Mr. Spence Takes Up Russian

THE small firm of which Mr. Spence was a member had been doing quite a little business with Russia. Mr. Spence, although normally conservative, was afflicted with a roving foot. Who knows but we may need to send somebody over there in a year or so, he thought. So he decided to get himself a private tutor and learn Russian.

The first tutor Mr. Spence engaged, a toothy young woman named Miss Vengroff, was not a success. Her will-to-teach was tremendous. But unfortunately Mr. Spence found himself listening, fascinated, to her mastication of the King’s English, rather than acquiring the information she was trying to convey. It was no use. It all sounded like Russian to Mr. Spence. So, unhappily, after one lesson, he dismissed her.

Mr. Spence’s second instructor was a chubby, earnest young man named Mr. Zharoff. The new tutor’s native bounce and élan expressed themselves in striped suits and colorful neckties, rather than in impromptu Russian dances and shouts of ‘Hoi!’ — somewhat to Mr. Spence’s disappointment. Equally disillusioning to Mr. Spence was Mr. Zharoff’s insistence that Russians do not drink tea from glasses. The new tutor was apparently under the impression that Mr. Spence’s faulty pronunciation was due to deafness. His splendid voice would gradually swell to operatic volume during the course of a lesson, much to Mr. Spence’s annoyance.

The first sentences Mr. Spence learned were ‘Ktaw tam?’ which means, ‘Who is there?’ and ‘Toot lawm?’ — ‘Is the crowbar here?’ The crowbar, a motif frequently recurring, was chosen not for its intrinsic interest, but because it was a three-letter word. Other three-letter words mastered by Mr. Spence without difficulty were oos (‘moustache’), zoob (‘tooth’), and rawt (‘mouth’). The first original sentence composed by Mr. Spence out of his limited vocabulary, ‘Oos bill na rawt’ (‘A moustache was on a mouth’), he still considers rather neat. But Mr. Zharoff pointed out that a moustache could not really, you see, be on a mouth, thus deflating Mr. Spence’s pride in his maiden effort. Besides, his teacher added unfeelingly, the sentence contained three grammatical errors.

Soon Mr. Spence left his three-letter words behind and pushed out into deeper waters. Most Russian words are long. Mr. Spence tried to be broad-minded about that. He said that it augurs well for the vitality of a people when they are willing to exert themselves to say, for example, oopawtryeblyat for ‘use.’ But when it came to Awstanavleevaee! — which means ‘Stop!’ — Mr. Spence thought that was too much. A child might be run over by a trolley, worried Mr. Spence, while its mother was saying ‘Stop!’

Mr. Spence had, of course, observed the preponderance of consonants in Russian words. But he had n’t known how a real Russian delights in crunching his teeth on a mouthful of them. As in the word vstryechatsya. There’s no dodging around the consonants. One simply emits them, one by one, like machine-gun bullets, as long as one’s breath holds out. And God help the Russian with false teeth, thought Mr. Spence.

Of all the thirty-two letters in the Russian alphabet, Mr. Spence found oui the hardest to pronounce. Oui is one of the numerous e sounds in which the language abounds. At each lesson Mr. Spence’s teacher gave him a workout on this vowel.

‘Mee!’ Mr. Zharoff would sing in sonorous bass.

‘Mee!’ would pipe Mr. Spence.

‘No, look at me!’ Mr. Zharoff would shout. ‘Do you see my tongue?’

‘No,’ Mr. Spence would report after careful inspection.

‘Well, I can see yours! Get it inside!’

Mortified, Mr. Spence would pull in his tongue.

‘Mee!’ Mr. Zharoff would boom. And so ad infinitum.

As Mr. Spence penetrated further into the linguistic jungles he met certain idiosyncrasies of idiom. When his teacher would ask, ‘Is this not a pencil?’ he learned to reply, correctly, ‘No, it is a pencil.’ Mr. Spence became acquainted with that useful word-of-all-work neetchyevaw, which means literally ‘nothing.’

‘How are you?’ Mr. Zharoff would inquire, in Russian.

‘Neetchyevaw,’ Mr. Spence would murmur plaintively if he felt tired. Or if he was in particularly good fettle he would snap out, ‘Neetchyevaw!’ in a brisk, jocular manner.

‘You are getting to be a r-r-real R-r-russian!’ Mr. Zharoff would applaud.

Air. Spence learned to be wary in his use of verbs. If a gentleman should say to a lady, ‘Will you dine with me?’ using the continuous form of the future tense, she might well consider herself proposed to, for he would be saying, ‘ Will you dine with me from now on?’

Also, Mr. Spence became adept in rendering into Russian such light bits as ‘I will always put you two pieces of sugar’; ‘Mr. N. bought this toothbrush in a drapery shop’; ‘When he met a lady he always took off his hat first’; ‘My father eats three pieces of butter with bread’; ‘Your dayshirts are too wide’; ‘How many combs have you?’ ‘In what hand do you hold the fork?’ ‘Where did he use to take paper?’ Mr. Spence enjoyed particularly the selection about getting up in the morning: ‘I put on my slippers and trousers. I go to the washstand. I rinse my mouth. I wash my hands, face, neck, and ears with cold water. I use glycerine soap.’

The tedium of the grammar was further enlivened by proverbs and by jokes (they were labeled ‘Jokes’), of which one, titled broadly ‘Happiness,’ wall serve as a sample: ‘Dmeetree Pyetrawveetch, do you believe in happiness?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Then what do you call happiness?’ ‘That time when my wife and my mother-in-law went away to a watering place.’

With the purpose of taking some of his instruction in sugar-coated form, Mr. Spence attended a Russian talkie. Results were discouraging. The conversation sounded to him simply and merely like the twittering of peculiarly pompous birds. With the aid of the printed subtitles he understood but one sentence; ‘Gdye yah?’ — ‘Where am I?’ And often Mr. Spence asks himself in regard to the Russian language, ‘Where am I?’