2

@Neith recently said the following in his comment on my question about extinct phonemes:

Ivan Turgenev once called Russian language “great, mighty, truthful and free” («великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный», see turgenev.org.ru/e-book/russki_yazyk.htm), and schoolchildren are made to memorize this “prose poem”. Shortened to “great and mighty”, this idiom entered everyday Russian speech, to the point that if you hear «великий и могучий» without any noun then it’s surely means just Russian language.

Great and mighty are relative things, so I got very much curious as to what objective evidence is there to support the idea that the Russian language is greater and mightier than other languages, at least in some aspects.

My question is this: What are some examples of things present in Russian and absent in all or almost all other languages, or what are some objective parameters on which the Russian language beats all or almost all other languages?

My question is not meant to be broad, because I just want a few nice examples rather than a broad comparative analysis or a full list of all special things about Russian. An answer that provides 1-3 nice examples would be a great acceptable answer. I just want a few specific examples with which I could make other people impressed by the might of the Russian language. I want a few objective examples to which non-Russian speakers would react, "Wow!"

What I am looking for is things like:

  • unique grammatical constructions, like the future passive participle in Latin,

  • examples of frequently used words or constructions that have no equivalent in any other language, like Schadenfreude in German,

  • examples of how a Russian sentence can convey its idea so precisely and succinctly that it would require much more words in any other language,

  • data comparing Russian to other languages on any meaningful objective parameter like the number of words, number of prepositions, etc.,

  • and other objective(!) things that can cause a wow reaction.

The criterion is very simple: the stronger the wow effect the better. I humbly hope that this criterion is intuitively understandable to any user of this SE. Please just kindly use your common sense.

I like the Russian language and want to find some facts with which I can impress other people about Russian, and I humbly hope that native speakers can kindly help me find such facts.

  • 3
    Normally we don't do list questions here, but I'm inclined to give this one a chance. I urge everyone here though as a member of the community to go medieval on mediocre and repetitive answers and downvote them to oblivion. If we do lists, we should at least do them right. – Quassnoi Jul 11 at 19:19
  • @Quassnoi let’s convert it to wiki then – shabunc Jul 11 at 19:55
  • You might find this discussion an interesting read: Could we rank languages, saying one is superior to the other?. It is not specifically about Russian (or Turgenev), though. – tum_ Jul 12 at 21:31
  • I do not think Russian has any notable features absent from Ukrainian or Belorussian. – Anixx Jul 19 at 3:53
8

When you pose such questions to (mostly) native speakers of any language, you'll usually end up with a lot of supposedly unique things that really aren't so much. They'll mostly reflect the amazement or amusement that comes from a deeper look at the language those speakers casually use every day, with a comparison to maybe one or two commonly spoken second languages (such as English). So take this with a grain of salt.

That being said, here are some of the less conspicuous things that I think genuinely make Russian stand out, even among Slavic languages:

  • it's the only language I know of that has separate, unrelated, non-synonymous words for "dream" as in fantasy (мечта) and "dream" as in conscious REM-sleep experience (сон);

  • for uniquely succinct syntax, you mostly have to look outside the literary language: say, спать-то найдётся где, conveying something like "finding a place to sleep isn't what we ought to worry about";

  • the unusual wealth of rhyming possibilities, due to Russian being highly inflecting grammatically while highly reductive/assimilating phonetically.

Schadenfreude isn't that special, by the way. It's mostly made popular by the fact that English, specifically, doesn't have it. Russian has an exact equivalent in злорадство.

  • Without looking, I'd say that злорадство is a calque from the German word. – Quassnoi Jul 13 at 17:37
  • 1
    @Quassnoi I wouldn’t say so. „Schaden“ is „damage“ and „зло“ is „Übel“. – Abakan Jul 17 at 6:02
  • 1
    I think Ukrainian has мрия for dream. – Anixx Jul 19 at 3:47
6

Surprisingly, no one bothered to point out that Turgenev did not even think of comparing Russian to other languages when he wrote this miniature.

Moreover, the reasons why this piece came into existence and the "message" it contains are probably misunderstood by many.

Филолог Ирина Беляева пишет: "..Вот хотя бы «великий» и «могучий» «Русский язык». Это стихотворение в прозе завершало издание «Сенилий» в журнале Михаила Стасюлевича «Вестник Европы». Во французском варианте, который готовил к изданию сам писатель, его не было. Оно только для русских. Почему? Тут могут быть разные ответы. Но мне думается, что вернее всех почувствовал тургеневские интонации в этой миниатюре Константин Бальмонт, который увидел в ней не гимн великому русскому языку и его «носителю», а молитву. Для Тургенева в русском языке были сосредоточены четыре главных качества: честность (правда), простота, свобода и сила, он об этом пишет то в статьях, то в письмах. А иной раз сожалеет, что «этих четырех качеств <…> нет в народе» и при этом добавляет, что если они есть в языке, то будут и в народе. В сущности, «Русский язык» об этом. Не случайно в нем такой странный финал: «Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!» Поэтому, конечно, это молитва — русскому языку о нас, говорящих и одновременно не говорящих на нем — на том языке, какой имел в виду Тургенев, когда писал, что Пушкин дал русскому человеку свободу, потому что подарил язык. «Русский язык» очень сокровенный текст, в сущности он не для публичного чтения, не для удовлетворения громкой гордости. Он очень смиренный и тихий, как молитва. В этом прав был Бальмонт."

  • Right. Notice how in popular usage «правдивый» and «свободный» were dropped, so they are not diluting the nationalistic interpretation. – Neith Jul 14 at 13:05
  • @Neith Yup. Typical. Also, from the "grammatical forms" perspective (so much loved by Mitsuko) the final sentence is quite interesting: "Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!" Speaking of the wow-effect :) – tum_ Jul 14 at 13:19
3

Russian is often said to have a rich morphology, i.e. many ways to build words and tweak existing words to convey different nuances of meaning. Although not quite a unique thing by itlsef, it often comes as a surprise to learners of Russian how names of people and objects can be inflected to show the speaker’s relationship to them. E.g. calling a person Василий Петрович, Петрович, Василий, Вася, Васька or Васенька would imply your relationship to that person to be a student, friend. lover, etc.

Someone using the word Ленинка would be immediately recognised as a frequenter of the Lenin Library. Similarly, if you refer to the Trafalgar Square as Трафальгарка, you would be claiming to have lived in London for a while.

Dimunitive suffixes are quite a thing in Russian. If you are asked: поешь колбаски, then you are loved and cared for; but if you are told: Ешь колбасу! then you’re better be quick about it, or else…

The word совесть is quite unique to Russian. It denotes a virtue of having a moral judge sitting inside you and nagging you for doing any wrong.

  • 2
    Thanks a lot. How is совесть different from conscience? – Mitsuko Jul 11 at 20:34
  • And can Russian make diminutive forms of verbs? For me, living in a Ukrainian-Russian diglossia area, it's hard sometimes to tell which feature of the language is Russian and which is Ukrainian. Is it OK to say покушенькать or поспатеньки in Russian? For Ukrainian it's definitely correct, but is it so for Russian too? – Yellow Sky Jul 11 at 20:52
  • покушенькать or поспатеньки in Russian is OK, but not common. And almost all slavenic langauges share a lot and still interexchange some forms and morphology. – ksbes Jul 12 at 6:53
2

In the style of "Love is ..."

  • Russian is so mighty that it can express any idea by мат alone. There's a joke about a foreman shouting to workers loading a truck, "Нахуя дохуя нахуярили?! Расхуяривайте нахуяренное нахуй!"
  • Russian is so mighty that it can have six (6) consonants in a row in the word onset (Anlaut): взбзднуть.

  • Russian is so mighty that it has a word that can hardly be translated into other languages: полуночничать — "to stay awake until late at night, not going to bed being occupied with something."

If I recall any other special features of Russian, I'll add them here, but as for now that's all.

  • 1
    Thanks a lot. By the way, your point about взбзднуть is a fantastic illustration for this post of mine: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/31863/24901 – Mitsuko Jul 11 at 20:39
  • 3
    6 consonants? How about "контрвзбзднуть" (to fart to cover other person farting)? – ksbes Jul 12 at 6:47
  • @ksbes - 9 is OK, however it's not in the word onset. – Yellow Sky Jul 12 at 7:23
  • I gave a serious thought to the things you listed. First, the verb полуночничать has an equivalent in English, burn the night oil. The Russian word is 13 letters long, and the English idiom is 15 letters long. So I am afraid that полуночничать does not count. – Mitsuko Jul 12 at 15:57
  • 1
    @Mitsuko, Собачечка = A cute little dog. // The connotation is "This cute little dog is angry and it is funny."//Собачонка = A vile little dog // Злобный — It has the deep scornful tone. I'm not sure that this word is translated into English. // A vile and evil little dog – Elena Jul 13 at 18:22
0
  1. In English, you use the same verb in different tenses to specify if the action is perfect or not:

I have read the book.

I was reading the book.

In Russian, you use different verbs in the same tense to that:

Я прочитал книгу. (perfect)

Я читал книгу. (imperfect)

  1. Most consonant letters are pronounced differently, harder or softer, depending on the following letter.

Мышка, лук - a mouse, an onion / onions / a bow

Мишка, люк - a bear, a hatch

-2

Unique to Russian is the word "интеллигенция". Historically, it denoted a society stratum satisfying all or most of the following criteria:

  1. Respect for education and culture

As Solzhenitsyn insisted, though, this item should never be considered as an exclusive marker of an "интеллигент". Solzhenitsyn even introduced the derogatory term "образованщина" to denote those who satisfy only the said criterion and lack other necessary traits of the true "интеллигенция".

  1. Ability for critical thinking -- including, first of all, critical attitude to the establishment.

This criterion, too, must be treated with caution. Under tzarism, as well as in the late Soviet era, and even stronger in the modern days, a considerable fraction of the would-be "интеллигенция" finds it a vital necessity to be in opposition at any cost and on virtually any occasion.

As Dostoevsky emphasised, these circles of the self-appointed "интеллигенция" are oftentimes more totalitarian than the establishment they oppose, and they live by a very rigid code excluding even a moderate deviation. Within these circles, critical attitude to the government has served as a substitute to bona fide critical thinking.

  1. Honesty and decency in the everyday life. Gentlemanly behaviour, especially towards servants, menial workers, minorities, etc.

  2. Concern for the interests of the common people and the ability to put them above one's own interests or those of his class. Ideally, the ability or, at least, respect for self-sacrifice -- be it heroism on a battle field or, say, sacrificing one's successful career in the capital for the sake of serving as an educator in province.

In the prerevolution era, this criterion used to be most important, at least in words. Whether the entire "интеллигенция" was truly capable of living by this code is arguable. The types who were declaring this ideal but couldn't live by it were deliciously mocked by Nikita Mikhalkov in his immortal movie "An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano" https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076446/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_30

  1. Reserved attitude to monetary success or career with the government.

The Catastroyka and the ensuing chaos of the criminal 90-s demonstrated that a noticeable part of the Soviet "интеллигенция" possessed no immunity for greed and dubious methods of self-enrichment. Many of those who kept aloof from the Soviet officialdom then successfully fit in the brave new world of thievery. This reminds us that, to many, the image of an "интеллигент" serves as a convenient mask to justify their lack of material success.

  1. Skepticism of any worldly distinction or hierarchy.

This is, probably, the second most important parameter of a genuine "интеллигент". Stated differently, the интеллигенция is supposed to judge people strictly by their spiritual and intellectual and moral merit, not by their titles or ranks or status. Here is supposed is an important caveat, because oftentimes this criterion is distorted by snobbishness and a tendency for building an alternative hierarchy.

Despite all caveats and reservations, the above parameters should render a clue to the meaning of the term "интеллигенция" and its possible interpretations and misinterpretations.

  • I don't think this answers the op's question – Quassnoi Jul 17 at 10:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.