08 March 2008

Wearing Ritas While Playing the Gomra.

Over the past year or two, as my reading skills have improved in Russian, I've discovered a weird consequence of being able to read both Cyrillic and Latin script without conscious effort: unexpected processing errors when my brain gets confused about what alphabet it's looking at.

In normal situations this doesn't pose a problem, as what language I'm reading is clear to both me and the reading processors in my brain. However, occasionally you come across a stand-alone word that unexpectedly throws you off.

Let's start with an example of an intersection between the two alphabets: the brand name "Puma." Many Russians think (or joke that) it's pronounced "Rita," because Latin p looks like Cyrillic r, and Latin u and m resemble stylized or cursive versions of Cyrillic i and t. (So Рита in print becomes Рита in cursive. Looks just like English puma, right?)

But that's not really a processing error as much as an error in alphabet choice. For an example of my brain's processing problems, let's look at this tape measure:

My brain knows it's American, because I remember getting it in a box from my parents and because there's clear, understandable English written right on it. "Ok," my brain says, breezing past the white and gray text with no problem and getting to the yellow brand name, "we're reading in English!"

I do fine – K-O-M-E-L-O – until we get to that last letter. We're supposed to be reading in English, but that letter looks so much more like a Cyrillic p (п) than any Latin letter that the train derails. I get alarm bells and flashing red error messages, and the word basically refuses to be processed. If you've ever tried to remember what it was like to be really little and able to look at something without reading it, that's what this feels like to me. I can force myself to "sound it out," but I come up with "komelop." I can tell myself it says "komelon," even though I can't read it that way per se. I'm sure if this were a familiar English word – or even if it had a –g on the end to make it look like "come along" – that pesky п/n wouldn't pose a problem. But the way it actually is, I can't look at the word and automatically process it, which feels pretty trippy.

Edited to add: I just noticed that if you cover up the KO, you get 'melon.' Sure enough, if I block out those first two letters, I have no trouble reading the whole thing in English with no alarm bells or error messages or anything.

Today I had another interesting processing experience. I was listening to a domra album on my computer, and I clicked on the picture of the album cover in iTunes.

I glanced at this part of the cover:

I somehow noticed the English text in black before I noticed that Vladimir Yakovlev's name is written in Russian. My eyes traveling upwards from there, I caught the word домра (domra - the g on the album cover is an alternate form of cursive Cyrillic д/d) and got alarm bells going off in my head again. "Ha!" I thought. "Did they really write 'gomra'?!?"

This is interesting because it means that I noticed that the first letter of the word was "wrong" while failing to notice the Cyrillic r in the middle of the word that should have either tipped me off that this is a Russian word or made me think that they wrote "gompa," not "gomra." I guess this goes along with that trick where you can read a scrambled text as long as the first and last letters of each word are in the right place.

(By the way, I don't think putting half the Russian and half the English in each cluster of text is a good graphic design move.)

Relatedly, there have been a couple of interesting posts lately on Language Log about an emerging kind of slang in Russian – words typed in Cyrillic on a Latin keyboard. This amounts to something other than transliteration because, as any Russian student who's had to type an essay in Russian knows, the letters aren't in the same places on Cyrillic and Latin keyboards. Cyrillic f is on Latin a, Cyrillic t is on Latin n, etc. I found this especially interesting because my non-Russian-speaking father recently did the opposite – for Valentine's Day, he typed out "Roses are red / Violets are blue..." with his keyboard in Cyrillic mode and sent me the resulting nonsense. The next Pushkin? No, but an unwitting member of a group of linguistic innovators!

Finally, Happy International Women's Day to my female readers! I hope the day brings you lots of chocolate and flowers and no annoying holiday greetings like, "May you always love and be beloved by men."


Mike S said...

Oh man, I just totally read that as "Vlagimir Yakovlev, Gomra."

Now that I think about it, I can make it turn into "Gompa" but I can't get "Domra" at all.

I wonder if it has anything to do with writing unconnected cursive (since script d is not g, only cursive d is I believe).

It almost feels the same way getting garden pathed does (for sake of comparison: "The cotton clothes are made of comes from Mississipi"). I don't necessarily know enough about word recognition to say anything else, except that I think you could perhaps do an interesting ERP study on it :).

Leslie said...

Yeah, you're right, it totally does feel like getting garden pathed!

To me, the g on the album cover looks really unusual. I feel like cursive d (yes, you're right, manuscript d looks nothing like a g) is usually a lot curlier than that, if not always connected to the other letters. Maybe that's part of the problem?

Rosa said...

That was a really cool post. I bet it would make for interesting EEG studies.

Anna-Martha said...

Did I ever tell you about the sign on Highway 101 in California that says Fern Cyn.?
It's for Fern Canyon, but there's that pesky n/п again, which on the highway's sign really made it look like Fern Soup, next exit. (which sounds kind of good).

It's funny how confused the brain gets. And unnecessarily too, since both words are in English!