What Language Do We Learn?

The immigrant’s language differs from the language they speak in their historic homeland. You might have noticed it before, or you might haven’t noticed it at all and have found out about it only now.

For us immigrants, the language hasn’t changed since we left. It remained the same as when we brought it from the motherland.

Some words transformed their meaning right before my eyes. For instance, at the time when I was leaving Russia, visitors were invited to sit by the word садиться. Now people are more likely to say присаживайтесь. The next example is about the word задний. For me, задний means someone standing at the back. Nowadays, in Russia, this word has acquired the meaning of последний. In my girlhood, the word касаемо apparently meant что касается. It sounds rough to me now as it referred to spoken language. I’m not criticizing; I’m just stating the fact that my language is becoming archaic. I simply can’t keep up with it.

The descendants of immigrants who relocated to the U.S. about 100 years ago, after the events of 1917, call a school of the Russian language “Отрада.” They also say уборная instead of туалет. And do you know what the word отрада means? There is even a song with the words: “Живет моя отрада в высоком терему.” I suspected that it is a cognate with the word радость, but I still had to look it up in the dictionary to make sure. The original meaning of the word “отрада” is удовольствие, радость. For instance:“Дети — наша отрада.”

And I don’t have the word уборная in my vocabulary; I’m an immigrant from another time.

Also, there are Old Believers who live in Alaska, in the U.S. I talk to them only in English, as their Russian differs from mine; though they consider Russian their native tongue. I can only guess which variant of Russian they speak. Their names captivate me with their antiquity — for instance, the name Ulita. By the way, it doesn’t stop them from buying my books.

I’m telling you this because I hope to convey the idea that language is a living entity that flows, lives and evolves. Language is always changing. You can see it in the meanings of words, the use of cases, and the syntax.

If we continue with the river analogy, the language of immigrants is like a small (or large) body of water that remained as the river changed direction. This body of water no longer connects with the river from which it originated, and lives separately under its own laws.

So, what language do we learn? Some people may say, “There is a classical version of Russian that Chekhov spoke, for example. This variant must be learned!”

Let’s then read Chekhov. All quotations are from Chekhov’s complete works and letters, Moscow, 1946–1951.

«Рассказ неизвестного человека»:

«Я заказывал в ресторане кусок ростбифа и говорил в телефон Елисееву, чтобы прислали нам икры, сыру, устриц и проч.» (VIII том, страница 180).

Here is one more example from Chekhov’s letters. The volume and page numbers are listed in parentheses after the quote.

Chekhov wrote: «Сейчас в телефон говорила со мной Татаринова» (XIX, 231); «Альтшуллер говорил в телефон» (XIX, 231); «Сейчас говорил в телефон гурзуфский учитель» (XIX, 280); «Сейчас говорил в телефон с Л. Толстым» (XIX, 186) и т. д.

Someone may argue, “But wait, Chekhov lived 150 years ago (1860–1904). At that time, people had only invented the phone, and the norm of the language was in flux.” That’s true. I totally agree with it. Then, what language do we learn?

Let’s then turn to another classic, Korney Chukovsky, and his work, “Жив к жизнь,” which is my favorite regarding language. Here’s the final quote for today.

Когда читаешь такие биографии слов, окончательно утверждаешься в мысли, что русский язык, как и всякий здоровый и сильный организм, весь в движении, в динамике непрерывного роста.

Одни его слова отмирают, другие рождаются, третьи из областных и жаргонных становятся литературными, четвертые из литературных уходят в просторечие, пятые произносятся совсем по-другому, чем произносились лет сорок назад, шестые требуют других падежей, чем это было, скажем, при Жуковском и Пушкине.

Нет ни на миг остановки, и не может быть остановки.

Здесь все движется, все течет, все меняется. И только пуристы из самых наивных всегда воображают, что язык — это нечто неподвижное, навеки застылое — не бурный поток, но стоячее озеро.

So, what conclusion do we reach? What language do we learn? When teaching a language, we should remember that it is constantly evolving. Therefore, in my opinion, we had better focus on the modern standards of the language that are commonly found in dictionaries. Immigrants who have difficulty finding modern dictionaries can turn to special websites such as грaмота.ру. It is still available for us; it’s our отрада.

All the best!

Soroka. Russian language for children

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.