08 November 2006

linguistic mishap #4923

Unfortunately for me (and Russian learners everywhere), Russian is not a language like Spanish, French or Icelandic, with regular, predictable stress patterns. Instead, like English, it's a language with lexical stress – that is, the stress on a word is generally something you just have to learn when you learn the word.

This causes me no end of trouble – I'm always forgetting the stress patterns on verb declensions or complicated nouns like water and Wednesday, thereby rendering myself more or less unintelligible. But the place where it causes the most trouble (and causes trouble for Russians themselves) is on names. I've had the darnedest time learning how to pronounce my students' last names, which poses a problem when you want to take attendance and there are five Olgas in the class. Finally I got it all sorted out by marking the stress on their names in a little attendance notebook, but the last class for me to conquer was my 12:30 Monday section. For some reason I didn't mark down the stress on their names when I did the others, so there were lingering problems.

So one day last week I was sitting in the department grading papers with some of the other teachers and we got to talking about this, after I proudly corrected one of them on the last name Borisko, which is BorisKO, not BoRISko. I mentioned that there was one name that gave me particular trouble – that of a girl named O. Попова. I now know that her last name is pronounced poPOva, but two weeks in a row I had come to her name in the list, realized the stress was still unmarked, and made a guess. Since in English we say POPov for the last name Попов, I guessed wrong both times and said POPova (which in Russian sounds kind of like "POPE of a," or (relevantly, as I found out) "Popa – va"). This caused Olya to giggle a great deal, especially after I messed it up the second time.

By the time I had finished explaining this, the other teachers had started laughing really hard. "Leslie," one of them finally asked, when they had settled down a bit, "don't you know what попа/popa means?"

"No," I admitted, a cold dread creeping into my heart.

"It means..." and she gestured toward her rear end, still laughing too much to explain. At which point I started laughing really hard too. It seems I had been calling this poor girl something like "Olga of the Butt family."

Sigh. Next time, I'm going for a nice, easy language. Just as soon as I find one.

And speaking of linguistics, I gave my presentation to the phonetics department yesterday. It turned out, however, that the "department meeting" I gave it at was really more of a party in honor of the assistant dean, who just defended her thesis. So before the presentation we all sat around a tiny table and celebrated, Russian-style. This means there was a lot of food and a lot of wine (no vodka - that's only for the menfolk, and there aren't any menfolk in Russian academia). We drank the wine out of teacups and water glasses; I got dealt a water glass (the tall kind, not a tumbler), and the formidable Ludmila Petrovna herself filled it all the way to the top and made me drink the whole thing before I gave my talk! Needless to say, it was just about the best presentation I've ever given.


Anonymous said...

And, as you know Dog would say ... "Bertha Butt, of the Butt Sisters."

Wine can make up for a lot of deficiencies ... :0)


Mike said...

I dunno about the vodka... all of the women in my family, as well as all of our Russian female family friends have no compunction about tipping back a glass or five when the occasion calls for it.

I totally saw the Popova coming. I definitely get caught messng up Russian last names myself at times.

If it's any consolation, I've a friend who's a Russian international student and after a few months here she's messing up on her Russian, so we're all in good company.

P.S. I forgot to reply to your email.... I'll get to it ASAP, which will hopefully be Thursday.

Lisa said...

Sounds like our Sr. Essay "presentations" at the dinner, hehe. :-)

<3, L