**Disclaimer** This is a long and grammar-heavy post. The amount of content available online is increasing at a rate far greater than you can read it, so if you don’t want to read about grammar, go check out something else. No one will judge you. 🙂 **End disclaimer**

Russian and I have a love-hate relationship. Or rather, I have a love-hate relationship with Russian. Russian has never indicated that it gives the slightest flying flip about me. A language can’t have feelings, of course, but sometimes it certainly feels like Russian has gone way out of its way to make life as difficult as possible for me, or anyone who speaks it.

Case in póint: émphasis. In Énglish, we týpically put the émphasis on the antepenúltimate sýllable of each wórd. There áre, of course, excéptions, espécially in wórds that don’t have 3+ sýllables. But héy, at léast it’s sómething.

In Russian, there are no rules governing word emphasis. Or rather, there are, but they’re not anywhere near comprehensive, and to list them takes pages and pages (I know this because Olga has been trying for two weeks to teach these rules to me, and not only have we made pages and pages of notes, but also she has repeatedly discovered that she herself has been mispronouncing certain words her whole life).

As an example, take the suffix -nin, which always indicates a personal noun.

Krest’janin = peasant

Khrist’janin = Christian

Mirjanin = earthling

Afinjanin= Athenian

I always thought that the second to last syllable, “ja”, was emphasized in all these constructions. That is true for “mirjanin.” Ol’ga, like me, thought that that was a pretty widely applicable rule. However,  words of this form of Old Slavonic origin emphasize the last syllable, so khristjaNIN, krestjaNIN, etc. And if the word indicates a citizen of the ancient world, as in Afinjanin, then the emphasis of the derived (personal) form remains the same as it does in the place name itself (note that the integrity of the word root doesn’t hold all the time, only in reference to ancient places). So since we say AfIN for “Athens,” we say AfINjanin for “Athenian.”

There is no notation for stress patterns. You just have to know.

So we come to a riddle that Ol’ga sent me. It tells about a little boy named Artem who woke up on the first day of school to find a note from his mother, who had already gone to work. She wrote, “Don’t forget to take your favorite teacher gvozdiki and the headmaster iriski.” GVOZdiki are screws, and irISki are a kind of toffee. So the boy took some screws and toffee to school and gave them to his teachers. But the teachers were confused, and asked him, “What are you doing, Artem?” What did Artem do wrong?

The answer: He was supposed to take not GVOZdiki (screws) and irISki (toffee), but gvozDIki (carnations) and IRiski (irises), much more typical first day of school gifts.

So that’s the bad. Now for a little good. Daniil Kharms is basically the Soviet Kafka. He had a propensity for writing very short, absurdist works, so obviously I think he’s the bee’s knees. We read a story today called “The Chest,” which is a monologue of a guy (called only “the man with the narrow neck”) who’s shut himself in a chest to see what happens when he runs out of air. Being Russian, he’s got all sorts of big philosophical questions and a blatant disregard for consequences (my interpretation, not Kharms’s), so he thinks that locking himself up in this way will allow him to see life and death battle each other. I won’t translate the whole thing; this is the second half or so.

“Oy! What’s that!? Just now something happened, but I can’t understand what exactly. I saw something or heard something…

Oy! Again something happened? My God! There’s nothing left for me to breathe. It seems I’m dying…

And what was that? Why am I singing? My neck seems to hurt…but where’s the chest? Why can I see everything around me in the room? No way, I’m lying on the floor! Where is the chest? 

The man with the narrow neck got up off the floor and looked around. The chest was nowhere to be found. On the chairs and bed lay the things that he had pulled out of the chest, yet the chest wasn’t anywhere.”

That brings us up to the last line, which will require some explanation.

Here is the best translation I can offer. The part in bold will be translated literally, although it isn’t immediately apparent.

The man with the narrow neck said, ‘So life defeated death by a manner that’s unknown to me.”

Pause. A few more things about grammar (if you have studied non-Romance languages, this will be mostly familiar to you; if that’s the case or you’re in a hurry, you can go ahead and skip the text in purple):

All sentences (in English) depend on verbs. The nouns in the sentence all have various relationships to the verb (simplifying for time–obviously there are prepositional phrases and embedded clauses and all sorts of other things). 

Different languages use different mechanisms to make the relationships of the nouns clear. In English, we have a pretty strict Subject – Verb – Object word order. “The dog bit the man.” 

In German, we have a mixed system: There are rules about word order, but you can break them with impunity because the articles change to make relationships clear (this is called a case system). “the dog” = “der Hund”; “the man” = “der Mann.” When you want to make a masculine noun the direct object of the verb, “der” changes to “den.”  So the above sentence could be “Der Hund beißt den Mann” (the more common version), but it could just as easily be “Den Mann beißt der Hund.” 

Russian relies exclusively on the case system to show noun relationships. And since it doesn’t have articles like English and German do, the encoding happens entirely in the nouns themselves. “the dog” = sobaka “the man” = chelovek. “Sobaka kusit cheloveka” means “The dog bites the man,” as does “Cheloveka kusit sobaka.” If you say “Sobaku kusit chelovek” or “Chelovek kusit sobaku,” those both mean “The man bites the dog,” and suddenly you have a much more interesting story. 

******STUDY BREAK********* 


******BACK TO GRAMMAR****** 

You may have noticed that the direct object form of “man” in Russia looks an awful lot like the subject form of “dog.” That’s because Russian (and German, for that matter) has three grammatical genders, each with their own case endings. 

Now we can return to the story.

Zhizn’ pobedila smert’. Life defeated death. As an English speaker, I interpreted the statement according to the word order and assumed that life had won, and death had lost. But zhizn’ and smert’ are both feminine words with identical declensions, and the word order plays no role. So “Death defeated life” is an equally acceptable translation.

Not only is the story completely untranslatable because of three mere words, but even in the original language, it can never be definitively interpreted. Kharms was a man who knew his trade very, very well.

If you have read this far, then congratulations on your fortitude! As a reward, here’s a Russian poem I know you will like, and no language is required (warning: compelling evidence in the case for Russian children as the cutest children):