Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Via Blogchik, found this really dumb New York Times story on Brighton Beach "Runglish" - Russian in One Ear, English in Another, and a 3rd Tongue in Between, by Alan Feuer (the updated version's titled For the Thirsty Runglish Speaker: Try an Ized Cyawfeh - it contains a few minor corrections).

First of all, seeing the way some of the Russian words have been transliterated, I wouldn't really trust the guy who wrote the piece: 'khartoshka' (replaced with 'kartoshka' in the second draft), 'morashenoyeh' (changed for 'morozhenoye')...

One gorgeous mistake somehow went unnoticed in both drafts:

[...] To some, however, Runglish is no joke at all but an indication of the slow demise of Russian culture.

"When the kids turn 18, 19 years old, we tell them, 'Stop speaking English. Speak more Russian,' " said Alex Kondov, owner of the Varichnaya Restaurant on Brighton Second Street.

Standing next to him, his friend, Vladimir Robu, chipped in: "It is tradition and family. We try to keep the culture alive from home." [...]

Must have been such a joyous occasion for these two chaps to be quoted in the Times - saying something really important, not some bullshit about Russian nesting dolls or caviar, no, but talking about their efforts to rescue the great Russian culture and the great Russian language... I can almost see them anxiously looking for their quotes - and gasping, horrified, because how can you 'keep the culture alive' when those silly Americans can't even get a restaurant's name right?.. It's Varenichnaya, not Varichnaya, for fuck's sake, a place where they serve vareniki - that's pierogi, or pirogi, or pirohi, or whatever you call them in that Polglish tongue of yours...

Certain linguistic confusion on the author's part isn't all there is to this Brighton Beach linguistic mess story. If I knew nothing of the Soviet history, I'd think all these Runglish-speakers Mr. Feuer's writing about have just landed in the United States (I'd also think they're ethnic Russians, not Jews, but that's a different matter):

[...] A change in language tends to follow immigration as closely as a headache tends to follow too much drink. Linguistic scholars speak of Spanglish and its related tongues, Frangle (French combined with English) and Ingrish (English mixed with L-less Japanese.)

Now, on the streets of Brighton Beach, people have begun to speak in a different hybrid tongue. They use something known as Runglish - a Russian-English blend in which the "Cross-Bronx Expressway" might come off as the "Cress Bonx Exprezvey" or "appointments" as "appointmyenti." [...]

In fact, these people began to speak the way they do a few decades ago, which makes Mr. Feuer's piece a couple generations late.

It's so sad to think of how easy it is to drain a wonderful subject of all its depth. Each immigrant family - Russian, Soviet, Jewish, or whatever you prefer to call them - has enough stories to fill a novel or two. So many of those now living in Brooklyn were leaving their home countries - and everyone and everything there - for good, with no hope (and, often, no desire) to ever return: not your average Peace Corps experience, is it?..

I do think Runglish is amusing and often amazing. My favorite example comes from the East Village Ukrainian Diaspora-speak - so it's not Runglish but Ukrainglish: "Nasliceaite meni, bud' laska, desyat' pieceykiv kovbasky." - "Could you slice some sausage for me? Ten pieces, please?"

And I wish Mr. Feuer treated the subject lightly, with humor and no moralizing.

But the final part of the story is simply scary:

"People say the Russians have learned English," said Pat Singer, president and founder of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, which sits in a cluttered storefront on Brighton Beach Avenue. "But I think they're going the opposite way."

Ms. Singer's grandparents came from Odessa in 1910. It is her contention that today's Russian immigrants are - linguistically speaking - a far-too-sheltered bunch.

"This group that comes here now has Russian newsletters, Russian radio, Russian TV stations," she explained. "They might as well have stayed in Russia since they created Russia here."

Other immigrants, she said have learned to speak English just fine. But not the Russians, Ms. Singer said.

"The Russian community has been here 30 years. You'd think they'd all speak English by now."

Part of the problem, Ms. Singer said, is that while English is taught as a second language in the city's public schools, there is a lack of English training for adults.

"The kids - you wouldn't even know they weren't American born," she said, "until they get on the phone to their mothers to say they're coming home late."

Ms. Singer must have waited 30 years for a New York Times reporter to show up by her "cluttered storefront on Brighton Beach Avenue." I doubt she's ever been outside her neighborhood - because then she wouldn't be so naive to think that all immigrants but the Russians "have learned to speak English just fine." Jesus.

Ms. Singer lacks historical perspective, too. Her grandparents must have fled the pogroms in 1910 - but most of her neighbors ended up in the States because of a subtler type of oppression, and it wasn't 'Russia' that they created on Brighton Beach, it was the Soviet Union without the Communists.

And this is what Brighton Beach still looks like, in a way - a sort of a museum, a weird imitation of Odessa of the 1970s and 1980s, a really moving place if one knows what to look for. A terrible place, often. Definitely not what Russia or Ukraine are today. And absolutely not as distant from the rest of the United States as it may seem...


  1. Hey, why "polglish"? Is the author polish? And btw. your first try was right, it's "pierogi" ;-)

    06.15.05 - 4:08 am

  2. No, Marek, I don't think he's Polish. I was just trying to imagine the frustration of the pierogi place guy - the story is about a funny variation of Russian/English, and the reporter is making it all even worse by misspelling the word varenichnaya, and that's happened because everyone knows what pierogi are, but few people know what vareniki are, even though it's the same thing, right? Basically, I was just kidding!.. :-)

    06.15.05 - 9:55 am

  3. I understand, what the story is about and what irritated you about it ;-) I may assure you, that
    I don't feel offended ;-) I was just wondering, why you said "polglish", because the name of the author - Alan Feuer doesn't sound very polish to me I simply didn't know, that the word "pierogi" is used anywhere outside Poland, I always thought, that they say "dumplings" in the US. It's nice to see some neutral slavic word being used in the west. The only other, which I've seen in english is "pogrom" ;-( and I always feel a peculiar mixture of shame and irritation, when I see it. Btw. Isn't something similar to"pierogi" used also in the west Ukraine (of course I mean the word, not the dish ;-)

    06.15.05 - 11:32 am

  4. And one more btw. Yesterday was the 10 th anniversary of the attack on the hospital in Budionovsk. I was looking in the net for different sites about the conflict in Chechenya and I've found two very interesting things. First:

    These are songs (in russian) of a chechen poet Timur Mutsurayev. Probably for Russians many of these pieces are unaccaptable, but some of them are deeply touching e.g. nr. 15 "korol i pastuh" on the third album "Gelaevskiy Specnaz".

    Another thing is a clip "Freedom or Death" (bottom of the page)

    My feelings about the conflict itself are rather ambiguous but I think, these to things are worth hearing and seeing.

    Neeka, if you mind, that I'm posting such unrelated comments, just let me know, I'll quit immediately ;-)

    06.15.05 - 1:12 pm

  5. and in my household, "Nu i please" (Nu i pozhaluista) has entered the vocabulary

    06.15.05 - 5:57 pm

  6. We managed to speak a tortured, confused tongue we liked to call "Ruzbeklish" with a few host families in Uzbekistan. There was a little bit of Tajik too, but I can't decide if there was enough to add a "Taj" to the beginning...

    06.15.05 - 6:04 pm