Tag Archives: Russian

Russian curses are inventive, widely-used — and banned

The Russian film "Da i Da" ("Yes and Yes") directed by Valeria Gai Germanika (Screenshot: Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)

The Russian film “Da i Da” (“Yes and Yes”) directed by Valeria Gai Germanika (Screenshot: Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)


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

The thing non-Russian speakers don’t really understand about Russian curses, or mat, is that we’re not just talking about your favorite one-syllable curse words here — mat is an entire language unto itself.

Take the word “desk.” Not much you can do with it in English, right? But in Russian, I can “desk” something. I can get super desky and deskify it. I can be the deskiest! Because unlike English, Russian has hundreds of suffixes and prefixes.

“As a result,” University of Chicago linguist Yar Gorbachov tells me, “you could have a whole dictionary filled up with mat words.”

There are actual dictionaries filled with mat words. Paradoxically, the hot-rodded words formed from the four obscene roots (I’ll let you guess what those are…) often turn out not to mean anything obscene at all.

“That makes your speech colorful,” Gorbachov explains. “You know, instead of using a regular word for walking, or wondering or beating up, you would use the mat analog of that.”

Poster for English version of Da i Da (Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)

Poster for English version of Da i Da (Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)


The closest analogy to mat I can come up with is freestyle rap. It’s poetic, profane and often hilarious, its degree can be ranked, just like five-alarm chili. And though the government might believe it is somehow sanitizing the language by prohibiting its public use, mat is also deeply, deeply Russian.

There is a misconception widely shared in Russia, that mat was smuggled into the language by the Mongols and others who occupied Russia in the 13th century. Gorbachov insists that just isn’t true. “There is nothing Turkic or Mongolic about those roots. They’re perfectly Slavic and the whole phenomenon has nothing to do with Mongol occupation. The Russians have used mat words before and after Mongol occupation,” he adds. “And we have references in medieval literature and in private letters to mat.”

Not only is mat just as Russian as borscht or Putin, it is also the lingua franca of certain subcultures. The patois of criminals, sure, but also artists, musicians, intellectuals — your typical alienated and disenfranchised types. These are the groups featured in the film Da i Da (Yes and Yes), one of the first cultural casualties of the new obscenity ban.

Da i Da was directed by Valeria Gai Germanika, a young, edgy filmmaker who has also become a mainstream success, helming popular TV dramas and even serving as the head of MTV Russia. In other words, my Russian mom and I are both fans.

"Da i Da" director Valeria Gai Germanika (Photo: Egor Vasilyev via Flickr)

“Da i Da” director Valeria Gai Germanika (Photo: Egor Vasilyev via Flickr)

In June, Germanika won “best director” at the Moscow International Film Festival for Da i Da, which she describes as a story of complicated love. But three days after it debuted, the film was yanked from theaters when the ban on mat went into effect.

Germanika explained at a press conference that Da i Da ended up packed with swear words, simply because she allowed the actors to improvise their dialog. Misha Antipov, one of the actors in the film, agrees that Da i Da is simply holding up a mirror to what some may perceive as uncomfortable truths. The film is really honest and true to life, he tells me; there are a ton of people in Russia who speak just like this.

Misha explains that when the film was yanked, people were really upset, offering to sit on the floors during its few packed screenings. They said, “Can’t you just beep out the mat when people are talking?” But there’s so much mat in the film, he tells me, you may as well just reduce the dialog to “blah, blah, blah.”

Misha thinks the ban on mat will prompt the return of the Soviet dual persona. In the Soviet times, he explains, people had their official poker face, turned toward the government and their public duties, but in private, it was “anything goes.” The thing is that now, when you force the outsiders out — they don’t just go inside, they go online.

Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets, a travel memoir that describes his attempt to “go native” in Russia, in part by trying to learn mat, began noticing an uptick in mat — concealed behind dashes and asterisks — in online posts soon after the law was passed.

“You know the effect of the ban essentially sort of puts it on everyone’s mind,” he tells me. “Everyone starts thinking about it. And in a way sort of serves to normalize the idea.”

If the Internet is acting as a pressure valve for Russian speakers jonesing for a mat fix, that may explain the popularity of a new song you won’t find on the Russian version of YouTube, or mentioned on Russian Wikipedia, but it’s all over the Internet in the West. The song contains only two words. One is “Putin.” One is … not appropriate for a family friendly setting. Let’s call it “Putin Sucks.” This amateur sing-along featuring a group of middle-aged Russians has more than 400,000 plays.

Putin Sucks hasn’t just gone viral, it’s gone interstellar. Some people recently adopted a star under the song’s name. So much for banning mat.

While lovers of niche art films don’t often get their way in Putin’s Russia, in this case it looks like the legislature might just blink — or at least squint. A new amendment has been proposed that wouldn’t repeal the ban on mat, but would at least allow films like Germanika’s to play at national film festivals without censorship.

Meanwhile, Germanika has declared she won’t be beeping out the swears in her film so it can play in Russian theaters. Instead she’s just going to just sell Da i Da on the Internet, so that anyone who wants can see it. And more importantly — can hear it.


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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.


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What’s the point of learning Russian?

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.


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Russian leaders have tinkered with their alphabet for centuries, but with the letter ё, they have a fight on their hands

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from Alina Simone.

The most controversial letter in the Russian alphabet is the letter ё, or yo.

Fans of the letter call themselves Yoficators. They even have a theme song set to the music of Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoy. Why does a letter have a fan club? Because some people think yo has got to go.

Yo’s shaky status has to do with it being a relatively late addition to the Russian alphabet, dropped in at the end of the 1700s. As Yaroslav Gorbachov, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Chicago, tells me, “(yo) really never took off as an independent letter. It has always remained sort of the shady companion of the letter ye.”

Yo is really the Cyrillic letter ye, which looks just like the English letter e, only with a diacritic — that is, two dots — on top. Confused? Well, trust me, you’re even more confused when natives casually omit those two dots, turning a name like “Gorbachov” into “ Gorbachev.”

But Russians have only gotten lazy about dotting their yos since the 1950s. Before that, both the letter yo and the essentially non-Western nature of the alphabet, had a powerful backer: Josef Stalin.

In 1930, Stalin signed an edict that protected yo.

“It was a secret document, it was not to be published,” says Professor Gorbachov. Stalin’s intention was to get Russians to stop Latinizing the script. ”He also decreed that yo be put to use every time it’s there in the pronunciation.”

For the three percent of Russians whose names contain yo, not having Stalin around anymore to enforce a standard protocol is causing massive bureaucratic headaches. People have been denied passports and had their citizenship revoked, they’ve been unable to legally divorce and prove their children are theirs — all because of ye/yo discrepancies on official documents. But unlike Stalin, Russia’s current strongman is remaining silent on the issue.

“I don’t think Putin is behind this. He probably doesn’t care about the alphabet would be my guess.” Gorbachov instead blames the problem on “super-eager local bureaucrats who want to be holier than the pope.”

Of course, getting rid of yo would bring Russian one step closer to the English alphabet. East vs. West — the linguistic tug of war has been going on for centuries. Russia’s dual impulse to be embraced by the West while remaining distinctly Slavic is literally etched into the alphabet. Starting with legendary font-designer, Peter the Great.

“He was out to Westernize the country,” says Gorbachov. “[Peter the Great] had realized how far behind Russia had fallen in terms of education, in terms of technology, and all these things. And he literally sat down and picked out characters that looked more Roman than Cyrillic in the Cyrillic alphabet.”

The Russian alphabet was adapted from Greek, a radically different language, leaving a lot of extra wood to chop. But when Peter axed redundant letters, he was denounced as the anti-Christ by religious conservatives, who accused him of changing the very meaning of the Bible.

Another even more controversial modernization proposed by the last czar actually took decades to implement, finally rammed through by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It incensed language snoots — you know, the kind of people who view linguistic misdemeanors as crimes against humanity. They felt Russian was being reduced to the 20th century equivalent of chatspeak.

The monument to 'yo' in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

The monument to ‘yo’ in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

In 2005, the city of Ulyanovsk — birthplace of that most famous of Bolsheviks, Lenin himself — unveiled a monument to yo in honor of the local historian who first popularized the rogue letter. But that monument triggered protests, too, which brings us to the other reason Russians love yo.

“My guess is that the letter is so popular because a very obscene word begins with this letter,” says Gorbachov. “And Russians, we like krepkaya slova, you know — a curse word. So people are amused by having this letter around. There may be other reasons, but that’s probably the principal reason.”

Given that Vladimir Putin recently passed a law banning the use of curse words in Russian films, plays and print media, one can only wonder; will yo end up a victim of modernity or propriety?

Or maybe Russia will end up keeping yo, and keeping it weird.


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In Ukraine, the insults in both languages draw on sensitive historical moments

A protester in Kiev holds a sign that reads "Revolution or death!" in Ukrainian, December 2013. Some pro-Russian Ukrainians might have called him a 'fascist.' (Photo: Ivan Bandura via Flickr)

A protester in Kiev holds a sign that reads “Revolution or death!” in Ukrainian, December 2013. Some pro-Russian Ukrainians might have called him a ‘fascist.’ (Photo: Ivan Bandura via Flickr)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki.

You know the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” Well, what if those words carry the weight of centuries behind them?

Reporter Igor Kossov was recently in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, hearing the insults that supporters of Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian separatists were slinging at one another. He decided to write about the history of the insults for The Daily Beast.

“There’s a lot of bad blood going around where people dredge up the past, either deliberately or because they can’t help themselves, and that’s really driving people apart,” he says.

That past is embedded in the language. One common slur that Kossov heard was the term khokhol, used to insult ethnic Ukrainians. The term refers to the traditional lock of hair worn by Cossacks during czarist times.

“Nowadays the word cossack is also used as a word, not to refer to the ethnic group, but to refer to army irregulars or ‘deniable assets,’” says Kossov. “I’ve heard people say ‘Oh, the Cossacks are coming in across the Russian border.’ They mean that instigators and irregular forces are coming in to stir up trouble.”

On the flipside, says Kossov, Ukrainians sometimes refer to Russians in the pejorative sense as moscali or “muscovites.”

This language goes back hundreds of years, according to Kossov. However, he heard one term with more recent origins — banderovtsi. This was a term that pro-Russian separatists have used when referring to the government in Kiev.

Banderovtsi refers to the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. Stepan Bandera was a very divisive ethnic Ukrainian politician in the lead-up to and during World War II.

“Bandera and many of his followers believed that they needed independence from the Soviet Union at any cost,” says Kossov. “And the only people powerful enough to ’emancipate’ them were Nazi Germany, which was really a military powerhouse.”

Bandera was one of the founders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. His party aided Nazi Germany during World War II.

People claim, says Kossov, that Bandera believed in racial purity, a pure race of Ukrainians with no Jews and Poles. His followers were responsible for the killing of Russians and for ethnically cleansing Poles and Jews. Some later united against Nazi Germany when they realized that the Nazis weren’t going to let them be independent.

Pro-Russian separatists look at the history of Bandera and Ukrainian anti-semitism, and at the participation of right-wing groups in the Maidan protests, and label the Kiev government as fascists. “The fact is there are neo-Nazi groups that are pro-Ukrainian independence,” says Kossov. “They look very bad for the non-Nazis who are pro-Ukrainian independence, but they are there.”

“Separatist people are saying, ‘Look at this, this is history all over again. We must fight back. We destroyed them 70 years ago. We can’t let this happen again.'”

As a Russian-speaker born in Ukraine, Kossov is sensitive to the history behind the rhetoric. And he worries that English speakers are missing out on some of what has driven the tensions in the region.

“How many English speakers that are not from this area actually understand what this history means and what these words actually mean? These are not entirely empty accusations, they do have a past.” And the historical tensions threaten to tear apart modern-day Ukraine.


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The language of pregnancy seems pregnant with meaning. Is it?

Pregnant clockwise in Chinese, Georgian, Portuguese, Thai, Afrikaans,  Albanian, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian. (Credit: Fran Dias)

Pregnant clockwise in Chinese, Georgian, Portuguese, Thai, Afrikaans, Albanian, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian. (Credit: Fran Dias)

When a woman in Russia is carrying a child in her womb, several words could be used to describe her condition.

The most common is beremenaya (Беременная). Figuratively, it means pregnant. But the literal meaning is quite different.

“It has this kind of almost quasi-religious meaning of burden, or punishment,” says Svetlana Boym, professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard.

“You are carrying your burden.”

In other Slavic languages, some words for pregnant have the same root meaning of burden. Makes you wonder — how exactly do people in the Slavic world view pregnancy?

Different Meanings in Different Languages

And what are we to make of the words that describe pregnancy in the African nation of Malawi? Malawian journalist Yvonnie Sundu lists three words for pregnant in the Chichewa language — and all of them mean ill. There’s matenda, wodwala and, most dramatically, pakati, which means “between life and death.”

Linguistically, pregnancy seems to be seen in a more positive light in China. Among the many words in Chinese for pregnant is youxi (有喜), which Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li says is made up of two common characters. You (有)means “to have” and xi (喜) means “happy” or “happiness.” Put them together and they mean pregnant.

Russian, Chichewa and Chinese aren’t outliers. Translate pregnant into many other languages and you’ll get words that break down into all kinds of meanings.

The Spanish word for pregnant — embarazada — is often confused with the English word embarrassed. They may have different meanings today, but these two words come from the same root.

The word for pregnant in the Amazonian tribal language of Pirahã is koohiaaga, which means “stomach.” That may sound like a vague term for pregnant, but when the Pirahã say, “her stomach is big,” it means only one thing.

All these words and all these meanings seem rich with cultural information. When you think about it, it makes sense that the Chinese, with their Confucian values, would view pregnancy as a happy circumstance. Likewise, it’s not surprising that Russians, with all the suffering in their society, would view pregnancy as a burden. And in a poor country like Malawi, where women may not get adequate prenatal care, you can see how pregnancy might be viewed as sickness.

Cultural Attitudes

It stands to reason that we should mine these words for clues about the behavior and views of the people who use them. Right?

Wrong, says Columbia University linguist John McWhorter.

“It’s really tempting to think that the different words that we often use have something to do with the culture that a language corresponds to,” says McWhorter. “But, actually, there’s a lot less to ideas like that than we’d like to think.”

Why? Consider again the word in question: pregnant.

Look up pregnant in an English dictionary and you’ll see that it comes from a Latin word that means something like “before birth.”

Over time, the word has picked up other meanings. It can refer, for example, to something that’s filled with significance or emotion — for instance, a pregnant pause.

It’s not clear where these other meanings came from. One theory is that a French word that sounded a bit like pregnant became confused with the English word, and so, over time, pregnant expanded its meaning. It’s a pretty common way for a word to evolve — not in a planned fashion, just randomly.

When we say pregnant, or any other word, says McWhorter, we can’t possibly think of all of its nuances, let alone its original root meaning.

“To speak is to use words and expressions in idiomatic ways that float away from their literal meanings,” he says. “Reading meaning into the words and expressions that we mouth is often a very dangerous proposition.”

It’s dangerous, he says, because we might draw completely false conclusions about a group of people. Are the Chinese, for example, really happier about pregnancy than others? Not in recent decades; China’s one-child policy must have resulted in millions of unhappy pregnancies.

How Language Relates to Thought

So, what is the connection between how you speak and how you think?

“Language and thought don’t correspond the way we might think they do when we look at it laid out all neatly on the page,” says McWhorter.

Over the years, linguists have gone back and forth on how much the language you speak affects how you think. Today, most linguists don’t believe that language affects thought all that much. But recently, a few studies on how we perceive the likes of cardinal directions and color have concluded that speech does sometimes shape thought.

McWhorter, though, is skeptical — so skeptical that he’s written a book called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.”

So what, if anything, runs through the minds of Chinese, Chichewa and Russian speakers when they use their words for pregnant?

Wenjing Li — again referring to the two Chinese characters, you meaning have and xi meaning happiness — says, “When we say youxi together, we always think … pregnant. We don’t think about what you means and what xi means separately.”

A Glimpse of History

So does that mean that we should always ignore the root or literal meanings of words? Words had to evolve out of some sort of meaning.

What about those Chichewa words for pregnant, all meaning sick? Chichewa speaker Yvonne Sundu guesses that the word pakati, meaning, literally, “between life and death,” once made a lot of sense.

“Most of the women who were pregnant ended up perhaps dying,” says Sundu. “So that’s the reason why our forefathers coined this word, pakati.”

Of course, given the random way that words often evolve, they’re not exactly the most reliable pieces of historical evidence. But, sometimes, they may offer a clue about cultural attitudes in the past.

Harvard’s Svetlana Boym thinks so. There’s the Russian word for pregnancy, beremenaya, with its literal meaning of “burden.”

She says that Russians, until quite recently, did think of pregnancy as a burden.

“Women in old Soviet times were not given painkillers,” says Boym. “There was an idea that you were supposed to suffer your burden as a woman, which I think is quite a horrifying idea.”

But medical practices evolve. So do cultural attitudes. In Russia today, the government is upgrading maternity hospitals and paying couples a cash bonus if they have more than one child. So, is pregnancy still a “burden?”

The word and its root meaning appear to be growing ever farther apart.


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Russian Pronunciation tips for the Sochi Olympics, and the language of undiplomacy


Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague David Leveille…

We’ll be hearing a lot from Russia over the next two weeks with the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

We’ll also be hearing a lot of Russian words and names, some of which are not easy to pronounce. That includes the name of the Olympic host city itself.

We asked Martha Figueroa-Clark for some help. She thinks about this stuff all the time, as part of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

So, how exactly do you say Sochi?

“Sochi, the venue for the Winter Olympics, is usually anglicised as SOTCH-i (-o as in not, -tch as in catch, -i as the ‘y’ in happy) by English and Russian speakers alike — and this is the pronunciation we recommend to broadcasters. However, the Russian pronunciation of -o in Sochi is somewhere in between the English “law” vowel and the English ‘lot’ vowel (so somewhere between SAW-chi and SOTCH-i),” she said.

“When forming recommendations, our approach is to reflect the native pronunciation as closely as possible while bearing in mind practical considerations. Our pronunciation advice is anglicised for ease of pronunciation by English-speaking broadcasters and to ensure that names can be discerned by BBC audiences,” she added.

Some other Olympic venues in Sochi have interesting and challenging names for English speakers, so here are a few more pronunciations from the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

One of the skiing venues is Krasnaya Polyana, pronounced KRASS-nuh-yuh puh-LYAA-nuh (-uh as “a” in sofa, -ly as in million). Historically, the word krasnaya (feminine form) or krasny (masculine form) meant “beautiful.” Nowadays, it means “red.” Polyana means glade or clearing.

Turning to the Bolshoi Ice Dome, the word Bolshoi (big) is often anglicised as BOL-shoy (-ol as in olive, -oy as in boy), as in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. In Russian, it’s closer to buhl-SHOY (note final syllable stress), although there is a palatalised ‘l’ in Russian that has no equivalent in English. It’s similar to what you would hear when the word “lucrative” is pronounced as LYOO-kruh-tiv (-ly as in million) — as opposed to LOO-kruh-tiv (-oo as in boot).

In ice hockey’s Shayba arena, “shayba” is pronounced SHIGH-buh (-igh as in high, -uh as “a” in sofa) and means puck.

Another venue, Rosa Khutor, is pronounced ROZ-uh KHOO-tuhr (-o as in not, -uh as “a” in sofa, -kh as in Scottish loch, -oo as in boot, -uhr as “or” in doctor). Khutor means hamlet or farmstead.

And just in case you haven’t yet figured out how to pronounce President Vladimir Putin’s name, here’s a reminder. “In other Slavic languages, the name ‘Vladimir’ can be stressed on the first or last syllable, but in Russian, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable. ‘Putin’ is sometimes anglicised as PYOO-tin, perhaps by unconscious association with other English words like ‘putative’ or ‘punitive.’ The correct pronunciation, anglicised, is vluh-DEE-meer POO-tin (-ee as in street, -eer as in deer, -oo as in boot).”

If you take in all these suggestions, and manage to pronounce Sochi as well as the names of its many venues correctly and precisely, a Russian speaker might respond with “otlichno!” That’s Russian, for excellent. It’s pronounced “ah tlee chnah.”

And since we’re on the subject of Russian language and customs, I recommend trying Russian borscht. It’s also “otlichno.”

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