«Пищеварение, с пельменной точки зрения»
The sign below, found on a Russian humor site, was presumably an innocent error by a non-native speaker who was TRYING to say “Entrance to the workplace is in the back of the building.” If you don’t understand why it sounds hilarious to a native Russian, you will by the end of this post!
We’re going to take a scientific экскурсия (“tour”) of the пищеварительный тракт (“digestive tract”), imagining ourselves as Raquel Welch and her fellow crewmembers aboard their microminiaturized подводная лодка (“submarine”) from the 1966 sci-film Fantastic Voyage («Фантастическое путешествие»).
If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember that Raquel Welch’s diving-suit was roughly three sizes too small — a side-effect of the “Miniaturization Beam”?
Passing the губы (“lips”) and entering the the рот (“mouth”), we’ll immediately notice some of the structures во рту (“in the mouth”): the зубы (“teeth”) embedded in the дёсны (“gums”); the muscular язык (“tongue”), the нёбо (“palate; roof of the mouth”) and dangling from that the funny-looking язычок (“uvula”).
Less obvious, at first, are the слюнные железы (“salivary glands”) — and we’ll be seeing the term железа (“a gland”) quite a bit, so don’t get it mixed up with железо (“iron”, as in the element Fe)! Not only is слюна (“saliva”) indispensible if you want to плевать на что-нибудь (“spit on something”), but it also contains ферменты (“enzymes”) that chemically split крахмалы (“starches”) into сахара (“sugars”).
From the mouth, the reflexive muscular action of глотание (“swallowing”) carries us into the горло (“throat”), down the пищевод (“esophagus”), until we land in the желудок (“stomach” in the sense of the internal gastric sac, but the outwardly visible “belly” is живот).
And we’d better hope our submarine has a sturdy hull, because the желудок is filled with concentrated соляная кислота (“hydrochloric acid”) to begin digesting белки (“proteins”) into аминокислоты (can you guess?) with the help of more ферменты. Sometimes this combo of acid and enzymes will even start to digest the stomach’s own walls — leading to a painful язва желудка (“ulcer”).
Leaving the желудок, we enter the тонкая кишка, literally “thin intestine”. (And note the stress of кишка so you don’t confuse it — as I often do — with кишка (Yiddishized as kíshke), a traditional dish made by stuffing matzo meal into a бычья кишка, “beef intestine”!)
Up to this point, the proteins and углеводы (“carbohydrates”) in a serving of kishke or pelmeni or whatever have only been partly digested, while жиры (“fats”) remain totally intact. But except for клетчатка (“dietary fiber of plant origin”), which humans and most other animals can’t digest at all, nearly everything we eat совершенно переварится (“will be completely digested”) within the first 25cm or so of the 6-meter-long [!] small intestine.
As you might guess by now, digesting all this stuff involves even more ферменты! Many of these are produced by a gland right under the stomach, aptly named the поджелудочная железа (“pancreas”).
The digestion of fatty compounds presents a special problem because the intestinal contents are mostly water, but жиры не расстворяются в воде (“fats don’t dissolve in water”). So the fat-splitting enzymes need a chemical boost from желчь (“bile”) — which separates fats into tiny little blobs in much the same way as dish-detergent, and is secreted both by the жёлчный пузырь (“gall bladder”) and the печень (“liver”).
The functions of the печень are сложные и различные (“complex and diverse”), but they include the обмен веществ (“metabolism”; lit., “conversion of substances”) of various chemical compounds in the bloodstream. For instance, most people know that the liver breaks down токсины (“toxins”) into less harmful forms, including that widely beloved toxin алкоголь (“alcohol”)!
Most of the organs discussed in this post are visible here. If we were med students doing a вскрытие трупа (“dissection of a cadaver”), we’d have to remove the кишечник (“the intestines/bowels,” collectively) to see the kidneys and urinary bladder.
But what happens in the remaining 5.75m of the тонкая кишка? In one word: всасывание (“absorption”, etymologically “a sucking-into”). In the small intestine, питательные вещества и лишняя вода всасываются в кровь (“nutrients and excess water are absorbed into the blood”).
Next our submarine enters the толстая кишка (lit., “thick intestine”), which has a среда, богатая бактериями (“environment rich in bacteria”). These безбилетные пассажиры (“unticketed passengers; stowaways”) are sometimes very helpful to their hosts. For example, the human body can’t manufacture Vitamin K, which is essential to the свёртывание крови (“clotting of blood”); luckily for us, this important nutrient is “farted out” as a waste product by various bacteria! Also, more water is re-absorbed so that the material inside the толстая кишка becomes всё гуще и гуще (“more and more thick”) — until eventually it’s known as кал (“feces”).
And finally Raquel Welch & Co. make a highly undignified exit through the задний проход (lit., “rear passageway”) — the polite term for that opening through which a человек испражняется (“person defecates”). Of course, there are more “colorful” terms for all this, but that’s for a different post…
But speaking of functions that civilized people conduct on the унитаз (“toilet-bowl” — into which our microminiaturized submarine has splashed down!), we shouldn’t forget about мочеиспускание (“urination”). The почки (“kidneys”) фильтруют кровь (“filter the blood”), removing азотные выделения (“nitrogenous wastes” — a byproduct of protein digestion) and also helping to уравновеcить соотношение солей и воды в теле (“balance/equilibrate the ratio of salts and water in the body”). From the kidneys, the urine goes to the мочевой пузырь (“urinary bladder”) for temporary storage until we have a suitable opportunity to мочиться (“urinate”).
And on that note, we conclude our tour — I hope the post wasn’t tough to digest!