There are a number of perplexing issues floating around in my head. Some may say there appears to be plenty of room in there for them to float around in. I can laugh at that thought too (since it was mine). But these are not issues of war or conflict, morality or brutality, right or wrong. Actually they are to do with right and wrong. Everything to do with right and wrong in fact. Just not the rights and wrongs most often spoken about over the past few weeks, and even months and years.
No, they are simply issues of language. Which is of great interest to me, since it is not healthy to think of issues of life and death, justice and injustice, all the time. And we take language far too lightly these days. Language is of immense importance, and it is only through the communication of language that we make both war and peace, or any other dichotomy. Any misunderstanding through careless or incorrect usage can trigger an outbreak of either/or.
Let me explain while I still hopefully retain a morsel of your interest in this. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has brought into sharp relief, perhaps for the first time for many, the language of Russia. You will perhaps have noted that there is a similarity, though they are not identical, with the language of Ukraine. New names of places and things have become household words in the west, at least in an anglicised form, which I suggest Russians and Ukrainians would hardly recognise unless they also speak English – which many do.
Maps (which are an essential to understanding what is going on) suddenly appear, and to the Anglo eye and brain, may mean little, unless place names and movements are given in dual language. But there are inconsistencies in interpretations, which I find intriguing. Let me give an example of what I mean.
For many people, including for those who may not be able to point to the position of Ukraine on a world map, the name ‘Donbass’ must be quite perturbing. Where is Donbass on the map? It is not even mentioned on most maps of Europe, and when it is used it is not always spelled the same way. Sometimes with one ‘s’ – Donbas, sometimes with two – Donbass. Which is correct, and why? I have to admit that even to myself this was a little perplexing – because I could not see a reason for the difference in spelling. Only a few days ago I came across what I think is the real reason – and it is still perplexing. The word Donbass I now understand derives from a simplification and conjunction of the term ‘Donets Basin’ – the basin of the river Donets, a tributary of the Don and one of the many rivers which flow either through or around the region. Also the reason for the naming of the city of Donetsk and many other places beginning with those first three letters.
OK, I can see a reason now for the regional name of ‘Donbas’, framed from ‘Donets Basin’ – at least for English speakers – but the Russian name for Donets Basin is ‘Донецкий бассейн’ which contains the double ‘ss’ of the Cyrillic ‘cc’. So, which is correct – or are both acceptable? I can’t tell you that. I don’t know. Perhaps it depends on who is writing and who is your audience. For myself, I see no reason to change my normal use of the double ‘ss’ since that is the native lingual version. Although I have not discovered the Ukrainian version of the name, but since the Donbass region is now well and truly within the Russian sphere of influence (the people who have always lived there presumably remaining there) and it may soon become part of the Russian Federation itself, I view that (the Ukrainian version) to be of little importance now.
It’s an interesting subject though, isn’t it? And it spreads to a whole host of things, not just place names.
Does any of that have any bearing on the title I chose for this piece, or do you feel somehow cheated? Well, I would say that it does, even though it may not have been what you first thought, and that you may also have learned something from that.
Continuing with that thought, over recent weeks I decided it might be of benefit to myself to learn to read Russian Cyrillic, for a variety of reasons, some obvious, some less so. It turned out to be quite a simple task and, due to the fact that each Cyrillic letter has one and only one sound (or, strangely to an English speaker, no sound at all). In comparison, I have always understood the difficulty of learning English – or more particularly of writing English – by people of non-English speaking nations. There can be few, if any, English language letters which have as few as even two different sounds, and all that without the benefit of the usage of even a single ‘accent’ symbol. Even native English speakers are often confused by the potential for multiple pronunciations of a word. Rightly or wrongly? Or doesn’t it matter?
The 33 symbol character set for Russian Cyrillic has only 5 letters which look and sound similar to one of the sounds of the equivalent English character and only 12 others which look different but follow another English letter. Which leaves almost half of Russian characters having either a more complex, or a vowel type sound or no sound at all. Below is an image I have used extensively but not exclusively (always good advice to consult more than one source if more are available – and none are totally correct) as my reference point for this learning task.
The recognition of the letter groupings which make up Russian words, and it is the case that many groupings of letters occur frequently (same in any language, I guess), facilitates also being able to vocalise them. Attaching meaning to the words is of course something else again – although the sound and other contextual clues often provide hints on that. I am pleased to say this self-motivated linguistic exercise has added a new dimension to my life. And I hope to find this improving as time goes by. It may not be a fruitless exercise for anyone to pursue as Russia rightly cements its place as a world leader among nations.
I have never been a linguist, only studying French and German during my High School years but dropping them in the certificate year (as being too onerous a weight for a 16 year old – my decision) and replacing with the ‘easier’ subjects of Art and Technical Drawing – for both of which I received a pass grade. I also had the choice on entering military service, years later, of taking the path of an Interpreter or Statistician. I plumped for the more boring and safer world of statistics. Who knows, if I had made a different choice I may have become a fluent communicator in Russian by now.
The decisions we make in life, at times being quite unprepared to face such choices with our current knowledge and perceptions, always – particularly the major ones – from that decision point onwards will affect the rest of our days in some quite unimaginable ways at the point in time of being required to make them. But that is life, I suppose. And we are left to ponder, in later years, what might have been if we had decided differently. For most of us, our decisions affect only our own life, or the handful of close contacts we make part of that life. But for others of us, and I cite the example of one Vladimir Putin – the consummate man for our times – the decisions made in earlier years turn out to affect the lives of an untold number of people. The inner strength of such individuals to cope and make sense of the power they embody, and the wisdom they somehow find to do the right thing, is something not gifted to many – and just as many, or perhaps a great many more, corrupted by the sense of that power, make a complete hash of the job.
There. While I had no intention to say all that when I began this piece, does that now make more sense of the title? I hope so.