Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The genitive plural

One of the most impossible things about learning any language--I'm absolutely convinced--is the difference between theory and use. This hasn't come up too often in my personal experience until now: I've never taken classes with native Italian or French speakers, and as for Latinists...well. But UCSD's Russian program encompasses both native and non-native speakers, the former in the majority, who often moved to the United States a relatively short time ago or at the very least speak quite a bit of Russian at home. This is ordinarily just fine, except when it comes time for grammar.

I should admit at the outset that I love grammar. She's my newfound joy and consolation, and all the lovelier for it, because American schools don't teach her. One tends to learn of her existence for the first time when studying a highly inflected language, like Latin or Russian, when word order ceases to matter and declensions are all. It's like being initiated into a secret cult: suddenly, you unlock that everlasting mystery about when to use "who" and "whom," and you know other initiates by their words and deeds. (I wonder what Derrida would have had to say about this.)

But she's a difficult mistress: capricious, tricky, and hard to satisfy. In Russian, unequivocally, the genitive case is the place where everyone gets tripped up. It's used with all sorts of expressions that are untranslatable into English, and in cases where the expression is translatable, but an English speaker, if she had to use case, would use a different one. Odd vowel insertions, zero endings, and words that don't seem to follow any rules other than the ones they make for themselves round out the challenge.

To our native speakers, this is unacceptable. They've heard their parents and grandparents speak Russian for years, and they know what they've heard: Russians tend to stick an "ов" on the end of all expressions requiring the genitive plural, and leave things at that. None of this tricksy "ей" or "ё" insertion. In a way, I see their point. Languages change over time, generally in the direction of greater grammatical simplicity, and much of literary Russian was itself invented by Karamzin around 1800, anyway. On the other hand, my purpose in the class is to learn that literary Russian, so I need to know why endings suddenly disappear on feminine nouns in the plural, or why you use the singular genitive after 2, 3, and 4, instead of the imminently more logical plural, or, for God's sakes, the nominative.

But then, as I was translating "White Nights," I noticed that Dostoevsky did the same thing to a feminine noun. Illusions shattered, I won't be quite so hard on our native speakers the next time that they claim that Russian was invented to screw with us and the only decent response is to screw her back.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 10:38 AM