Friday, August 23, 2013

Someone snatched my mittens

Here is a story I heard in the cafeteria yesterday. A little girl stands in a school hallway, crying. “What happened?” – asks the teacher. “Someone snatched my mittens” (The girl uses this really obscene Russian expression that makes “to steal” out of “vagina.” Yeah, THAT kind of a “snatch”). “Oh my, why do you cuss?” – The teacher is appalled. “So snatching is OK, but cussing is not?” – answers the girl.

The story is really funny, and unprintable in Russian, for language taboos are somewhat stronger here than in English. I do remember, however, how an editor of conference proceedings in the Midwest was going to deny the publication of a scholarly paper that cited a poem with the word “fuck” in it. It was not at all a frivolous use, just a citation.

One of distinct joys of my return to Russia is hearing the natural language once again. It is like a difference between watching the ocean on TV and walking barefoot on the shore. In its native land, the language is vibrant, powerful, reckless and yet self-regulating. People experiment with it every day, and occasionally the most memorable findings are picked up and replicated like a virus. Most of these innovations will die soon, and only very few will stick around. Yet watching this active layer of language to develop is really incredible. Only the dullest of all people are upset by bastardization of languages.

In the immigrant communities, people do play with language, too. However, it is mostly vis-à-vis the host language. There is very little chance for an innovation born in Brooklyn, no matter how smart, to become mainstream in Russia. It is just a very different game, a game of a community struggling to survive as a linguistic entity. The émigré language survives for a couple of generations, but it can sense its demise. The language at home, at least in a large country, is not looking at surviving; it is free to experiment.

I think I am going to miss the same kind of presence in American English though. I just started to appreciate it probably some 5-6 years ago. And it is the same thing: people treat their language as a playground, not to follow whatever stupid rules the grammarians invent. Tell me something funny you heard on the street in America.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:14 AM

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  2. Heard on the street, so to speak ... http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-dare-you-say-that-the-evolution-of-profanity-1437168515

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