Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Does Anyone Know Russian?

The Russian language was once commonly studied in Czechoslovakia. I don’t know whether it was possible to avoid it in school (I will have to inquire), but in general people did learn a bit. Many, of course, paid very little attention.
I knew that in post-Revolution times, study of Russian has dropped enormously, and children instead learn formerly unpopular languages like English and French. I had not realized, however, the degree to which this must be so—especially considering how many Russians and Ukrainians currently live in the Czech Republic. After all, the Slavic languages are much more similar to one another than are some of the other Indo-European language groups. It isn’t all that hard for Czechs and Russians to pick up a decent command of each other’s languages (although I am sure the niceties are harder to master).
Yesterday, however, I was sitting in David’s cognitive linguistics class on metaphor, which he teaches in Czech to students who appear to be linguistics specialists. I enjoy going to this class since, although I’ve never taken a linguistics class and haven’t yet read the Lakoff and Johnson book that is the text (though I’ve been meaning to for several years), the subject interests me and the lectures are gratifyingly easy to follow. I was a little concerned, though, because some of the analysis would be of Russian texts and metaphors, and I don’t know any Russian beyond what I can extrapolate from my knowledge of Czech.
Imagine my surprise, then, when only one student admitted to being able to read Russian!
The hallway leading to this classroom is filled with information on various Slavic languages. The section devoted to Sorb (a language spoken by a rather small number of people in eastern Germany) is large and elaborate. I must admit, however, that I have not noticed anything referring to Russian. (There must be something somewhere!)
It would seem to me that, whether or not Russian is a popular subject for the average Czech, it would be a very desirable one for the average Czech linguistics student. If nothing else, there is a great quantity of Russian linguistics literature. (Perhaps it has all been translated?) Who knows. Perhaps David’s students were being modest about their abilities, but in general they did not seem to know much Russian, even short phrases.
This will make life easier for me, but it did make me wonder what the world is coming to.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Kristen said...

My limited experience travelling in the former Eastern Bloc has indicated that people would rather perform a self-spleenectomy than admit they know any Russian. It was bad enough that people would prefer my horrid German to any attempt to use Russian. There's still a lot of animosity there.

Besides, the Prague School of linguistics is much more famous than any Russian approaches to the subject.

March 01, 2006 7:29 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Animosity, definitely. That seems a little different than admitting to knowing something useful in class. My thought was more that if these students are around twenty, then they were about three at the time of the revolution. In my experience, older people don't pretend unfamiliarity with Russian, they just either didn't learn it very diligently or they tell me what a beautiful language it is (even if they were anti-Communist).

I thought Prague School linguistics grew to a large degree out of Russian ideas (due to so many Russian emigres in the group), but I'm ignorant on relative fame. I only know about Prague School because it relates to my dissertation, I'm afraid.

There you have the confession of the non-linguistics-trained person.

March 01, 2006 7:46 PM  
Blogger P'tit-Loup said...

I am surprized too because even with my VERY limited knowledge of Czech, I could pick out some words out of the film "Everything is Illuminated" when they spoke russian. But then again, I could not pick out much Czech is someone spoke it to me. I know that most Czech are aware of the closeness between their language and Russian, but like portuguese and spanish, they may have some resistance in learning each other's language out of pride or a host of other emotions.

March 02, 2006 6:51 AM  
Blogger Kristen said...

Well, yes, there is some Russian scholarly background to the Prague School due to the training of some of its members, but it is more known for being "revolutionary" on its own terms.

Interesting about your experience with older people. I've had exactly the opposite experience. Perhaps elder Czechs aren't as angry as Poles and Hungarians. Then again, the former have centuries of Russian invasion behind them.

March 03, 2006 12:42 AM  

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