Seeing Things “Russianly”, or «Языковая картина мира» Posted by on Nov 26, 2008 in language

It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes it does, and when it does, the joy I feel knows no boundaries – I’m talking about the rare occasions when what I’m studying at the Master’s Program in Russian Literature coincides with a current event in the real world. Or, as was the case this time; with an article in my favorite source for a weekly dose of Russian news. Last Thursday we discussed the problem with «языковая картина мира» in my linguistics class [I translated this into English as “linguistic worldview”, but when I googled it I got nothing, according to wiki it is something close to linguistic determinism’], and when I opened the fresh number of «Русский репортёр» I got rather ecstatic when I found an article called «Картина мира, нарисованная языком» [‘A painting of the world, painted with language’]. And even though I know this post will be a little bit too long, and that I should’ve broken it up in two, I really don’t want to, because I’m too exited and can’t wait to share it all with you! This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, ever since I came to Russia, and realized that the world around me in Russian was very different from how the world around me had been in Swedish (and I’m not just talking about the sheer fact of dissimilarities between life in Gothenburg and life in Siberia), but even Sweden was different in Russian, and Russia was different in Swedish. In class I gave the other, all Russian, students the following example from when I first realized that we look at things differently: One spring day in Omsk my Russian friend told me: «Сегоднянаулицегрязно» [It is dirty outside today.] I looked at the street, but I still couldn’t understand, so I told her: «Нет, тампростомокро» [No, it’s just wet there.] What my Russian friend meant was that the street was muddy (due to large amounts of snow melting), but she used the word «грязь» [dirt] for this, as the melting snow was rather dirty after lying next to heavily trafficed roads for over four months. But in my Swedish head the combination dirt (smuts) + nature is impossible; nature is always clean in Swedish. But it didn’t take me long to see things “Russianly” in this case – a few days and a couple of cleanings of my shoes later and I made peace with the fact that streets in Russian can be ‘smutsiga’ [dirty] indeed.

The article has the sub-title of «Толковый словарь как путеводитель по национальному характеру» [The Defining Dictionary as a Guide Book to National Character] and compares Russian words with words in English and Japanese. The basis for it is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a “particular language’s nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers: that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought”. In other words – what we call something decides how we perceive this particular thing. If you’ve got an old wooden boat it’ll work much if you start calling it ‘your yacht’, that is. The article contains comparisions of the following words in these three languages, keeping in mind the context of national character:

«Корысть, [profit; advantage; gain; self-interest] выгода» [profit; gain; benefit; advantage]

«Долг, [duty] обязанность» [duty; responsiblity]

«Правда, истина» [truth]

In Russian there’s a difference between truth and truth. There can be many truths when you’re talking about «правда», but when it comes to «истина», then ‘she’ can only be one, and more often than not there’s a little ‘holiness’ to her, and she’s not to be understood by people.

«Радость, [joy; gladness] удовольствие[pleasure], наслаждение» [delight; pleasure; enjoyment]

«Счастье» [happiness]

Perhaps the fact that Russians are among the most unhappy people in the world – according to international statistics, that is – can be blamed on the question «Тысчастлив/а being far from as easy to answer positively as the English version: «Are you happy?”

«Собираться» [to gather, assemble; to collect; to prepare; to get ready; to be about to; to intend to]

This last verb, which in Russian doesn’t have to lead to any result at all, when in English, for example, saying: “I’m going to fire!” mean you’re really about to fire, whereas the Russian translation: «Я собираюсь стрелять!» doesn’t sound threatening at all… In Japanese, however, there is no such action; the whole article ends with the author trying to explain to the advisor on Japanese language at Moscow State University without any luck because – «мол, у него другая картина мира» [he has another linguistic painting of the world].

And to this I, as a native speaker of Swedish, can relate to. There is no such action called «собираться» in my native language [only in the meaning of ‘gather a group of people together somewhere’ can it be translated]. In Swedish you’d in this context use one of the two kinds of constructions to make the verb in future tense; either the one that’s for actions depending on you, or the one that’s for actions depending on others or the universe, thus being ‘out of your control’. Or just use the verb in present tense – which is actually just a third way of expressing the future tense in Swedish… Simple, isn’t it?

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  1. stas:

    Maybe, my English is not good enough but to my knowledge in English language there is no word, just frazes, for the Russian word расстрел in the same context as it is put by Russians. If you think about this fact, it should be comforting for the Russians who no longer live in Russia. And it should keep the forigners who want to live in Russia, I would say, a bit worried.

  2. Josefina:

    Hmm, I never even thought of the impossibility for translating “расстрел” before. Though I’m already worried, Stas, with or without this aspect of Russian reality… 😉

  3. Cordelia:

    Interesting post – it really got me thinking! I am Swedish but have lived in the UK for over 12 year, since I was 18.

    I think I am experiencing something similar – i.e. the matter of “linguistic worldview” is affecting me: When I am thinking and speaking in English, my mood and personality is somehow DIFFERENT from how it is when I think and speak in Swedish!

    And Yes, this has something to do with the words and expressions that I use, which in turn depends on which language I speak.

    Humour in the UK is usually very dry (sarcastic) and witty. People joke about almost anything in a way that would never happen in Sweden. I have picked this up and it actually CHANGES how I experience the situations I find myself in. British people put up with almost ANY apalling or infuriating situation by joking about it in.

    It’s also got to do with HOW people communicate. British people are much better at “polite small-talk” something most people in Sweden rarely bother with. I am constantly “forced” into quick chit-chats while at work, shopping or making different kinds of errands.

    Conciousness of “class” is much greater in the UK. I fall into the category of “upper middle class”, so the way in which I and my friends speak is consistent with this background. There are certain expressions and grammatical mistakes that are very common in other parts of society, but that my friends and I would never use. This enforces the the British class society every time people open their mouth. In Sweden this is much less of an issue — it’s not something that anybody cares about.

    All and all, I am simply a different person “in English” than “in Swedish”.


  4. Ken:

    Regarding this word, «Собираться», I think in English one could say they were starting to commence to begin to do something. As in, “I am starting to commence to begin to fire!” That sounds pretty non-committal to me. But then, what do I know?

  5. Natalya:

    Did you finally find the translation of Языковая картина мира? My diploma work (or whatever дипломная is called in English) is about it, but can’t find the equivalent in English.

  6. Natalya:

    A few words about “собираться”. The equvalent to English I’m going to fire would be “Я среляю” which means you’re almost(or already) in a process.