Customer Review

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars English, Russian and other languages - really great book., August 3, 2005
This review is from: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Paperback)
As a man whose mother tongue is Russian I feel very happy that English is a language I learnt as foreign one and not the other way around. The reason is that grammatically English language is enormously simpler than Russian and I am a pretty lazy guy. Russian has six cases for nouns - English has none (objective case does not really count due to extreme simplicity). Russian has three genders (male, female and neutral or "middle" as high school teachers call it) - English has none (with couple of grotesque examples like ship referred to as "she"). Russian has intricate rules of how endings are governed depending on plural or single - in English it is always static no matter how complex a sentence is. After the reading of Mr. McWhorter's book I did realize that even with all its complexity Russian is hardly one of the most difficult languages to study.
This book is probably one of the very few on popular science (I guess anybody who read the book will not disagree that linguistics is definitely a science) I would advise to include into the list of mandatory reading parents create for their kids. It has an extremely rich historical background for many languages as well as for language as a mainstream mean of communication. The author is almost encyclopedically knowledgeable in pretty much every aspect of it and it reads very easily. Frequent manifestations of author's sense of humor are also improves readability.
Several things though I guess may need some clarifications.
Author mentions about Russia as about "highly insular nation for most of its history" (page 101). I have to disagree with this statement. Yes, 20th century was marked by insularism due to well-known political processes. But before and after that Russia was and is quite open for its neighbors for mutual interactions and it definitely includes word loaning from other languages. Yes, there are much less Latin loans in Russian language comparing to English. But at the same time there are tons of loans from Turkic family, notably from Tatar. Medieval history of Russia marked by warfare, trade and periods of political dependence from Golden Horde and because of that many basic words like money (den'gi - from tan'ga), cap (kolpak - from kolpak), strongman (bogatir' - from bagatur), chest (soondook - from sundik) to name few are loaned into Russian from Tatar. It would probably fair to say that Golden Horde played for Russian language the role similar to what has been played by Normans after 1066 for English.
In my opinion, Mr. McWhorter oversimplifies the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian, saying "mastering Ukrainian is more a matter of adjustment than precisely learning" (page 72). Yes, those languages are quite close as well as they are close enough to Polish, Serbian and Belarusian but they are far enough to prevent one from good understanding when the other language speaker speaks fast. I remember, when I was a kid in Kyrgyzstan I visited a little village of Poltavka where descendants of Cossacks sent by Tsar in early 19th century to guard outskirts of Russian Empire still speak a strange mix of old Ukrainian and old Russian. Even though I have spent some time there trying to pick up the language it was still not very understandable as a whole despite on some words and even sentences were clear sometimes.
Also, Mr. McWhorter's examples of certain words usage and phrases are somewhat outdated. For example, on the same page a phrase "pokojnoj noci" is described as a way Russian speakers say "Good Night". In fact it is 19th century way of saying good night. If my girlfriend would say to me "pokojnoj noci dorogoi" (Good night honey) my first reaction would be "Why the hell she speaks like Anna Karenina?". The contemporary way of saying good night is "spokojnoj noci" - one additional sound makes a huge difference. The same is applicable to the word "strashyj" (page 24), which may be in days of Nabokov was used exclusively for depicting really frightful things, like let's say grizzly attack. Nowadays it can be used pretty much the same way the English word terrible is used - one can say "strashno dorogo" meaning "terribly costly" and it would be quite normal and understandable.
But in general Mr. McWhorter's observations regarding Russian language are very true. He mentions about articles as a stumbling bloc. After several years of existence in English environment I still make mistakes with proper usage of those as this text I am sure confirms eloquently. Even when I feel I supposed to use "a" or "the" here or there a strange feeling of something unnatural nagging me inside. The thing is articles are perceived as something grotesquely redundant, the same way a letter "d" should be in the word "boulevard" for orthographic correctness. On the other hand I can only guess what English speakers think of all that convolution of Russian grammar with its multiple genders and cases.
Having said that, I feel like we all can consider ourselves lucky due to a mere fact that a mother tongue of Mr. McWhorter is English. Because of that his profoundly enjoyable book is easily available for our comprehension. How would it be if this great book is written and published in, let's say, Mandinka or Evenki? The cruel truth is a writer's talent should always be accompanied by a mother tongue whose market penetration is competitive enough with other 6000 or so counterparts. Only then it can be truly beneficial for readers audience and writer's wellbeing.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 16, 2011 3:05:06 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 16, 2011 3:07:29 PM PST
Haim says:
Grettir Strong's review is a fascinating read of its self. I am ignorant of Russiann(totally, don't even know the cyrillic alphabet) but would like to read about Russian. I am going to buy this book as a result of Strong's review. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2011 10:30:38 PM PDT
Thanks Haim, I am pretty sure you will not be disappointed. There are many good books on popular linguistics lately but this one still is one of the best I ever read.
Cyrillic alphabet is not much more difficult than Latin, many letters do coincide with Latin ones. Grammar is significantly more complicated than English though. But there are languages out there with both alphabet and grammar as hard as rock, Armenian for example.

Posted on Feb 24, 2012 2:11:37 PM PST
Very cool set of observations Grettir!
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