As a child of German reunification living in the former East Germany, the Russian language held a kind of secondary status for me: though it was always around (my grandparents, parents and older brothers learned it in school), for me Russian was somehow a thing of the GDR past — the future, I believed, was clearly French.
And so I diligently studied French, with the idea in the back of my mind that Russian was “too difficult,” and “not particular nice-sounding.” At least this is what I thought until, in the 11th grade, I overheard a telephone conversation between a Russian classmate and her mother. Somehow the language that rolled off her tongue was totally different from the Russian that I had known — probably due to the fact that I had only heard Russian spoken as a second language or in Hollywood films (in which real Russians were never cast). With each word my classmate spoke, I became increasingly aware that I had never really heard the language spoken properly. Real Russian was different: to my German ears it sounded clear and straightforward — not hard, rough and angry, but powerful and serious.
So I fell in love — not with my classmate, but with the Russian language. Nevertheless, learning Russian still wasn’t really possible for me; it wasn’t offered in my school, and it also continued to be this thing from the past, a language that I would never need.
But of course, things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. After high school, I spent a year in Canada, and met a man — a man with long hair, good taste in music, a sharp sense of humor and Russian roots — a man with the talent to convince me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.
Even though I immediately plunged into learning Russian after getting engaged, I quickly abandoned the language. After this first attempt, I was frustrated with my inability to figure out when to say [a], and when to say [o]. I even neglected Russian in my language courses at the university — once again in favor of French.
The turning point finally came when I started working at Babbel. Working at a language learning company that also offers Russian, I no longer had any excuses not to learn. So I started learning Russian, slowly but surely (with an emphasis on “slowly”). I can certainly affirm that Russian isn’t an easy language, but I also believe that the difficulty is often exaggerated: aside from the “a’s,” “o’s” and occasional silent letters, Russian is actually written the way it’s pronounced. Russian also shares many words with Latin, French and German, so memorizing vocabulary is possible even without knowing another Slavic language — and the rest, well, it somehow sticks in your head over time! Moreover, Russian simply has character — and some really beautiful words. Here are some of my favorites so far:
домашние тапочки (domashniye tapochki)
Noun: “House Slippers”
The term домашние тапочки, or simply тапочки, means “house slippers.” It’s one of the first words I learned in Russian, when my husband asked me where his тапочки were. I immediately knew what he meant, because тапочки is onomatopoeically the most appropriate word for “slippers” that I could imagine. The gentle tap, tap, tap sound produced when walking is reflected in its name — and it also actually relates to the verb топать (topat), which means “to trample” or “walk heavily.” This is why the word has crept its way into my everyday vocabulary, even when speaking English or German.
The Russian word снеговик is only partly translatable. Снег (sneg) means “snow” and вик (vik) is a suffix that can make a new word — it’s for this reason that the English translation for снеговик would be something like “snowling,” a much more appropriate word than “snowman” (especially considering that the snow creatures would be deemed its own species).
Noun: “Little Hedgehog”
Many languages have rather good names for hedgehogs — if this were an article about my favorite English words, I would surely include “furze-pig,” which is an Old English word for the animal. This is an article about my favorite Russian words, however, and here ёжиk absolutely makes the list. The diminutive of ёж, the word ёжиk sounds exactly like a cute and cuddly hedgehog!
Russian is the first Slavic language I’ve learned. So while I could always rely on common borrowed words and cognates when learning English and French, memorizing Russian words is somewhat difficult. I use a lot of mnemonic devices to learn new words, and I often struggle to make decent associations. My mnemonic device for помидор, for example, is actually the reason it appears in this list; Помидор sounds like pomme d’or (“Golden Apple” in French), thus evoking visions of dark red-ripe tomatoes shining in the golden sun. I was delighted when I found out that помидор actually derives from the Italian pomi d’oro — the plural of which is pomodoro — translating literally to “golden apple” (figuratively translated, the word means “tomato”). Also, for me, Помидор somehow sounds like a character from an Alexander Dumas novel. So in my mind, Помидор is a golden tomato apple with a tiny Musketeer’s hat (yes, my associations are sometimes a bit out there).
The month of February doesn’t have the best of reputations — it’s the month when everyone’s had their fill of winter (unless you live in a warm climate), and kitschy holidays like Valentine’s Day and Carnivale can be a real drag. The injustices of February, however, are somehow alleviated with the Russian word for the month; февраль starts with a soft [ f ], glides over an [ e ], gently sails over a [ w ], culminates in a strongly rolled [ r ], and ends in an understated [ I ]. This interplay of sound gives the word a gentle and majestic nature, and quells the old stereotype that Russian is an excessively difficult language.
Verb: “to meet”
As a German living abroad, one tends to hear a lot about the German language. It’s rumored, for example, that German has no vowels; with words like * Strumpf * (seven letters, one vowel) I can’t exactly disagree. However, with words like встречаться (a word that begins with 4 consonants), I can fire back at my Russian friends, arguing “Ha! Yes, we have long words — but so do you!” This is why I like the word встречаться: it’s my secret weapon (if I can ever manage to pronounce it, that is).
Noun: “Brightly-painted nesting dolls”
Russian culture and матрёшки — those typical colorfully-painted nesting dolls — simply belong together. The name матрёшки literally means “little matron” and is the first name of the Russian diminutive Матрёна (Matryona). Traditionally, the outer layer of the doll is a woman wrapped in a sarafan, the traditional Russian court dress. Inside, the figures can differ in form and gender, and the smallest doll is typically a baby formed from a solid piece of wood. Today, матрёшки come in all colors and sizes: depicting everything from politicians, to owls and cats, these famous dolls have clearly reached cult status. It’s all the more surprising then, that outside of Russian-speaking areas these dolls are often mislabeled бабушка (babushka), or “grandma.” And this mistake, of course, often leads to misunderstandings and confusion. It’s precisely these misconceptions that make me like the word матрёшка so much!
As a young foreign exchange student in 1970s Moscow, my young father visited a small Soviet memorabilia shop. On one wall out of reach for my father, several матрёшки were displayed.
My young father: Здравствуйте, у вас есть бабушка? (Zdravstvuite, u vas yest babushka?) — “Hello, do you have a grandma?”
The saleswoman: Да, конечно! (Da, konechno!) — “Yes, of course!”
My young father: Могу ли я купить её? (Mogu li ya kupit yayo?) — “Can I buy her?”
The shocked saleswoman: „… нет!“ (… net!) — “…No!”
My young father, looking at a shelf full of матрёшки: Почему нет? У вас же много бабушек! (Pochemu net? U vas zhe mnogo babushek!) — “Why not? You have many grandmas!”
The annoyed saleswoman: „Нет!“ (Net!) – “No!”
My young father, feeling insulted, leaves the shop.
Don’t worry — my young father has grown since then, and he’s also learned the correct word for матрёшка. Now, whenever I hear the word or see the beautiful iconic dolls smiling back at me, I remember my father as a young man, insulted that a saleswoman wouldn’t sell him her grandma.
Adverb: “Yeah, good, everything’s fine”
While we’re talking about grandmas: the next and final favorite Russian word I actually learned from my husband’s бабушка (grandma). As I’m still not exactly fluent in Russian, our conversations are often derailed. When we both decide to give up, she says “так” — “Everything’s fine, and at least we both agree that it’s useless at this point to keep trying.” When we understand each other, however, she also says “так” — “Well, yes, okay.” This is why I like the word “так” so much — it seems universal to me. And on my next visit, hopefully I’ll hear it more in its second meaning (“Good, yes, okay!”), because then I’ll know that I’m speaking better Russian!
Illustrations by Sveta Sobolev