mariya, i.e. Mary. “Máshina mashína” means “Mary’s car”.

  6. And “Shekspir” stressed on the first syllable actually means “Goethe,” I believe.

  7. dvizhushchii (движущий) as Languagehat wrote is pretty normal, but Tolstoy’s “движучи” is a nonword.

    I vaguely imagine that it could be an adverbial participle (деепричастие) with the meaning “while driving [something]”, but I am pretty sure it’s not attested in texts other than Tolstoy’s Youth.

  8. nárochno instead of naróchno is interesting, because their adjectives nárochny and naróchny have different meanings:

    nárochny (courier. now old-fashioned, but in Tolstoy’s times still widespread)
    naróchny (something done on purpose)

    I imagine nárochno could have a different meaning from naróchno – “sent by courier”.

    PS. Googled it, yes, such use of nárochno is attested in 17-18th century documents:

    “А с тою отпискою и памятьми послан нарочно Павлова полку Грабова стрелец Ивашко Оврамов.”

    “and that reply and instructions are sent by the courier – by musketeer Ivan Avramov from Pavel Grabov’s regiment “

  9. the English stress is vulgar, only the French will do!

    Surely Tolstoy meant no such thing. It’s just the standard pronounciation (which happens to be derived from French) vs. the ‘genteel’ one fancied by T.’s snobbish classmates. Curiously though, Shakespeare’s name is used as such a shibboleth at least once more in Rus. lit.; see Mayakovski’s The Bedbug:

    Посаженный отец – бухгалтер
    Бетховена!.. Шакеспеара!.. Просим изобразить кой-чего. Не зря мы ваши юбилеи ежедневно празднуем!
    Тащат рояль

  10. What was the original 16th century pronounciation of Shakespeare?

    Is Шакеспеар closer to the OP than the current /ˈʃeɪkspɪər/?

  11. @SFReader: For ca. 1600 I’d go with something like /ˈʃe:kspi:r/.

  12. the English stress is vulgar, only the French will do!

    Surely Tolstoy meant no such thing. It’s just the standard pronounciation (which happens to be derived from French) vs. the ‘genteel’ one fancied by T.’s snobbish classmates.

    What do you perceive to be the difference here, such a glaring one that you say “meant no such thing”? I say “only the French [pronunciation] will do”; you say “the standard pronounciation (which happens to be derived from French).” That’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. And you’re wrong about the gentility; it’s Irtenev who is the snob, and his classmates are using the vulgar one (which happens, as I said, to be derived from English).

  13. SFReader: Not at all. I believe it’s just the result of reading the name as it’s written without having any idea as to how it’s pronounced.

    LH: Still, I don’t feel Tolstoy means that English version is any more vulgar than the French one or vice versa. In all the cases he quotes, including this one, ‘they’ try to use or invent unusual, ‘bookish’ ways to speak just to mark themselves as uncommon. I don’t get how it isn’t snobbery.

  14. Because true snobbery is only available to those in a superior position (just as true racism is only possible to races higher up the totem pole). The inferiors (like Irtenev’s classmates) can, of course, invent their own shibboleths, but it’s misleading to call it “snobbery.” And most if not all of the forms he quotes are clearly sheer ignorance of the norms, not used to mark themselves as uncommon.

  15. OK, that just means that we have different concepts of snobbery in mind. Mine agrees with the following OED definition:
    [Snob 3c:] One who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance.
    Granted, the case we discuss has more to do with cultural or intellectual than social snobbery.

  16. Ah, I may not be aware of all the fine points of snobbery — I’m only an American, after all! Thanks for the OED quote.

  17. Thackeray’s Book of Snobs, “by one of themselves”.

  18. Jim (another one) says

    This business of an emphasis slipping around in a word is where a lot of varieties and sub-varieties of English differ. Everyone is aware of the poLICE/POlice alternation and it gets used to comic effect now and then.

    It seems more common in borrowed words, which I guess is to be expected. I know it comes up in gardening and botany all the time – pittoSPORum/pittOSprum; CLEmatis/clematis, and there are many others.. There may be a regional aspect to this but I am not sure.

  19. I’ve been rereading The Book of Snobs, and Thackeray is quite clear that it is not only the arrogant who are snobs, but also the cringing. He defines a snob as one “who meanly admires mean things”, which is quite broad, and gives the following extended example:

    I am told that in a kingdom where there is a German King-Consort (Portugal it must be, for the Queen of that country married a German Prince, who is greatly admired and respected by the natives), whenever the Consort takes the diversion of shooting among the rabbit-warrens of Cintra, or the pheasant-preserve of Mafra, he has a keeper to load his guns, as a matter of course, and then they are handed to the nobleman, his equerry, and the nobleman hands them to the Prince who blazes away—gives back the discharged gun to the nobleman, who gives it to the keeper, and so on. But the Prince won’t take the gun from the hands of the loader.

    As long as this unnatural and monstrous etiquette continues, Snobs there must be. The three persons engaged in this transaction are, for the time being, Snobs.

    1. The keeper—the least Snob of all, because he is discharging his daily duty; but he appears here as a Snob, that is to say, in a position of debasement before another human being (the Prince), with whom he is allowed to communicate through another party. A free Portuguese gamekeeper, who professes himself to be unworthy to communicate directly with any person, confesses himself to be a Snob.

    2. The nobleman in waiting is a Snob. If it degrades the Prince to receive the gun from the gamekeeper, it is degrading to the nobleman in waiting to execute that service. He acts as a Snob towards the keeper, whom he keeps from communication with the Prince—a Snob to the Prince, to whom he pays a degrading homage.

    3. The King-Consort of Portugal is a Snob for insulting fellow-men in this way. There’s no harm in his accepting the services of the keeper directly; but indirectly he insults the service performed, and the servants who perform it; and therefore, I say, respectfully, is a most undoubted, though royal Snob.

    I should point out that there is a trigger-word in the book, one of what Frye calls the true obscenities of our time: indeed, it rhymes with “trigger”.

  20. While obviously Thackeray was far more acquainted with the social system than I, I dislike his analysis intensely. What sense does it make to say the keeper “appears here as a Snob, that is to say, in a position of debasement before another human being”? The OED (entry updated 1913) has two relevant definitions of snob, “A person who despises those whom he or she considers to be inferior in rank, attainment, or taste” (which is how I think of it; earliest citation 1911) and the earlier “A person who admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of higher social status or greater wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance,” which was a surprise to me, but seeing the evolution of senses (from the original “A shoemaker or cobbler; a cobbler’s apprentice”) makes sense. But the keeper is not shown as one who seeks to imitate those of higher social status or greater wealth or wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance; he is simply in a position of subjugation. Thackeray seems to me to be engaging in the always popular sport of blaming the lowly for their low position and mocking them for their acquiescence in the system that keeps them down, as if they were free to do anything else. His modern descendant is the white person who thinks blacks are just as racist as whites.

  21. What Thackeray describes is not snobbery, just usual state efforts at job creation.

    What that poor nobleman’s children would eat if their father loses his important government job of handing loaded guns from keeper to the Prince?

  22. Like any satirist, Thackeray believes in equality. The whole book makes clear that he knows perfectly well that the rich must be arrogant and the poor cringing, as things are. But the key to the situation is the word “free” in reference to the loader. He’s saying that a free man would not put up with a humiliating situation like this. Later on in the book, he describes with even more scorn a gentleman’s club in which, when something must be bought for coin, the change from the gentleman’s gold is washed before it is returned, to prevent the gentleman in question from handling something that had been handled by one of his inferiors.

    Thackeray says elsewhere that when dining in a St. Louis hotel, he overheard the following conversation between two waiters:

    “Who’s he?”

    That is the celebrated Thacker!”

    “What’s he done?”

    “Damned if I know!”

  23. He’s saying that a free man would not put up with a humiliating situation like this.

    Which of course is bullshit, unless you define “free” as “rich and powerful.”

  24. per incuriam says

    Ah, I may not be aware of all the fine points of snobbery — I’m only an American, after all!

    Snobbery in D.P.’s sense is a recurrent theme in Proust. Which is puzzling at first if you’ve only ever known the top-down sense.

  25. David Marjanović says

    @SFReader: For ca. 1600 I’d go with something like /ˈʃe:kspi:r/.

    I’d go with [ˈʃæːkspeːɹ] or [ˈʃɛːkspeːɹ], because the pronunciation of Leeuwenhoek was, in his lifetime, explained in English as “Leavenhook”, with ea evidently still standing for [eː].

  26. Free men are hardly to be found among the rich and powerful: it is among the oldest conclusions of satire that the miser is so called because he is miserable.

  27. That’s very philosophical, but not especially relevant to the real world unless one is a philosopher. You won’t find many poor people agreeing that they are the truly free ones and that it would be a bad thing to suddenly find oneself ensnared by the shackles of wealth.

  28. Well, Thackeray is of course right about one thing – any social order (and any snobbery that goes with it) is kept up by both those at the top who profit from it and those below who accept it (and by all those on the middle rungs who both profit and suffer). But very few people are ready to go for “better dead than a slave”, and those who do most frequently end up dead.

  29. Yes, exactly. Cf. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

  30. I prefer Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. […] This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.”

  31. Isn’t it pretty to think so.

  32. Богачу-дураку
    И с казной не спится;
    Бобыль гол как сокол,

    But it is generally remarked that it is better to be healthy and wealthy then poor, but ill.

  33. Freedom is a matter of degree, and the master of slaves is plainly far less free than the master of employees. That, I think, was Lincoln’s point.

Speak Your Mind