I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov in the standard French translation of the novel and Henri Mongault, the translator, mentions in one of his notes that he left out the following bit of dialogue (the part in bold) between Smerdyakov and Marya Kondratyevna. He says it's not translatable and that Smerdyakov is getting angry about a question of pronunciation.

— (…) На базаре говорили, а ваша маменька тоже рассказывать мне пустилась по великой своей неделикатности, что ходила она с колтуном на голове, а росту была всего двух аршин с малыим. Для чего же с малыим, когда можно просто «с малым» сказать, как все люди произносят? Слезно выговорить захотелось, так ведь это мужицкая, так сказать, слеза-с, мужицкие самые чувства. Может ли русский мужик против образованного человека чувство иметь? По необразованности своей он никакого чувства не может иметь. Я с самого сыздетства, как услышу, бывало, «с малыим», так точно на стену бы бросился. Я всю Россию ненавижу, Марья Кондратьевна.

Could anyone throw some light on the pronunciation issue Smerdyakov is alluding to?


3 Answers 3


Russian (and Church Slavonic) adjectives come in two forms: short (мал) and long (малый).

Etymologically, the ending in the long form is a personal noun. The etymon of the word малый literally meant "small-he". You can still see this if you compare the endings of oblique cases of the adjective: малого, малому, о малом and those of the personal pronoun он ("he"): его, ему, о нём.

Initially, the endings of the long forms were serving the same purpose as definite articles in the other languages, however, this function had since been lost.

In modern literary Russian, the short forms are only used as predicates: он мал; and the long forms are used as modifiers: малая панда "lesser panda". This is similar to English "it's my book / this book is mine". This means that the short forms of the adjectives can only be used in nominative in literary Russian, so the short forms don't really have oblique case forms.

In Church Slavonic and in Russian dialects, however, the short forms could be used in other positions, so the distinction between the short form and the long form in sg. m. inst. is a thing: маломь vs малыимъ in Old Church Slavonic, and similar in Russian dialects.

Modern literary Russian, even though it only uses the long forms for the oblique cases, uses малым and малыми in instrumental, losing one vowel compared to the Church Slavonic counterpart. This is called contracted form (стяжённая форма). It's not immediately related to the word's etymology, although influenced by it.

Other Russian dialects do this both ways, sometimes losing the vowels compared to the literary language (белу vs белую), sometimes not losing them (белыих vs белых).

Sometimes it's a challenge to figure out whether a dialect is using a short form or a contracted long form.

So the word малыим might be a Church Slavonic word, or a dialect word, or something else.

This is not a word used in standard XIX century Russian language, but it is immediately understood by any Russian speaker as something that belongs to "old" or "poetic" language.

Now back to the question.

Smerdyakov is apparently not happy with his life.

To convey this, the author makes him project his hate on everything around him: rhymes, his mother, the words used to describe his mother, peasants, Russia and everything else.

When you read about someone who's getting angry because their partner leaves the cap off the toothpaste tube, or leaves a dish rag "in the sink, not on the sink", or similar minor issues, you realize that the problem is not with the toothpaste but with their life or their relationship.

This is the same literary device: by making Smerdyakov get angry because of slightly non-standard usage of an innocuous word, the author is showing that he has deeper issues and they are torturing him.

  • Thank you for the answer! It makes as much sense from a linguistic standpoint as from a literary one and it makes me appreciate Dostoevsky's superior artistry as a novelist.
    – grandtout
    Apr 29, 2020 at 10:38

I'm not a native Russian speaker, but I found an English translation of the entire novel on the Internet, and here is how your excerpt is translated there:

They used to say in the market, and your mamma too, with great lack of delicacy, set off telling me that her hair was like a mat on her head, and that she was short of five foot by a wee bit. Why talk of a wee bit while she might have said 'a little bit,' like everyone else? She wanted to make it touching, a regular peasant's feeling. Can a Russian peasant be said to feel, in comparison with an educated man? He can't be said to have feeling at all, in his ignorance. From my childhood up when I hear 'a wee bit,' I am ready to burst with rage. I hate all Russia, Marya Kondratyevna."

Sure, the translation isn't precise, and my Russian teacher would definitely give zero points for such a translation, but it at least gives an idea as to what Smerdyakov is complaining about.

Let me make a couple of remarks about the above translation.

To begin with, the phrase

так точно на стену бы бросился

is interpreted there as I am ready to burst with rage, whilst the literal meaning is rather I'd certainly smash myself against a wall. Is it an old idiomatic way of expressing the readiness to burst with rage? I don't know, but a quick search in Google suggests that the phrase is used rather to express desperation, at least in modern Russian.

Second, I was surprised that the preposition против, whose main meaning in modern Russian is against, is interpreted there as in comparison with. Such usage of против seems to be highly uncommon in modern Russian, to say the least. Before I found the English translation of the novel, I interpreted that sentence as follows: Can a Russian peasant have a feeling against an educated man? This made little sense in the context, so I was puzzled. The translator seems to have gotten the sentence right, as his interpretation of that sentence at least makes some sense in the context. Anyway, the style is highly old-fashioned and clumsy, so you can never be sure.

Now let me explain how I understand the pronunciation issue you are asking about. The issue is about the phrase с малым, which means with an additional bit. That is,

росту была всего двух аршин с малым

means, "She was as short as just two arshins and an additional bit." An arshin is an old measure of length, commonly believed to be of Turkish origin, and is about 27 inches long. Pronouncing с малым (s malym) as с малыим (s malyeem) makes the whole thing more touching or emotional, because the last vowel gets lengthened. What Smerdyakov doesn't like is when peasants talk in this way, because he believes that uneducated people like peasants can't really have true feelings, in the first place.

If I were to translate the excerpt into English, I would do my best to translate as accurately as possible and, in particular, would come up with something like,

... that she was as short as just two arshins and a beeeet. Why say beeeet whilst she might have said bit just as people normally do? ...

Note an important difference between my interpretation and the translation found by me on the Internet. My interpretation is that the woman was two arshins AND an additional bit, whilst the translation found by me on the Internet says that the woman was SHORT OF five feet BY a bit (i.e., five feet minus a bit).

Overall, I find Smerdyakov's way of expressing thoughts in this excerpt to be very chaotic and careless, and I find it ironic that he himself doesn't speak like an educated man, although I'm unsure whether Dostoevsky meant to make such irony.

UPDATE: I want to clarify something in order to address the OP's comment that says, "I'm still wondering though if Smerdyakov refers to the imitation of a peasant accent or to Old Slavonic ... ." Neither of those. Smerdyakov refers to the same thing as the one described by Maxim Gorky, another Russian writer:

-- Эх вы-и! - часто восклицал он; долгий звук «и-и» всегда вызывал у меня скучное, зябкое чувство.

Here is a translation found by me on the Internet:

"Akh, you—u," he would often exclaim, and the sound of that elongated "ou—u" never failed to stir in me a feeling of cold gloom.

It's neither an accent nor Old Slavonic, but a touching manner of talking, a talking style in which vowels are occasionally elongated to emotionally touch the communication recipient - с малы-им, эх вы-и, etc. It's a kind of speaking from one's heart. It's about loading vowels with emotions. And, as perfectly put by Gorky, such a manner of talking does stir feelings.

What Smerdyakov hates is that Russian peasants, whom he considers to be incapable of true feelings because of their ignorance, try to talk emotionally, in the way described above. In other words, he hates to hear naive attempts by uneducated people to express their primitive emotions by manipulating vowels.

  • 1
    An arshin is 28 inches exactly, which is 71.12 centimeters. "2 arshins с малыим" is 142.24+ centimeters which is 4.67+ feet. As you can see, the height of Smerdyshchaya was a bit more than 2 arshins, but when measured in feet its almost 5 feet. When translating, it's a bad idea to leave foreign / archaic / obsolete / obscure units of measurement without translation, since the author meant the woman was very small, and "2 arshins and a bit" doesn't say anything to the modern reader.
    – Yellow Sky
    Apr 28, 2020 at 9:43
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    The English translator chose to say "a bit less than 5 feet" which gave the reader a good idea of the poor woman's height and also didn't make the reader refer to an encyclopedia to find out what an arshin is, which was, actually the way you chose. As for the lengthening of the vowel: your example from Gorky is not the best one, since he did mean the lengthening, so he used a hyphen which is always used when lengthening is meant. But note, there's no hyphen in Dostoyevsky's text, which is a good sign he intended no lengthening.
    – Yellow Sky
    Apr 28, 2020 at 9:48
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    In «The Brothers Karamazov» novel, just a dozen lines above the passage quoted in the question, Smerdyakov is singing: "Была бы моя милая здорова. // Господи пом-и-илуй // Ее и меня!" As you can see, Dostoyevskiy uses hyphenation to mark a lengthened vowel sound, that is, using hyphens for lengthening was Dostoyevsy's habit, too. Which is just another proof that no lengthening was intended in с малыим. Here's the Russian text being discussed.
    – Yellow Sky
    Apr 28, 2020 at 11:08
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    Also, Marya Kondratyevna's mother who said that phrase "с малыим" was by no means a peasant, she was a bourgeois (мещанка), that's why she couldn't speak peasant way, but using an Old Slavonic word was ptetty possible for an educated bourgeois. And note, that it is himself that Smerdyakov calls "мужик" (peasant), it's a male noun, it cannot refer to the old woman. You misinterpreted it all...
    – Yellow Sky
    Apr 28, 2020 at 11:55
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    @Mitsuko, i think, that when she used peasant's dialect, she didn't want underline her illiteracy, but she wanted to show her touching feelings to religion (the same big feeling as peasant's feelins). Peasants were often very religious/devout (набожными) people. Using of Old Church Slavonic words in literature often underlines exactly participation of speaker to religion and belief. So i understand 'cлезно выговорить захотелось' as her strong desire to show her participation to peasant's devotion/religion (набожности).
    – elena_m
    Apr 29, 2020 at 11:07

С малыим is Old Church Slavonic for Russian с малым.

ходила она с колтуном на голове, а росту была всего двух аршин с малыим (her hair was like a mat on her head, and that she was short of five foot by a wee bit.)

These words are about Smerdyakov's mother, wacky Лизавета Смердящая (Lizaveta the Stinky) whom he hated for giving him birth into the life of poverty and humiliation, into the Russian life as he understood it, that's why he hated Russia, too. It looks like using an Old Church Slavonic (i.e. archaic/elevated/Biblical) word when describing his ugly, stinky, hated mother drove Smerdyakov mad.

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