The Russian language

“The power of language is its ambiguity” sayeth I.  This came up because my nephew married a wonderful Russian expat a few weeks ago.  Plucky fellow that he is, he’s learning to speak Russian.  Like my wife’s friend of 50+ years ago he is amazed at how many words the language has.  Russian apparently has a word for everything so there is little ambiguity, which must make the language hard to pun in.

Someone Googled the number of words in Russian and English and they’re about the same.

Perhaps the lack of ambiguity makes Russian hard to learn (and use).  Computer languages (basic, C, pascal) are completely unambiguous.  Every reserved word and operator means exactly one thing, no more no less.

Most people find programming far from intuitive.  It’s hard to express our sloppy ideas in unambiguous computer language.  Given it’s difficulty giving concrete form to your ideas, computer languages aren’t as powerful (in the sense of being easy to use) as your sloppy sentences.

Why should language be so ambiguous?  My guess is, that it has to be this way given the way we perceive the world (and the way the world probably actually is — ontology if you want to impress your friends).

We don’t live in Plato’s world of perfect forms, but in a world of objects that only partially and rather poorly instantiate them.  This is as true of science as anything else — even supposedly well defined terms change their meaning — are the giant viruses really viruses?  What do we really mean by a gene?  It used to be a part of DNA coding for a protein, but what about the DNA that controls when and where a protein is made.   Mutations here can cause disease, so are they genes?

Language, to be useful, must express our imperfect ways of rigidly classifying the world (perhaps because such a classification is impossible).

Socially, I never thought of our family as inhibited, but the Russians I met seemed more alive and vibrant than our lot (this without them living up to their reputation of hard drinking).

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  • loupgarous  On December 30, 2019 at 9:14 pm

    Lacking actual Russian-language courses or an Internet over which to get course materials, high-school me went to the back of our family’s Funk and Wagnalls dictionary (one of those huge things capable of holding stout oak doors in place) and copied out the Cyrillic alphabet and its phonetic map. I had a slight beachhead on the campaign – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago had come out in paperback about that time. It and its sequel gave me a good, (if idiosyncratic) fund of Russian nouns and phrases to practice on until I was able to go to university and actually study the language..

    It’s a shame that Russian leaders almost always need an external threat with which to distract their people from domestic kakistocracy. The Russians I’ve worked with in Pharma were uniformly nice people. I car-pooled with one.

  • luysii  On December 30, 2019 at 11:15 pm

    Well my nephew married a Russian woman, and as a goodwill gesture is trying to learn the language. He’s amazed at how they have a particular word for everything. Her family and their friends are great, and made ours seem reserved by comparison.

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