Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Language Barrier, Part III

I’ve been talking about being ridiculous with the Russian language, but only in the context of how one can be more or less formal, particularly in a social situation like the open-air market.

There are a lot of other situations in which socially accepted norms are much stricter. Russian has, for example, the difference between ty and vy [singular, informal you versus plural you/formal you] much like any of the Romance languages do. Vos otros…

There’s a funny tier system to this.

1. “Natural” ty - Anyone markedly younger than you are, or about the same age as you, and you feel like you can introduce yourself to them in an informal way. (I had the impulse, for example, on the metro to say Ty vykhodish’? [Are you getting off] to a college-age guy in my way, instead of Vykhodite? [Are you-formal getting off?] I didn’t say anything in the end, but I think my intuition in this case is better than in the story I’ll tell in a second.)

2. “Developed” ty - Even if the individual’s not of the same age or younger as you, but you know them very well. Children to their parents, old friends, etc. Davaj na ty. [Let’s speak informally.]

3. Informal vy – maintaining a professional distance from the person. My host father in Petersburg was friends with a woman he first met at his job a good thirty years before, and they eat dinner at each other’s houses and talk on the telephone constantly, but still refer to each other on vy. I asked him about it, once, after she left, and he said: “There are some people you just always remain on vy with.”

4. Formal vy – always capitalized, no matter where it is in the sentence; addressing someone requires full name-patronymic. Depending on the situation this individual (this is anything from professional correspondence to a student referring to a professor, etc.) can respond in formal vy or use any of the other three forms.

I feel reasonably comfortable with the four tiers, but I still get a queasy feeling every time I’m talking to someone on formal vy and say Vy znaete… [You know] or any other sentence where I’m using Vy; again with my neuroses. I always have a moment where I ask myself, “Is it clear that I’m capitalizing that “v” in my head?” I’m sure it’s fine. But I’m a crazy person.

And then all sorts of problems come out of my insanity. Briullov and I met with an American professor the other day (a future professor of mine; an old family friend of Briullov’s) and a couple different times I addressed the professor, saying: “What do You think about…”

Every time I could hear there was a weird stress on the “You,” which came from me trying to use formal “vy” in English; I hope it didn’t come across as a different stress: “What do YOU [and not Briullov] think about this…” I’ve lost my capacity to communicate in English.

Then the story I promised, which some of you already know: when I first met Starik I spoke to him on informal vy because we were in a more-or-less professional situation and he’s seven years older than me. And he’s a professor, although not for any of the classes I was taking. He switched over to ty with me the next time we hung out but I mistook it for the variation I mentioned earlier, where the superior can address the inferior on ty and there’s the power imbalance. (To use sociological terms.)

Well, then I started getting mad as this continued for about a month, and every time we met I thought How come this guy can get off on calling me ty and is acting all stuffy and weird… Then I decided I would switch, without asking permission, onto ty as well.

It was like flicking a switch, to use the cliché. Suddenly we were talking favorite music, etc instead of talking art history. As I said before to those who’ve heard this story – the fault was all mine. Starik assumed I was being a jerk for still calling him on vy and maintaining professional distance when he wanted to be less formal.

I claim shenanigans, as a) he never said “Davay na ty,” b) he’s the native speaker! No fair to assume the foreigner has any linguistic competency!

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