Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Can! or Another Example of Russian Conciseness

'Russian verbosity' is a long-standing stereotype supported by mammoths like 'War and Peace' and 'The Brothers Karamazov'. Maugham, in Ashenden, even goes so far as to claim that all his carefully laid plans to stop the bolshevik takeover in 1917 (the writer was on a secret mission in Petrograd during the events) were ruined because members of his team preferred to talk and not to act.

Anyone, who really works with the language, would agree with the opposite: Russian in fact is very concise. Take for instance The Penguin Russian Course AБВ. Before saying anything else about the language it warns: Russian doesn't have articles, 'is' and 'are' are omitted in the present tense and there is no need for additional 'do' or 'does' in the interrogative. How many words do we instantly drop?

Here is a good illustration. I was experimenting with various 'inspirational' designs, in English and Russian, and came up with this one, based on Howard Miller's 'We Can Do It' poster (also referred to as 'Rosie the Riveter', confusing it with Norman Rockwell's Rosie). There is a wonderful story behind it illustrating the evolution of American socrealism (read here), but in this post I just want to point out the conciseness of Russian phrase structure.

In English it wouldn't look or sound right if you just put 'Can!' even though Buzz Lightyear does use it after a flight skills demo in response to Woody's 'Toys can't fly!' challenge.

But in Russian not only the auxiliary 'to be' is dropped in the present tense, but it is also grammatically correct, stylistically neutral (usually) and very common in speech if the first person pronoun is dropped. The sentence appears to be without a subject which is only implied. The object 'it' is also omitted in sentences like this. The three-word English sentence 'it is light' in Russian is just 'светло". (A little note: what is this 'It' in 'It's light'? is it some sort of Higher Power or Superior Being running things for us? Has anyone investigated it?)

These features of Russian sentence structure pose certain difficulties for students and translators, but once mastered – not that difficult! – they provide obvious advantages in speech and, as seen here, in design.

Note: We Can Do It poster is not copyrighted and is in free domain. Which partly explains its popularity compared for instance to Rockwell's Rosie, which is copyrighted. This design is ©A.Anichkin.

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