Saturday, June 11, 2011

Phonetics and Russian Poetry

Russians love poetry. Especially St. Petersburgians.  I've never met a group of people so well-versed in poetry and literature. Not only do they burst into spontaneous poetry recitation in daily conversation (usually when the topic of discussion reminds them of a good poem), they also highly revere the persona of Russian writers and can provide extensive information about their lives, their families, where and when they wrote, and the symbolism and meaning of their works.  It's also interesting to note that this love of literature is not class specific.  I've heard professors, office workers, students, museum guides, a slightly-not-all-there guy on the street, and even a babushka selling flowers (what some would call a "bag lady") reciting poetry.
The Cyrillic Alphabet

This week I've been taking advantage of my private lessons to work a lot on phonetics, so I've been paying extra attention to intonation, stress, timbre, and rhythm.  And, following the advice of my professor, I've been reading aloud to myself to practice all of these things and to increase my reading speed. (Since Russian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, learning to read in Russian is quite literally like going back to Kindergarten. It takes time to learn to sight read - to recognize new and ever-bigger words without having to sound them out.)  After running across a short poem in my new Russian textbook a few days ago, and then reflecting on Russians' love of poetry, I decided that reading and memorizing a few poems could give me some interesting conversation material when I'm making new Ukrainian friends, and could also really help убирать ("remove") my accent, as they say in Russian. The word is pronounced "oobeeROT" but spelled "ubirat" and for some reason it always makes me think of the English word "obliterate."  It's funny how our brains make such connections, often subconsciously. Bottom line: I'd really like to obliterate my accent.


There is a man in his 60's here from Barcelona, also taking Russian classes. His name is Luis, and I was sitting in the lobby of the school with him the other day. Luis and I were speaking a strange mixture of English and Spanish, and even though this is only his second week of Russian classes and he practically doesn't understand anything in Russian, I kept throwing out Russian phrases because that's just the language I was thinking in at the time. After Luis left, I started talking to another guy in the lobby, named Roman, who turned out to be a Ukrainian man from Odessa who is doing a type of residency before he starts to teach Spanish and English at the school. A few minutes into our conversation I said something about reallying liking Odessa, and how it reminds me a lot of my hometown, San Luis Obispo, in California.
He said, "What? You're from California? I thought you were from Odessa."
"No, no, no - I just got here last weekend! What made you think I was Ukrainian?"
"Well," he replied, "You were speaking in mostly English and Spanish with this man from Spain who doesn't speak any Russian, and yet you kept using Russian phrases. Plus, you were saying them without an accent.  I thought you just didn't know how to say these things in English, so you were saying them in Russian and hoping he might understand."
I couldn't help but laugh. But it was a nice compliment; I appear to be one step closer to obliterating my accent.

And then last night...
Adrien - my French roommate - and I hosted a party at our flat for the entire school (about 20 people). There's one girl that I had yet to meet because she's an anthropologist and has been out all week on a dig in a village about an hour away.  She's from Michigan, but has been studying Slavic languages for about a decade and speaks Russian and Ukrainian fluently, as well as a dialect called something like "Sorjik," which is a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian and not a proper language at all, but more of a butchering of the two languages. Everyone said she's a really sweet girl, and she sounds like she would be really interesting to talk to, so I was looking forward to meeting her.
When she arrived, I was in the kitchen chopping cucumbers.  Adrien walked her into the kitchen, pointing at me and saying to her (in his very French accent), "Deborah, zis is Shirah, she lives here, too.  And I zink she is from zee same place as you."  I was explaining something to some Ukrainian girls who were helping me prepare the snacks, but turned my attention to Deborah as she approached the table, just in time to hear her say, "I don't think so...."  She trailed off, furrowing her brow and scrunching up her nose in confusion. "....I'm from the United States."
"Oh! I am too!" I smiled at her.
"Okay, wow," she smiled back, "but you have definitely spent some time around Europeans. You don't sound like you're from the States."

So while I may be making progress in Russian, it appears that I'm backpedaling in my native tongue?  Maybe I should start memorizing some English poems!  Nevertheless, here's my first Russian poem. This is a poem by Anna Akhmatova - one of the most well-loved Soviet poets - and was written in 1964:


А я иду, где ничего не надо,            
Где самый милый спутник — только тень,  
И веет ветер из глухого сада,         
А под ногой могильная ступень.          

And now I go, where nothing is needed,
Where the very best guide is only a ghost,
And blows the wind from an overgrown garden,
And underfoot a gravestone.

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