February 14, 2003
Forget French, Russian Is Made for Love
By Michele A. BerdyNerovno dyshat: to be interested in someone, to be keen on someone, literally “to breathe heavily.”
It’s surprising that Russia didn’t invent Valentine’s Day — Russian is a great language for expressing affection and intimacy. First, Russian gives you a chance for the linguistic equivalent of undressing as you go from the buttoned-up ?? form of address and Gospodin Ivanov to Ivan Ivanovich and then — traditionally after drinking brudershaft (or, with your arms entwined) — to the unadorned ty and Vanya. This can take months or years, or, if romance is on fast-forward, a single evening. This is so much more interesting than hyper-democratic American English, with its slap-on-the-back palsy-ness, which seems to have lost the use of honorifics altogether. I can hardly remember the last time someone called me Ms. Berdy — bank clerks call me by my first name and I get business correspondence from people I’ve never met that begins, “Hi, Michele.”
Once you switch to ty and nicknames, Russian gives you a plethora of ways to express affection through diminutives. My American friends call me Mickey and in moments of great affection — Mick. Not very romantic. Russians, on the other hand, almost never call me Miki (for one thing, because it sounds like I’m not a person, but a lot of miks). Instead they call me Mikusya, Mikus, Mikusik, Mikushenka, Mikulya, Mikulenka, Mikusha, Mikushka, Mikushenka, Mikochka, Mikunchik. Every American who enters our office goes through this process of linguistic softening: Laurie becomes Larochka, Ron becomes Ronchik . Lisa is Lizochka . Affection is measured in the number of syllables and sibilants. Is this a great language or what?
Once you are adding syllables to someone’s nickname, you can also use all kinds of terms of endearment: dorogoi (dear), zolotoi (precious, literally “gold”), lyubimy (beloved), rodnoi, rodimy (sweetheart, literally “kinsman,” someone so close as to seem like family), mily, milenky (dear, dearest); golubchik (lovebird) zaichik (bunny rabbit), lastochka (darling, literally a “little swallow”), lapushka (literally “little paw”), kotik, kisa (pet, literally “kitty cat”).
Another way of expressing affection is to use diminutives of other words — to soften the environment around the one you love, as it were. Instead of saying, Posidi ryadom so mnoi, (Sit next to me) you might say Syad so mnoi ryadyshkom (Sit right up close next to me). Or instead of dai ruku (give me your hand), try dai ruchenku (give me your little hand). You can convey this in English by adding words, but the sweetness seems to get lost in translation. (Perhaps I think of sweetness because we use a lot of confectionary terms in English to address our loved ones: sugar, honey, baby cake.)
And then there’s falling in love. You first might have occasion to say, On polozhil na menya glaz (he noticed me). Next you might say, On stal za mnoi ukhazhivat (we’ve started to date; he’s courting me) or more colloquially on za mnoi priudaril, on za mnoi begayet . Then you hopefully will be able to say, On ko mne nerovno dyshit (he’s partial to me; literally “he breathes heavily”). And then, on vlyubilsya (he fell in love), on vtreskalsya (he’s wild about me), on s uma soshyol (he’s mad for me), on poteryal golovu ot menya (he’s head over heels in love with me). By this time you’ve undressed your Russian down to ty and are talking to each other as if you were furry little creatures (Ty moi kotik! Lapushka moya!) . At which point your friends sigh, Akh! Golubki! (What a pair of lovebirds!)
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.
This is available, with a subscription at : staff.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2003/02/14/007.html