The man who claimed to be a whaler, and other online dating adventures of Anya Ulinich

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

Never has the art of finding love been more entwined with the art of writing. And the potentially life-changing issue of who you attract and how you attract them comes down to one key document: your profile.

Writing, dating and love are central themes in Anya Ulinich’s funny and raw new novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, which follows a Russian-American divorcee’s descent down the rabbit-hole of online dating.

Like her protagonist, Ulinich was also born in Russia, and also discovered online dating after her marriage ended. I caught up with Anya at her apartment in Brooklyn to discuss the art of profile writing and how being foreign-born can unexpectedly complicate things. Even when it comes to answering simple questions, like “what’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

“If I say, ‘I speak with an accent,’” Ulinich explains, “then when we meet, I will get these boring, boring questions, like ‘Where are you from? How long have you lived in America? How do you like the USA?’ It’s a real non-starter. I just want to run away.”

But if she doesn’t mention she’s an immigrant?

“Then there is this shock when I meet someone,” says Ulinich. “Like they have to adjust to the way I talk. You can see them recalculating what they expected versus what they see in front of them — and that’s unpleasant too.”

In other words, if Ulinich doesn’t want to be cast in the unsexy role of all-immigrant, all the time, she has to be strategic with her reveals, navigating sure giveaways like the ubiquitous list of music preferences.

“My music preferences are just bizarre,” Ulinich tells me. “They’re just very, very strange. I listened to things that my grandmas loved from 1950s Soviet movies and I have a soft spot for really corny Soviet rock music from the 80s. I absolutely did not say the truth in that section. I just put down Radiohead and some things that I knew was OK to like in order to not just be outright rejected by men in New York.”

It’s depressing to think we must all circle the musical drain of Radiohead in order to find love. I mean, if everyone is out there lying about their adorable quirks then how will we ever get to know one another? According to Ulinich, it’s less about hiding things and more a matter of calibration. “I think you experiment in your profile with sort of the shades of truth. It’s not really lying — because I do love Radiohead — it’s just — it’s a mission. You omit the guilty pleasures, you omit things that make you seem too much of a foreigner.”

A page from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

A page from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

However being foreign-born not only colors how Ulinich is perceived, but how she judges potential suitors. Take the question: “Would you date someone who lives with their parents?”

“As an American, in my mind, what that implies is someone who’s, like, a total loser,” Anya admits. “But there are all these other scenarios. For example if you’re making a living here and then you bring in your parents from another country and you’re supporting them.”

Actually, Ulinich did go out on a date with a guy who lived with his mother — but for a different reason. As a writer, she cares a lot more about creativity than whether someone is a hottie. And this guy claimed to be … a “whaler,” as in harpoons and blubber.

“He was genuinely crazy. But I like crazy on paper. With crazy-on-paper it’s like this: sometimes you meet them and it’s 50-50. There’s a 50 percent chance that this person’s really funny and messing with the format. And 50 percent chance that they’re genuinely, like, an insane man. So you take those chances.”

Taking those chances turned actually finding a boyfriend into something of a whale-hunt itself. But Ulinich still had her deal-breakers: Anyone professing a love of fantasy novels was automatically out. I mention that I’m in the middle of Clash of Kings, and even though Ulinich wouldn’t date me, I’m not offended. Let’s face it, when you’re trying to squeeze the entirety of your human essence into one literary bullion cube: Every. Word. Counts. Even your username, which in Anya’s case was “Victory Day.”

Russians immediately recognize “Victory Day” as a reference to May 9th — the day the Nazis capitulated to the Russians during World War II. But Ulinich wasn’t trying to attract flag-waving patriots from the Motherland or anything — May 9th also happened to be the day Anya had her first kiss back in Russia, more of a personal Victory Day.

American guys had their own interpretations though. “I dated two guys who were still obsessed with their ex who was named Victoria,” Ulinich told me. “Or they would say it sounds like a porno-name.”

Then last November she received a message from a potential suitor which began, “if this were back in May, I would congratulate you with the Nazi capitulation.” And Ulinich thought, “Well that’s cool!”

It turned out the guy was an art-historian with an apartment full of books about Socialist Realism — think idealized paintings of tractors and people picking wheat — which Ulinich ranked just below fantasy novels. But by then, they’d taken their relationship offline, where there’s no limit to the length of your answers. Or the depth of your questions. They met the week Ulinich handed in the final draft of her novel — and they’re still together.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

India’s new leader favors the Hindi language, which is a problem for the country’s 50 million Urdu speakers

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Here’s a post from California-based reporter Sonia Paul.

I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.

I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.

To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.

In India, Urdu is generally associated with the Muslim population.

“I come from a Muslim family, and since we were kids, we were supposed to read Urdu,” said 21-year-old Nusrat Ansari.

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

I met her in Lucknow, when she was auditioning to perform Dastangoi, an ancient Urdu storytelling art that’s being revived. She said that as a child, she spoke mostly Hindi.

“At that point in time I wasn’t that interested in Urdu, so I didn’t take it up properly. But once I went to college and I had a bit of cultural thing,” said Ansari. “I thought, okay, I should learn Urdu,” Nusrat said.

“What do you mean by ‘cultural thing?’”I asked her.

“I started engaging in all sorts of … cultural revivalism activities.”

Hindi and Urdu are so similar that when Ansari was listening to the lines she had to memorize — which were in Urdu — she wrote them down in the Hindi script. Similarly, when I started learning Urdu, I also started out by writing in Hindi.

Writer and performer Mahmood Farooqui, who has been reviving Urdu storytelling, says reciting Urdu is a sign of prestige in India.

“Our radio anchors like to use Urdu, our television anchors like to use Urdu, parliamentarians like to use Urdu poetry, political leaders — even Modi recites a couplet or two,” he said.

But you won’t find India’s new prime minister giving a speech in Urdu. Because he’s such a staunch advocate of Hindi, many people are wondering whether his new language policies are part of a larger plan to wean out languages like Urdu.

Urdu’s origins are different from that of Hindi’s: Hindi’s script stems from Sanskrit, while Urdu traces its roots to Persian. It came into being in India around the 15th century, when Persian began to mix with local north Indian dialects. And by the 18th century, Urdu was an important literary language in India.

“It’s like English is now, in the sense that it was the language of prestige,” said Mehr Farooqi, a South Asian languages scholar at the University of Virginia. “It was considered to be the language of educated people. So everybody studied Urdu, and therefore they spoke Urdu.”

But about a 100 years ago, Urdu started to decline in India. The British wanted a common language for the country, and more and more people wanted Hindi to be that language. Hindi and Urdu — even though they were so similar in spoken form — became symbols of religious difference.

“It became like Urdu equals Muslim, Hindi equals Hindu,” said Mehr Farooqi.

This is why the new government’s promotion of Hindi is so controversial. It puts a spotlight on India’s postcolonial division into India and Pakistan. And it was another setback for Urdu, said storytelling artist Mahmood Farooqui.

“You had a lot of Hindu nationalists and Hindu fundamentalists saying Urdu created Pakistan, so let’s ban it, said Farooqui. “There was a lot of discrimination against it in schools, the government did nothing to propagate it, or to help its cause. And that continues to be the state of affairs today.”

And while some people, like Nusrat Ansari, are motivated to learn Urdu, she admits the language is struggling.

“I have met a lot of people who are really interested in this language and who would like to learn it,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say that it’s very popular and everybody understands it. Most people haven’t been that exposed to it.”

This exposure will be harder to come by if the new Hindu nationalist government keeps favoring Hindi over India’s other languages. That would only compound the problems Urdu’s already facing. But there are about 50 million native Urdu speakers in India — and others, like Ansari, who are rediscovering the language through its cultural heritage. So while Urdu may not have the same dominance in India it once did, it looks like there might still be a place for it in the country.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

John Smith, Pocahontas, and the beginnings of American English

A detail of a window panel at St Helena's Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A detail of a window panel at St Helena’s Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Willoughby, Lincolnshire is a village a few miles inland from the North Sea.

It’s also the birthplace of adventurer John Smith. Smith was baptized in the village church, St Helena’s.

The church dates back to the 14th century. There have been several additions in the past few decades — gifts from various American organizations.

There are a series of stained glass windows as well as plaque and other items. Together they depict John Smith’s life: His arrival on American shores, the settlement in Jamestown that he governed, which began the expansion overseas of the English-speaking peoples; and his encounter with the native American, Pocahontas.

There are other scenes that are less known to Americans: Smith’s schooling days, his training as a soldier, his fighting days in Europe. Most of what we know comes from Smith himself, who wrote several books about his adventures.

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena's Church in Willougby, Britain  (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena’s Church in Willougby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

There was the time he was captured in what is today Turkey.

“He became a slave, and eventually he killed his slave-master, nicked his clothes, nicked his horse and rode back to England one way or another,” says Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St. Helena’s church in Willoughby.

But it wasn’t all breathless action. Smith was a great communicator too.

“He would have learned several languages along the way, going up into the Turks, going through France,” says Robinson. “And so when he got to America, to him it was important to learn the local language, and that saved him several times probably.”

The word “probably” is a useful one when it comes to Smith.

We can’t verify much of what he wrote. And most historians find his memoirs unreliable.

There is, for example, an episode in Turkey in which a girl saves Smith’s life by pleading with his captor, just as Pocahontas did a few years later.

All of which has given the likes of Disney a conveniently free hand. Their two animated films about Pocahontas are largely fiction. There is still plenty of debate about just about every aspect of Pocahontas’ life.

What is clear, is that the settlers and local met, traded and taught each other words from their languages.

British linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, says it took surprisingly little time before the settlers incorporated local words into their vocabulary.

“It only takes a few weeks before the first signs of this new dialect of English starts to emerge in the letters that these mariners sent home to their families, says Crystal. “Words like skunk, wigwam or moccasin.”

Words are one thing, but what about an accent? Surely, settlers born in England wouldn’t speak differently after just a few years in Jamestown?

“It does take longer for a community accent to evolve, but not that long,” says Crystal. “Already in the 1620s and 30s, American settlers coming back to England were being commented on for their accent — people were saying, ‘What a strange way of talking you’ve got.’ Within a generation, enough had changed for it to be a noticeably different way of talking.”

A few contemporary accounts tell us this. But we don’t know for sure what British accents sounded like then, and how American accents may have diverged from them.

Stained glass windows in St Helena's Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith's life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans.   (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Stained glass windows in St Helena’s Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith’s life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In St. Helena’s church in Willoughby, some of the most basic questions about John Smith are unanswered. Like, when he was baptized.

“If you look at the register, and you look at the window and you look at the plaque, that’s three different actual dates when he was baptised,” says the retired rector Robinson.

A good reminder, if one were needed, that we can be certain of very little when it comes to John Smith, and Pocahontas.

What we can say is that Smith’s arrival in America was a big moment for English. Not that anyone knew it then, but in leaping from a small island to a huge continent, English had gone global, or started to.

The language was in an early stage of reinventing itself with new words, phrases and spellings — something it repeated in places like Australia, India and Africa, creating not one, but many Englishes. Something it’s still doing today.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How English nearly got a language academy

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In the tiny village of Aldwincle in the flat center of England, farmer Tim Hankins helps look after the village’s most famous building.

Today, he’s showing me around All Saints Church. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a place of worship; it’s overseen by an organization known as the Redundant Churches Commission.

It’s a shell inside, almost empty. But on the wall, there’s a plaque that explains the significance of All Saints: this was the place where John Dryden, former poet laureate of England, was baptized.

Dryden was born 1631, 15 years after Shakespeare died. Tough act to follow.

Dryden’s poems and plays were nothing like Shakespeare’s. Where Shakespeare was evocative and inventive, Dryden was precise and refined.

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

John Dryden was a man of many opinions. Foremost among them was that English — like a naughty schoolboy — was behaving badly. He thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not — as we think now — the leading lights in a golden age of English literature, but a bunch of punks who reveled in showy, linguistic chaos.

English was crying out for rules, Dryden thought. And if English didn’t possess those rules, it should import them. From Latin.

“He held Latin to be the superior language, the language par excellence,” says David Crystal, who has co-authored a book about places of significance to the evolution of English.

“The best thing English could do,” he said, “is to follow the elegance, the clarity, the diction, the style of the great Latin authors.”

Here’s one Latin-inspired idea: You should never end a sentence with a preposition. “It’s Dryden who thinks up this rule,” says Crystal.

It is a rule that, even today, some people insist on. Dryden thought that most of his rules, though, wouldn’t stick unless they could be enforced.

The best thing to do, thought Dryden, was to follow the example of the French and institute a language academy.

The Académie française had just come into being, on order from King Louis XIII, to “give exact rules to our language.”

A committee chaired by Dryden got together and started to plan for an English academy that would try to control the language, in the way that the French had tried to control theirs.

David Crystal, for one, thinks it’s just as well that Dryden failed. For one thing, he says, academies tend to create a kind of linguistic snobbery.

“If you have an academy, you have a centralizing force and a single variety of the language is held up as being the one that everybody should use,” says Crystal. “This means that if you speak or write the language differently, according to that view, there’s something a bit inferior about that — and you certainly don’t like it if some other part of the world takes your language and tries to change it some way.”

Of course, you don’t need a language academy for that — people all by themselves will decide that they speak the Queen’s whatever, and others don’t. But an academy can intensify snobbish attitudes. It can also alienate those don’t speak the “right” way, making the language potentially less popular over time.

Academies can do good, too, says Crystal. Some produce dictionaries and fund research. But for those academies, whose main goal is to control language, well, Crystal thinks they’re doomed to failure. He says Dryden’s conception of an English academy was misguided then, and were it to exist today, it would be ignored.

“In Britain, for the most part, people say if the Americans want to talk like that, let them talk like that — anyway what could we do about it?” says Crystal. “When you think of English as a global language spoken in every country in the world either as a first or second language, or a privileged foreign language, what chance would there be of the entire population of the United States respecting the views of that academy? Or the other two billion people in the world who speak English as a global language?”

That linguistic cat is indeed out of the bag. And frankly, it was never really in the bag. English has been unruly and full of dialects from its beginnings.

So why did John Dryden’s English language academy never come into being?

As it turned out, his timing was terrible. Just when he was trying to hold meetings and drum up support for his idea, the Great Plague struck London, followed a year later by the Great Fire. There was a mass exodus from the capital. And that was that.

Today, Dryden is remembered mainly for his creative writing. And the church that baptized him has been transformed into a sort of village cultural center.

“It’s open to the public to use,” says Tim Hankins. “We’ve had people come and do art exhibitions in here. And we’d had plays down here.”

Hankins tells me of another activity at the church: champing.

I ask him what that is; I’ve never heard of champing.

Hankins says that is staying overnight in the church. A combination of church and camping.

“It’s a new thing,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday.”

A new thing, and a new word. John Dryden might not have approved. But people use the word, and that’s enough to call it English.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Shakespeare’s coined words are just the start of his contributions to the English language

Shakespeare's Globe, London

Shakespeare’s Globe, London


You must have read or listened to tons of stories about William Shakespeare, and how he’s still relevant.

Stories about kids performing his plays. Prisoners performing them. Who knows, maybe even astronauts have recited bits from Hamlet on the International Space Station. If they haven’t yet, they will one day.

Shakespeare is bigger than this world; he’s universal. But at the same time he’s local too.

“He’s seen as the quintessential English or British dramatist,” says Maria Delgado, a theater professor at Queen Mary University of London.

“Shakespeare’s language is full of resonances of Latin, Spanish or Germanic terms,” she says. “I think it was Borges who talked about him as the most Spanish of writers. The Irish have often said it’s a myth he’s English, he’s actually Irish.”

Shakespeare sounds good in just about any language. He translates well because he’s, well, Shakespeare. But it can’t hurt the language he wrote was — and is — such a hybrid tongue. German, French, Latin, Old Norse, Celtic languages — they all had a say in how English evolved.

That’s reflected in how Shakespeare’s Globe presents his plays today. The Globe is a reconstruction of an Elizabethan playhouse in London. It was founded in 1997 by American actor and director Sam Wanamaker. It’s an open air theater — always a hazard in the British climate.

Two years ago, the Globe staged performances of Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages, to coincide with the London Olympics. Right now it has a production of Hamlet touring the world — every single country, even North Korea. That’s the plan anyway.

The Globe has also performed Shakespeare in what’s called original pronunciation, or OP. When the Globe first did it a decade ago, OP hadn’t been heard for 400 years.

You may think that OP would make Shakespeare more difficult to understand, but it doesn’t really. (Listen to the audio above to hear an example.)

David and Hilary Crystal at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The Crystals are the authors of “Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)

David and Hilary Crystal at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The Crystals are the authors of “Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)


David and Hilary Crystal have collaborated on a book about places in Britain that shaped the English language. I asked David Crystal, Britain’s best-known linguist, how he figures out what Shakespeare’s English sounded back then. How does know, for example, that the word heath was pronounced “heth.”

For one thing, he says, he looks at the rhymes.

Heath comes right at the start of Macbeth.

    First Witch: When shall we three meet again?

    In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

    Second Witch: When the hurlyburly’s done,

    When the battle’s lost and won.

    Third Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.

    First Witch: Where the place?

    Second Witch: Upon the heath.

    Third Witch: There to meet with Macbeth.

There are other clues too.

“You look at the puns that don’t work in modern English that worked in Shakespeare’s time,” says Crystal. “The spellings are a good guide, that’s evidence as well.”

Historians and linguists have been putting the evidence together—and finding audiences who want to hear actors using OP.

“About a dozen plays have been done in OP,” says Crystal, who is a big proponent of the style. “It’s become a bit of a movement now.”

But however the words are pronounced, it’s the words themselves that have made Shakespeare so pivotal in the story of the English language. There are, of course, the words he’s said to have invented. There was a time when lexicographers attributed as many as 2,500 English words to him.

“That figure has come down and down and down,” says Crystal.

It’s currently about one thousand. Still, “if I introduced one word into the English language, I’d be delighted,” says Crystal

That’s probably how the person felt who came up with selfie. (Shakespeare might have liked that word.) Which brings up another point about how words come into being: we’re not sure who coined selfie. We just know of its first recorded use, in Australia twelve years ago. It’s the same with Shakespeare—his plays were often the first recorded use of many English words.

“Definitely Shakespearean are all the words beginning with un-,” says Crystal. “Like Lady Macbeth asks the gods to unsex her, because she wants her feminine qualities removed. Now words like unsex and unshout and uncurse are dramatic literary coinages.”

Coinages that set a pattern we still follow. Unamerican. Uncool. (though these un-adjectives aren’t as playful as Shakespeare’s un-verbs.) Who can forget Don Johnson’s immortal words in Miami Vice? “That was uncool, lady. That was major uncool.”

Just as lasting are Shakespeare’s idioms: My Lord and Master; piece of work; as good luck would have it; kill with kindness.

“With language, you should be the master and not the servant,” says Crystal. “Shakespeare teaches us to dare to be creative, to push the rules a little bit. If the word isn’t there, make one up.”

Make a word up, or change its meaning, or steal one from another language. English is full of that, thanks in large part to Shakespeare.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The English language: a hodgepodge from the start

At Bede's World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

At Bede’s World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Set among the call centers and storage facilities of Jarrow in the northeast of England is a farm, of sorts.

There are pigs, sheep and goats here. Some are ancient varieties, more popular 1,400 years ago than they are today. Like a shaggy-haired pig described my guide, John Sadler, as “half a ton of very grumpy animal … only interested if you feed it, or if you fall in — in which case you are food.”

A pig at Bede's World: "Half a ton of very grumpy animal." (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A pig at Bede’s World: “Half a ton of very grumpy animal.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)

The animals are part of a re-creation of an Anglo-Saxon village, with timber-framed buildings and turf-covered sheds. The farm is called Gyrwe, Old English for Jarrow. It’s part of a museum called Bedesworld.

Even with jets flying overhead and container ships unloading nearby, Bede’s World brings to life a time and place when the English language was in its infancy. The monk who Bede’s World is named after, the Venerable Bede, lived in the monastery next door in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

“He’s famous as a writer and a teacher,” says Sadler, the living history coordinator at Bede’s World. “And he has this keen interest in history and language.”

Bede wrote an ecclesiastical history of the nation at the time.

“He’s the first person to actually write down who it was that actually came to the British Isles,” says linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors:The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. “He talks about the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, and discusses the range of languages that were spoken around the country.”

These languages arrived in Britain after the Romans had left. The newcomers found themselves in a place already heaving with languages — various Celtic tongues, as well as bits and pieces of languages left behind by Roman mercenaries who came from all over the empire.

Which explains why English, from its very beginnings, has been a mongrel tongue — a Frisian word here, a Latin one there, and so on. Pure English? It never existed.

These waves of migrants also helped form the dialects that you can still hear in Britain. On average, you can hear a different dialect every 25 miles you travel.

Crystal says it all goes back to those original days when people from one part of northern Europe settled in one part of England, and people from another part of northern Europe settled nearby.

“You only have to settle on the other side of a river or a mountain range,” says Crystal. “Before you know it, within a few years you’re starting to speak in a slightly different way. After a hundred years, it’s very different.”

Bede's Chair, St Paul's Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Bede’s Chair, St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is one of the reasons Bede’s writings are so valuable: they’ve helped linguists trace the origins of today’s dialects. Of course, that early migration didn’t stop. Vikings, Normans and, much later, Indians, Irish and Jamaicans have all left their stamp on Britain’s dialects.

Inside Bede’s church, there’s a small section that dates back to the seventh century. John Sadler shows me his favourite item there is the chair the Bede supposedly sat on.

“It’s actually impossible to say whether it’s original or…a copy,” says Sadler with a shrug.

If it’s a copy, so be it. The monk who may — or may not — have sat on it was documenting a language that itself copied, and liberally borrowed and stole, from many other languages.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What’s the point of learning Russian?

Graduation day at the Bright Minds Center in New York City. Bright Minds is a bilingual Russian/English preschool. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Graduation day at the Bright Minds Center in New York City. Bright Minds is a bilingual Russian/English preschool. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

When my editor, Patrick, assigned me a story about how the Russian language is dying, I thought he was being funny.

I pointed out that, yoo hoo! — I speak Russian and so does my entire family. I invited, no, dared, him to step into a crowded elevator in New York City and start complaining in loud Russian about someone’s B.O.

And then I headed to Bright Minds Center in Manhattan for graduation day, where classes in Russian are offered for kids age 2 to 15… and business is booming.

“In the first year, we signed up 60 kids. Now we have around 300 families,” co-founder Anna Volkova tells me. In fact, the school has expanded so fast since 2008 that they are now looking to open a second branch. But when I ferried this news back to my editor, he directed my attention to a national survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, which paints a different picture. Russian now places last among foreign languages taught in American elementary or secondary schools. At just 0.3 percent, it ranks behind Greek, Arabic and Native American languages.

That wasn’t the case before the Iron Curtain fell. But the US government’s interest in Russian studies was closely tied to their interest in keeping the Soviet Union in check.

As Russian language expert Kevin Hendzel explains, “When the Soviet Union first collapsed, the language money went away from Russian and into Ukrainian and Kazakh and the Baltic languages because there was no capability in the United States. And after 9/11, all the money got pulled into Arabic and Pashtu and Dari and Urdu and a lot of other languages. In a limited pool of dollars, you tend to move them around to where you feel a need.”

That need hasn’t been keenly felt here in the US for years. And the former Soviet satellite countries are dropping Russian as a second language faster than Vladimir Putin can say Pussy Riot. Without government funding, interest in learning Russian depends more on its pop-appeal, but even during the Sochi Olympics, the cultural ambassadors Russia touted were mostly… dead. Safe to say there are just aren’t a surplus of youngsters out there jonesing to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in the original.

But there is still one place where Americans are required to know Russian, and that’s Outer Space. Starting in 2011, NASA made learning Russian a requirement for all astronauts, the same year it began relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. But recent tensions over the crisis in Ukraine have had the Russians threatening to end their participation in the International Space Station program. That doesn’t mean American astronauts should put away their Russian grammar textbooks quite yet.

“The Russians take some delight in being the means by which the Americans are able to get to the space station, and there’s still a fair amount of decent science being done up there that can’t be done really anywhere else.” Kevin told me. “So I think what you’re going to see is the effort will continue.”

And according to Kevin, the chill that’s settled over US-Russian relations may paradoxically end up driving us back into Russia’s arms — linguistically speaking that is.

“Within the government, I think they’re looking at it and saying, “We may have run away from this a little bit too quickly. Let’s put a little bit of money here. Let’s put some more chips on the table. Let’s be aware of the advantages that knowing a language at a native level, or certainly at a technical level, give us.”

And yet, Russian will never again be as widely spoken as it was when the Soviet Union straddled the globe like a sumo wrestler, threatening to sit on countries that dared say Nyet to Russian. But just as I was starting to feel depressed that Russian would soon just be a lonely secret I shared with 144 million other native speakers, I met up with linguist John McWhorter, who reminded me just how unlikely the spread of Russian was to begin with.

“Russian is really, really hard. And I say that as somebody who loves Russian very much. Just all of the jangling stuff on the nouns, all the brick-a-brack with the verbs, just try to say something as simple as ‘I went to the store.’ The verbs of motion. Just try to count! It’s a magnificent nightmare.”

You’d think the languages easiest to speak and learn, would also be the most common. But it turns out tanks and bombers spread a language much more effectively than the promise of regular verbs.

“And so it just shows that there’s nothing about the way a language happens to be put together that allows it to spread and become a language of empire,” McWhorter informs me. “Any language can become a language of empire so long as certain conditions are met.”

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Of course, politics and war aren’t the only way a language can spread. Forty years ago, we may have had a lot more Americans speaking Russian as a second language, but the number of Russian immigrants in the US was infinitesimal. Not so today.

At Bright Minds Center, 90 percent of the kids studying Russian are from mixed parentage with only one Russian-speaking parent.

Many of the kids even end up being trilingual, like Dmitry Golden’s daughter, a student at Bright Minds, who speaks Spanish as well as Russian because her mother is a native of the Dominican Republic.

As the saying goes: languages are best learned on the pillow. Or to put it another way: To Russian, with love.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized