Sunday, November 29, 2015


The other day I noticed a passage, copied out from George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950 a while back. Kennan writes of beginning to learn Russian during his time in the consular service in Tallinn in 1928:
My teacher was an impoverished Ukrainian. He knew nothing about teaching languages, but he had the virtue of speaking, aside from his native Ukrainian, no word of anything but the language he was purporting to teach. He brought me, as teaching aids, the first-grade readers used in the Russian-speaking province just referred to [i.e., extreme southeastern Estonia]. I admired and cherished these slender volumes, with their beautiful unreformed Cyrillic script, their little vignettes and passages from Russian folklore and the classics, their naive drawings of barnyards and animals and peasant children sledding. I learned by heart some of the poems and jingles they included. And I conceived then and there a love for this great Russian language--rich, pithy, musical, sometimes tender, sometimes earthy and brutal, sometimes classically severe--that was not only never to leave me but was to constitute in some curious way an unfailing source of strength and reassurance in the drearier and more trying reaches of later life. Russian seemed to me from the start, a natural language, in  which words sounded the way they ought to sound,  and might be expected to sound, as though one had once known in it in some dead past and as though the learning of it was some sort of rediscovery. I turned to it with such real enjoyment and excitement that by the end of the year I could get around a bit in it.
Elsewhere Kennan quotes the advice of a friend when he was about to take examinations at the Seminary for Oriental Languages in Berlin, "If you have any choice, speak Russian with them, not German. When you speak Russian, you are yourself; when you speak German you are nothing at all."

German does not seem to elicit the same sort of affection from those raised to speak English. William James spoke of it as a language with "none of the modern improvements." Mark Twain was moved to write an essay "The Awful German Language." My father, with three German grandparents, said that he was astonished to hear a record of Lotte Lenya's disclose the possibility that German could sound anything but military. On the other hand, Coleridge puts in a good word or two for it in Biographia Literaria, and Anthony Burgess cites Robert Graves in defense of his own preference for bad German over accurate French.

And finally, there is Flann O'Brien, in Further Cuttings from the Cruiskeen Lawn:
And, I know of only four languages, viz: Latin, Irish, Greek and Chinese. They are languages because they are the instruments of integral civilizations. English and French are not languages: they are mercantile codes.

No comments:

Post a Comment