PUT me down as one who loves the Soviet Union. Especially I love the Red Army and Joseph Stalin and Marshal Zhukov. Like a million other Americans, I have been reading books about the Soviet Union. What a people! I suppose I might have gone on with this fascinating interest and ultimately become a genuine Bolshevik, but I realized that that would have broken the heart of my dear old mother. It might also have broken certain decisive relationships with my dear old employers.

An advanced phase of admiration for the Russians is a hankering to know their language. The alphabet is at once fascinating and forbidding. Most of the letters are Greek, easy enough for an old fraternity boy. I don’t know how many of the millions of new friends of Russia have got as far as the Russian language, or how many of us have been so reckless as to try to learn it from a grammar, without a teacher. As for the number of haggard survivors who actually get through the book, my guess is that you can count those heroes quicker than you can say Vladimir Ilyich.

This student is resigned to a place in the lower ranks of the poputchiki. I could spell that in Russian but it would require a clumsy groping through the dictionary and would not fool anybody. I ran across the word in the article on Russian literature in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which says that it means “‘fellow travellers up to a certain point.’”

The point I got to was page xxx (xxx, not 30) of Spoken Russian, A Practical Course, by S. C. Boyanus and N. B. Jopson. I had reached a bowing acquaintance with the alphabet, was shivering with anticipation of the terror and beauty of palatalized consonants and iotized vowels, heading uneasily into phonetics. At page xxx, still in the Introduction, this obstacle lay across my path: —

Stressed vowels: There are five types of stressed vowels in Russian and two varieties of every type. The most difficult is the first variety.

Then the book got down to cases. It took up the sound of bl. This looks like two letters but it’s a single letter named “yerry” or “jerü,” according to one’s taste in transliteration. The exact sound of yerry was represented, just to simplify matters, by the phonetic symbol ɨ, a small i with a line through it. This was what Boyanus and Jopson had to say about ɨ (which, mind you, is not a Russian letter at all, but the phonetic symbol for the sound commonly represented by the letter bl — the symbol of the symbol of a sound): —

ɨ is a sort of z-sound (as in dim) . . .

Here was something recognizable to go on. Any amateur who has had to toil with the signs of the International Phonetic Alphabet sooner or later wants to know what the indicated sound is really like, without any plosive or fricative or alveolar nonsense, as represented in a common English word. If, I thought, the letter calls for a “sort of” i-sound as in dim, no decent Russian is going to care if I say it exactly as in dim. Perhaps, in the Russian theater, the stock American comic is a character who pronounces yerry not “sort of” but quite as in dim. But no, probably the Russians would consider it in bad taste to laugh at the broken speech of a foreigner.

When you come to think of it, apprehension about one’s ability to use a foreign language arises not so much from what the foreigners may think about your pronunciation as from what your own countrymen, who know or presume to know the language, may think about it. This social evil, call it xenoglottal snobbery, must be ignored by the bold learner. Anyway, it would be presumptuous to attempt a perfect accent; that’s only for international spies. Better to stick to something at the Charles Boyer or Marlene Dietrich level.

But after I had given myself this build-up as a bold learner, feeling a good-enough mastery of the sort of dim sound for yerry, something the Russians would accept and even, perhaps, consider cute, Boyanus and Jopson brought my pretty World crashing about my ears — and I mean ears. They elaborated on yerry — that is, bl, or rather, phonetically, ɨ:-

ɨ is a sort of i-sound (as in dim) but pronounced in the back of the mouth, approximately near the part of the hard palate where the soft palate begins.

The lips are in the same position as for an i-sound (in beet). They must be energetically spread as far as possible and kept spread and never protruded. This is the first condition for pronouncing ɨ correctly.

Besides this, the sound ɨ has an element of an unrounded “ (of put) in the following way: spread your lips as far as you can and keep them in that position with the help of your two fingers (forefinger and third finger), then say the unrounded u.

After considerable practice say with the central part of your tongue a sound similar to the vowel sound of the word dim approximately near that part of the hard palate where the soft palate begins. It is useful to feel that place with your forefinger — you will realize how far it is. Strong spreading of the lips kept with your two fingers will help you to say the sound in the back of your mouth.

That was a pretty bitter dose for a bold learner. The fingers-in-mouth business — do they speak the language or whistle it? I am a disciplined person, at least up to a certain point, and dutifully grimaced, gurgled, and drooled, hands in my mouth as directed, trying to produce something between a dim i-sound and an unrounded u. And then Boyanus and Jopson, to make sure that I would never dare touch a Russian vowel as long as I live, summed it all up with this:-

NOTE. — The sound you hear between the two consonants of the English ending -ble (table) pronounced in the usual English way is an ɨ sound.

Now that, I said to myself in the usual English way, tears it. Every schoolboy knows that there is no sound, nothing that an honest citizen would recognize as a sound, between the b and l in table. An i-sound, then a “-sound, and finally no sound at all. This kind of confusion is what the boys in the foxholes call “situation normal.”

A veteran fumbler at languages, ancient and modern, I know when I have lost a round. Where my old teachers had beaten me down with optative and aorist and subjunctive, the new faculty — well, you have seen what they do with yerry, a perfectly decent little vowel until the finger-in-cheek school started gnawing away at it.

That was where I joined the Russian language poputchiki, a fellow traveler up to page xxx. I am not proud of this status, but neither do I beat ray breast about it. A lot of beautiful things in this life are simply not for me. When my morale is restored, I’ll take up Russian again. Even now those xxx pages have meant something to me. Other men, similarly frustrated in a heroic enterprise, might have gone In for brooding over what is called the “Russian enigma.” They would start posing ominous questions like: —

“Does the well-known Stalinist trend toward the restoration of capitalism in Russia mean that the Kremlin is secretly plotting to establish Communism in Western Europe?”

“Was the unilateral liberation of Poland by the Red Army a violation of the Teheran Declaration ? ”

“Why did Zhukov refuse to give Hearst reporters advance details on the winter offensive? Are the United Nations being double-crossed?”

“Will Stalin reimburse American contributors to Finnish War Relief or is the Atlantic Charter a hollow sham?”

“Why did Molotov address the San Francisco Conference in the Russian language? Does use of this Indo-European tongue conceal some Oriental trickery?”

Other failures may take up such stuff, which is usually called being “realistic” about Russia, but not this one. My esteem for the Soviet Union and my confidence in its future were never higher. A people who can make something out of yerry, that dim little sound that almost isn’t there at all, can do anything.