Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My First Days with Russian

Transfiguration Cathedral
It quickly became apparent that I am going to have to learn some Russian.  There is no way around it.  All labels in the grocery store are Russian, Metro stops, street signs, it's all Russian and if I don't want to isolate myself on compound I have to at least learn a few basic things.  
I decided to begin with the alphabet.  Spanish is suddenly seeming easy because they use the same Latin alphabet English uses and in Spanish each letter makes a sound and keeps that sound whenever it is used.  Actually it's a bit easier to pronounce than English because the rules are very black and white.  Russian on the other hand uses a completely different alphabet - Cyrillic.  
Cyrillic is a combination of Greek, the older Glagolitic alphabet and Old Church Slavonic.  As it seems with many advances in the written language, it was created in Bulgaria during the 10th century to translate the Bible from Greek.  It was named after Saints Cyril and Methodius from Byzantium who created the Glagolitic alphabet to translate the Bible and other religious works into Slavonic.  They had to create a new alphabet to accomplish this.  Part of Peter the Great's reformations to Russia to make it a more European and modern country mandated the use of westernized letter forms and in 1708 its current form was made official.  Wikipedia claims that Cyrillic is "one of the most used writing systems in the world" so I  guess it makes sense that I learn this.
If you know me or have read any of my posts on Spanish, you know how incredibly inept I am at foreign languages.  When people tell me it took them a week to learn the alphabet I know to give myself four.  So each day I stare at the computer and repeat sounds.  It's not really coming along that well.  My brain is really wired with one way to think about letters and when you try to throw a new alphabet at me it sort of melts.  
The Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters.  We're already off to a bad start because my comfortable Latin alphabet only has 26 letters - that's 7 more things to cram into my brain.  Fortunately, it appears that each letter basically has only one sound.  Five letters have the same sound as in English -  A, K, M, O and T.  So far so good.  But to make it a bit more difficult several letters look like ours but make a different sound such as "H" makes the "n" sound and "P" the "r" sound.  My hardwired brain is really having a difficult time with this and I'm sure it's going to have long term negative effects when I curl up this winter on a long, dark day to read a good novel and start pronouncing all my words wrong.  Next we have symbols that look different but have a sound from the English alphabet like "л" sounds like "L" and "ф" sounds like "f". And just to completely confuse this weary brain of mine, there are weird symbols with weird sounds like "ж" is the "zh" sound. You can try that combination but it's simply not a sound we use in English. 
I haven't even allowed my mind to consider the fact that once I am able to sound out words I am still going to have no idea of what those words mean.
I became quiet discouraged at my slow progress the other day so I decided I needed to add some practical words to my nonexistent vocabulary.  The word I felt would be the most used at this point was "thankyou".  "Спасибо" is pronounced "spaseeba".  Yesterday I worked hard on using it often.  Approaching the gate to exit the compound I said "spaseeba" and again as I was going out and again as I stepped out, "spaseeba".  Then walking up the crumbling steps on my way to the Metro some girls sitting there moved their books out of the way.  "Spaseeba" I whispered.  At the Metro I murmured "spaseeba" to the guard watching people enter.  Lost in a parking lot some women claimed "We speak English" and after they gave me directions to Starbucks - in Russian - I smiled as if I had understood everything and said "spaseeba".  Yes, thank-you is a very useful word in any language.