Six Cases of Vladimir

Wife of a doctor and mother of two children, GERTRUDE FRIEDBERG is the author of a group of short stories in SHORT STORY TWO, one of which, “ Where Moth and Rust,” first appeared in the ATLANTIC.

This year, I am told, people are flocking to the study of Russian as though it were a baseball statistic. Having completed one happy year of inertia and withdrawal studying Russian on television, I am in an excellent position to tell incoming students what it is like.

Everybody used to avoid Russian because the alphabet looked peculiar. One recognizes C, H, P, and a few others, but the N has been left inside out, a small h is upside down, and a perfectly good R is faced the wrong way. Actually, most of these letters are just thrown in by the Russians as a come-on, because it turns out that B is V, C is S, H is N, the inside-out N is not a typesetter’s error but I, P is R, X is a thick H. h upside down is tch, Y is 00, and R backward is yah and means “I.” The Russians are good at codes.

When you get over this disappointment, you discover a few Greek letters, notably pi and phi, which do nicely for P and F. What looked like a small r is gamma, or G.

There remain a handful of vowels, eccentric in appearance but easy to pronounce, and some splendid consonants which seem, once you get used to them, just the sort of thing any language would profit in having, such as the zh of Dr. Zhivago (like s in “pleasure”) and shch. The last is in Khrushchëv, which, in the Russian, what with Kh whittling down to X and shch being one letter, is not very imposing.

Finally, there are two little houses: one, without a floor, is L, and the other, on stilts, is D.

I never did get to spell in Russian. I would say to a fellow student, “I didn’t catch how they said that word that you spell: Greek Pi, P that’s an R, N inside out, r that’s a G, O, T, O, B that’s a V, floorless house. R backward, and the numeral ten joined that’s a U.” My friend understood perfectly. “Oh! That’s prigotovlahyu [I prepare]. The Y in the R backward is silent, as in A.”

Once you know the Russian alphabet, you have the exhilarating feeling that you can read Russian, as strange words that you have seen time and again clear to intelligibility. The first two words on the masthead of the Russian newspaper Hoboe Pycckoe, which you associated vaguely with choosy hobos, take on sense as Novoe Russkoe. The TV instructor flatters your feeble knowledge with a story made up of English cognates, in which takei, restoran, kontsert, kvartet, orkestr, and moozika figure recognizably.

In the early days of trying out Russian words I had a feeling of incredulity each time I encountered a new consonant combination. Zdr. I invented impossible clusters of sound and searched the dictionary to see if they started words. Invariably they did. Mgn. Vm. We don’t take chances with V in English. We bow away from it with a vowel before we dare to hustle in another consonant. But the Russians will put a B, pronounced V, in front of anything, with a reckless disregard for consequences. Vd and vs are common enough at the beginnings of words, but there are also vgn, vdv, and even vzdr. If the Russians are great talkers, it’s easy to see what keeps them so fit. Anyone who can start a word with vzdr and still keep talking is not going to tire easily in a Summit debate.

Russian words run to length as well as thickness. Sometimes the Russians put it on a little, using a huge word with embattled consonant combinations for something ordinary and small. The Russian for “Hi" is zdravstvuete. It took me a long time to hurdle zdravstvuete. I would stand in front of the unlucky person I was greeting, mentally crouching before the zdravst while I summoned deep resources to blow down the vuete. Under the strain my eyes stared hard, my chin ducked down to where it wouldn’t get cut off by whatever was going to come out, and while my victim trembled in suspense I bellowed “Zdravstvuete!” like a thunderous denunciation.

Once I recovered from my initial consternation, I found that at least Russian pronunciation is consistent and innocent, presenting no traps like the English “once" and perhaps nothing as difficult as “thistle” or “swirling.”Soon the Z’s and V’s began to melt to fluidity, and the gutteral juxtapositions began to seem extremely congenial to the tongue. There are few words which are as satisfying to say as the Russian for “little girl,”which is dehvochka; and the Russian for “good-by" is a velvet consolation, dah svidanya. While I was still in the bellowing stage, I took to saying good-by instead of hello. It made things friendlier all around.

After muddling through the Romance languages which you don’t know by piecing the others together, it is disconcerting to find yourself floundering among words in which you look vainly for a Latin stem, a Teuton skeleton, an Anglo-Saxon conversion, or a Gallic twist. Nothing in karandash suggested “pencil.” “Karen, dash out and get me a pencil” was useful if you remembered what Karen was to get you. For polovina, which means “half,”

I assembled, with a good deal of trouble, a polo team, half of which drank wine. I fell to wondering how many men there were on a polo team and whether they could be divided in half for any purpose and what the other half ordered instead of wine. The thing always ended up with a lot of peeved polo players and nobody to pick up the check. As for “half a pencil,” the image suggested by this association of Karen with the divergent horsemen threatened to erode the Russian words for which the mnemonics were devised and leave me with only a vestigial feeling of apology every time I pick up a pencil.

To make up for the difficulty of their vocabulary, the Russians very sensibly did away with the present tense of the verb “to be.” As any language student knows, the verb “to be” is likely to be highly irregular and given to flights of special instances. In French it is haunted by archaic forms. Spanish is plagued by two verbs “to be,” one for a Platonic “is” and the other for an existentialist “is now but.”

The Russians not only dispense with “is,” but they sweep away the articles too, definite and indefinite. From the very start, the foreigner gets the heady feeling that he can speak in whole sentences by saying “Book here,”“Table there.”

At first I thought this was a rule specially invoked to hoodwink television students into thinking that Russian was easy. I just couldn’t believe that grown-up people could be expressing themselves in forms like “Where student?" “Student here.”

“What that?” “That pencil.” “I good professor.”

I found that nothing was being withheld. It appears that the Russians used to say, “Book is here,”“Table is there,” but one day a Russian pointed out that you didn’t need to. Some of the other Russians said, “How would anybody understand what you are talking about?” and the cryptic Russian, an editor, said, “You’d be surprised. Half the words one uses are completely unnecessary.” From that time on, all the Russians went around saying, “Book here,” “Table there,” and were perfectly understood.

The Russians are great ones for declining, even outdoing the Romans. Russians decline a noun through six cases, whereas the Romans worried along with five. What is more, the Romans rather begged off when it came to adjectives and, for the most part, just tacked on the same endings, case for case, to match the nouns. The Russians scorned an easy out and thought up eighteen endings (six cases through each of three genders) entirely different from the noun endings. This may sound formidable, but late at night the word for “good” in its eighteen endings (singular) is a pleasant narcotic, and if you have never seen the instrumental plural form for “excellent machine-and-tractor service station" spread itself across a page, you are missing one of the monuments of typography.

When they ran out of nouns and adjectives to decline, it was only a matter of time before they started in on people. Anyone imprudent enough to take up with a fellow called Vladimir Andreevich Kudlarovsky must be prepared to drag him by the ends of all three of his names from subject to object through the six endings. The Russians decline so much (it goes without saying that they decline America) that it is interesting to see what they don’t decline. They don’t decline coffee, and they never decline a takci.

Actually, these endings are just to keep foreigners on their toes. To a native Russian, they may have been fun to make up, but nobody with any sense is going to bother saying them. At least, they are indistinguishable in Russian speech.

I asked a Russian how he would say the word for “good” in the feminine accusative, which I always work out as horoshooyoo. He said, “Horosh . . . uh ... ,” a fast decrescendo dropping the end over a cliff’. “And how do you say ‘good’ in the masculine genitive?” This one should be horoshevo. “Horosh . . . uh . . . of course,” he said.

One of the curious things about the Russian language is the number of hairs the Russians split about the verb “to go.” You use different forms, depending on whether you are going on your own feet in a definite direction and not comingback (actual, walk-go); whether you are going and coming on foot and you do it every Thursday (potential, walk-go); going once in one direction on a conveyance (actual, ride-go); going in circles habitually on a conveyance (potential, ride-go); going with a start and a finish (perfective); or going without starting and never getting there (imperfective). The Russians won’t let you set out with the idea, “Well, you’ll see.” You say “I go,” and immediately you have to sit down and answer some questions. The Russians are generally pretty stern about this.

To the question “Are you going by fool or riding?” I may say, “On foot,” but I’m pretty sure to take a taxi for three blocks if nobody is watching. As to the direction, whenever I have a lot to do that cannot be put off, I may “go,” and just to make it seem necessary I may say to myself, “I’m going to the five-and-ten,”but if I’m to be absolutely honest with the Russians, I’d have to admit that there’s a fiftyfifty situation here with a vague direction but a strong possibility that there will be some aimless wandering thrown in.

Is this trip habitual or, worse, habit-forming? You start going to the five-and-ten every time you have a problem, and you find yourself pretty soon out of the actual form of “I go” and right in the potential. The same effect occurs if anyone says, “Oh, you’re always going.”

Are you just going once, in one direction, or are you coming back? There are many mornings when the first possibility seems thoroughly attractive, but I don’t know how many women besides Ibsen’s Nora really have the courage to say, ”I go, unhabitually, on conveyance, destination unknown, not coming back, don’t try to find me.” If any of you want to try it, though, the right form is “Yah yehdoo.” just don’t make the mistake of saying ”Yah yezhoo,” or they’ll be looking for you.

These questions are asked not only for “going" but for all the prefixed words related to going. You can’t arrive without noting what brought you. You can’t leave without indicating what you left — a mother or a dock. You can’t drop in without saying whether you were walking habitually aimlessly around and all of a sudden there you were in Scarsdale, see, or were driving in one direction, just before dinner, with your destination grimly in mind from the start. And from the moment the door opens, you had better know whether you have dropped in perfectively for a limited time or are likely to stay on indefinitely and imperfectively, because if you don’t, you are not just inopportune but illiterate, to boot.

These fine points must discourage an awful lot of going and coming and dropping in, and are possibly the Russian answer to the traffic problem. As for me, karandash in hand, I await more TV lessons. Just in case anybody ever says to me in Russian, “Let’s go,” I want to know how to say back, “Decisions! Decisions! Decisions!”