A Loose Tongue
Monday, May 9, 2011 12:43:49 PM
Disclaimer: this article contains offensive language which is essential to it subject.
An old Russian joke goes like this:
— Нахуя дохуя нахуярили? Расхуяривайте нахуй!
— Нихуя не дохуя, похуярили!
All content words in this snippet have the same root as the Russian vulgar word for penis. Despite that, for any competent Russian speaker the short dialog invariably means something like this:
— Why have you loaded so much? Unload it now!
— It's not at all too much, let's go!
But how is this possible?
First of all, it's not possible in every language. For example, it would be at least much harder to pull off in English. Russian is a highly synthetic language, which means a high morpheme-to-word ratio. Besides the root, a Russian word often contains several information-bearing prefixes and suffixes. They can be used to convey negation, inducement, intensity, undesirability and numerous other aspects. These expressive devices are so powerful that the root itself can easily become unnecessary.
In the joke above, the obscene root isn't being used literally, but rather as a placeholder for the mandatory root slot in a word where all important information is already encoded with other morphemes. Many Russian speakers resort to using words with this root in place of any other word they can't remember (akin to “thingy”). Any other root, even a non-existent one, could be used instead, and although the text would sound weird, a Russian speaker wouldn't have a problem with deciphering the intended meaning.
Lewis Caroll's “Jabberwocky” (“'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves // Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; // All mimsy were the borogoves, // And the mome raths outgrabe.”) is a good English example. Here we get a pretty good impression of what was happening, although nearly all the roots in the poem are nonsense.
Here are some examples illustrating the power of Russian morphemes. They can be used, among other things, to express aspects such as “annoying repetition” (заколебал — has driven crazy), “satisfaction from completing something mandatory” (отстреляться — to be finally through [with something]), and even, surprisingly, “berry” (земляника — strawberry).
An idea that inevitably comes to mind is one of a highly synthetic artificial language where this mechanism would be taken to the extreme: an even wider choice of affixes than in Russian, but no roots at all in content words. Such a language would make it difficult to refer to very specific objects and phenomena (”maple”, “ankle”), but easy to describe only those aspects that are relevant in the particular context (“something rapidly moving”, “to do harm”, “very desirable”). Whatever isn't indicated with such aspectual morphemes is irrelevant and so left unspecified.
An important corollary for those learning a foreign language: the vocabulary is not the most important thing. If you think that the hardest and most important part is learning as many words as possible, remember the obscene joke from this article. There are indeed some native speakers of the language whose speech is almost like this! Although they do know more than just a single root, their lexicon is likely very scant, quite possibly smaller than yours. Their “knowledge” of the language is not in their vocabulary but rather in the intuitive grasp of word formation, morphology, grammar and syntax. An hour spent mastering these things is an hour way better spent than many hours of memorizing words.
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