08 November 2007

Genderbending Wordplay, or One More Thing I Don’t Get about Russian

Russian past-tense verbs are marked for gender and number, but not person. That means there are four forms for every past tense verb, for example:

упасть/upast' – to fall.

упал/upal – fell-masc.
I fell (if the speaker is male), you fell (if 'you' refers to a male), he fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically masculine).

упала/upala – fell-fem.
I fell (if the speaker is female), you fell (if 'you' refers to a female), she fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically feminine).

упало/upalo – fell-neut.
it fell (for objects that are grammatically neuter), fell (in subjectless constructions).

упали/upali – fell-plur.
We fell, you (plural) fell, you (singular formal) fell, they fell.

Got it? Ok. Just two small observations:

1. This gender marking causes problems for little kids, like a boy I saw in the library who was running around shouting, "I'm leaving! I'm leaving!" (Past tense – to say "I'm leaving," you say, "I've set off.") Except he was using the feminine form. His grandma gently corrected him: Я пошёл, солнышко. Ты - мальчик. ("[correct masculine form], honey. You're a boy.") In a country where the task of raising children falls mostly to women, I have to wonder if a lot of Russian toddlers take longer to gain command of the masculine past tense form than the feminine. Hmm.
Edit: I realized this probably isn't that clear to most people. What I mean is that children who hear women say "I + [feminine verb]" all the time and rarely hear men say "I + [masculine verb]" could get confused about whether the past tense -a ending marks gender or person. But after thinking it over, I don't think that's all that likely.

2. Today I was sitting in the foreign languages department when one of the other teachers got up to leave. "Ok, I'm leaving," she said – except she used the masculine form! When she left, I asked the remaining teacher, a Russian language professor, why she had done that. She explained: "Everywhere we go, we have to speak properly. All day long, nothing but speaking properly. Sometimes you just want to let go and play around with the language a little. If you say something like that, and people know that you actually know how to speak correctly, it's funny. It's funny to say the wrong thing in moderation." I was dissatisfied with this explanation. I mean, I don't understand what exactly is funny about it. Maybe that's because we don't have an equivalent in English – something you can say that would be grammatical if you were someone else, but isn't if you're you. So I wonder: (a) if speakers of other morphologically rich languages do the same thing; and (b) if it's primarily gender marking, rather than, say, number marking or case marking, that gets played with. And if so, do men do it, too? HMM. I'm intrigued.

(You can tell by all the posts that I've had a lot of work to do/procrastinate on. Hope you're enjoying it!)


Paul said...

Gender-marking on verbs? That's interesting, I didn't know any Indo-European languages did that! (Do you know off-hand if the other Slavic langauges do it?)

And as for speaking ungrammatically, I guess the closest parallel is that my friends and I will sometimes use faux cockney or joke rap-speech -- e.g. instead of saying 'I'm leaving', saying, 'Yo, I be leavin' biatchezz'. That isn't how we speak normally, and we know it's incorrect, but it's a laugh -- mostly I think because it plays on the irony of us all being white Cambridge graduate students. Maybe language teachers, especially three female ones, using the wrong form here plays on a similar kind of irony? Or perhaps I'm over-analysing it.

julia said...

i went through a period where i liked to say "ponyal" instead of "ponyala." it just sounds so much better and more forceful, and is fun. "PONyal!"

on a less light note, can you offer any linguistic insight on why russian verbs are marked for gender/plurality (but not person) in the past tense? this has always seemed strange to me, but i think when i learned it in first year russian, i was so relieved at the ease of the conjugation I didn't bother asking questions...

Leslie said...

1. Paul: Ukrainian does it, too, but I don't know about the other Slavic languages. My guess is yes? I also thought of the parallel of using slang that doesn't belong to your social/cultural group - I guess it's the closest thing we have. But the idea of using completely grammatical, standard language, just in the wrong form, still puzzles me.

2. Julia: That's really random! One of my students (a girl) says "ponyal" all the time, and that's the only other example of this I've ever heard. I asked her why and she said she thinks it sounds better, and picked it up from some movie where a character said "ponyal" in a very funny way. I agree, saying, "VSYO, ya PONyal!" has a nice ring to it.
I have no idea where the gender marking came from. I do wish I knew, though...

Mike said...

To add to Paul's suggestion (which also goes the other way, using words that are far too formal for the situation for the sake of humor), we often purposefully use wrong forms of verbs for humor, such as "tonight before I go out I'm gonna get my hair did," or "I can has cheezburger." But again, these aren't grammatical in Standard English. How about referring to one's self in the third person? That is standard, grammatically correct, and has some level of subtlety and potential for situational humor.

Lisa said...

I was going to say something similar to Mike, that people sometimes play around with the 3rd-pers-sing form. e.g., "I goes" (or "I has cheezburger?"). But that's maybe not quite the same thing...


Anonymous said...

What about the royal we? I think it's considered grammatical for the Queen to speak in the first-person plural. At least, it seems natural for her to do so. Some judges in the U.S. also use the first-person plural for themselves when speaking in an official capacity. It wouldn't be grammatical for most people to use the royal we, but people use it for humor sometimes. We are not amused!


Дж. Хьюз said...

I too enjoy deliberately saying the wrong thing in English, sometimes immoderately often. In Russian, I am able to say the wrong thing not only copiously but effortlessly.