Language and the Victory over Consciousness

by emory989

A friend sent me a Russian viral meme the other day; one of the deep, inspiring types, your “wisdom in 250 words or less” stories. My general attitude towards such things is that although they sublimely reflect the passive attitudes of some large group of people, they’re hardly likely to be more than a moralistic afterbirth of philosophy in the scheme of things. In this case, it may well be a real story; and the message actually provoked me to consider the phrase.

I was explaining to my elder son that you can’t say “I’ll victory” in Russian. I mean, there’s just no singular first person in the future tense for the word “I was victorious” – maybe “I’ll be victorious”, but by no means “I’ll victory”.

“How do you say it, then?”, he asked me.

“Rephrase it. For example, ‘I shall achieve victory”

My younger butted in:

“Yeah, with a helping verb of achievement”

You couldn’t say whether he had actually gaffed, or made a joke. At six, he’s already an artist.

“But you can say it in the future in the plural…” mused my elder son.

“Yes – we’ll be victorious”

And suddenly I thought, how beautiful and proper. In the Russian language there can be a personal victory, but only as an accomplished fact. But to predict it, to promise to win – that’s impossible, unless you do it in the plural: together! WE will be victorious.

This is language. It determines our consciousness. It determines us as a people. If something is absent in a language that’s present in other languages, it’s no mistake. The same if it has something unique.

Объяснял старшему сыну, что в русском языке нельзя сказать «победю». Ну нет первого лица единственного числа будущего времени у слова «победил». Может быть «побеждаю», но никак не «победю».

— А как тогда? — спросил старший.

— При помощи вспомогательного глагола. Например «я одержу победу».

Немедленно встрял младший:

— Да-да! При помощи вспомогательного глагола одержимости!

И не поймёшь — всерьёз ляпнул или пошутил. В свои шесть младший уже артист.

— А вот у множественного числа есть будущее время… — размышляет сын.

— Да. Победим, — соглашаюсь я.

И вдруг думаю, насколько же это красиво и правильно. В русском языке может быть личная победа — но только как свершившийся факт. А вот загадывать на неё, обещаться победить — нельзя. Можно — только если ВМЕСТЕ. МЫ – победим.

Это язык. Он определяет сознание. Он определяет народ. Если в языке нет чего-то, что есть у других народов — это неспроста. И если есть что-то уникальное — тоже.

My friend thought this was beautiful and very appropriate and proper. In a way, the thought is beautiful – whatever we do, we can only succeed together. However, we had a brief argument that centered around etymology. According to a Russian literacy column in an Ekaterinburg newspaper  (not the most reliable source, but enough in the context of the social network chat this originated in), a hundred years ago, there were actually two correct forms of the verb, but they disappeared over the course of the century. I suspected that the disappearance of the first person singular could have been the result of years of collectivist propaganda; my friend’s reaction was that the thought is beautiful and proper all the same. Beauty is fine, but I had doubts: after all, it’s apparently still unclear enough to some Russians as to warrant an explanation in a literacy column in a newspaper that the two first person singular forms fell out of use in orthodox language a hundred years past. I would float a guess that in the less literate villages, they still use it occasionally, so in a sense, the beauty of the thought that Russians are all together is similar to the beauty of the thought that America is the land of the free: it’s nice, but it ignores a lot of less-than-beautiful facts. In America’s case, slavery and racism; in Russia’s, the continued presence of a form that may have fallen out of general use for any number of reasons wholly unconnected to the special “togetherness” of the people as a nation. However, what’s more interesting is what made me recall the argument a few weeks later.

A college student in an English camp asked with some trepidation “Is it true that Americans think they won the Second World War?” This is a relatively common question in Russia any time a conversation touches on something remotely related to the military. The first time I encountered it, I was confused: “What, you think the Nazis won?!?!!” The Russian then invariably continues on to clarify that it was not America, but the Soviets that won the Second World War. This has happened to me a number of times, but it wasn’t until the conversation about the verb to be victorious/to win (победить) that it occurred to me that this could also simply be an issue of translation, either linguistic or cultural. It has also, as chance would have it, begun popping up in the modern world recently; one Russian friend of mine was outraged that the Ukraine has begun saying that it wasn’t Russians that won the war. The issue is this: when Russians ask “Кто победил во второй мировой войне?” they don’t actually mean “Who won the second world war?” which is one way to directly translate the phrase. And it’s not that the translation is incorrect; it’s perfectly appropriate and used by newspapers, in books, and by the Russians themselves when speaking English. However, judging by the largely uniform subsequent conversations, what they tend to mean is “Which country is most responsible for the victory over fascism in World War Two?” I can imagine the Russians who have talked to me about this asking their friends while they were studying in the States: “Who won the Second World War?”, hearing the answer “We did!”, and then, as the Russians say, пошло поехало, it going downhill from there. Patriotic feelings get involved, history buffs get out their pens and diagrams, and the boys start measuring their armies and comparing the size of their losses. (Honestly, it’s worth noting that the Eastern Front campaigns were far more intense and protracted, which led to Soviet losses exceeding all other parties combined. There are of course numerous reasons for this, and not being a historian, I’m not going to try to go into them here.)

However, this conversation could take a much different course. When a Russian asks кто победил, he means “Who is most responsible for the victory over Nazi Germany”, but an American hears, “Who won the war, the Allies or the Axis?”, and answers “We [the Allies] did”, which a Russian hears as “We, America, were responsible for the victory!” This misunderstanding is lost in the patriotic squabbles that follow when the outraged Russian begins to explain to the American who has dismissed the Soviet war effort that his country sat out the war and the Soviets saved the world, and the broadsided American responds that America did no such thing, have you ever heard of Normandy, and what about the USSR starting the war on Hitler’s side, thank you very much? If not for this misunderstanding, an American would likely be able to calmly admit that the Soviet war-effort was extremely important, and the Russian would compliment the landing at Normandy and lend-lease equipment, and both sides would conveniently forget the Stalin-Hitler alliance.

What’s most interesting about this for me is one word could become so saturated with unspoken meaning as to change the valence of a conversation; a conversation that could have been positive becomes negative, not because of poor translation, but because group socialization differences in the different countries and languages. In Russia and the former Soviet Republics, World War II is still a major event; every May, every city and town is filled with soviet-realism posters proclaiming “Thanks for the victory grandpa!” (“Спасибо деду за победу”), bumper-stickers proclaiming “to Berlin!” (“На берлин”), poster-board mortars sticking out of sunroofs, and on the Victory Day itself, serious military hardware rumbling down the streets. No mention is made of an Allied victory, which is understandable insofar as the celebrations have their roots in Cold War Communism. The words победа and победить are steeped in this Russia-centric patriotism to the point that the lack of first-person singular future form of the verb would become important enough to compose a patriotic parable on, without anyone noticing that the words themselves have become very much in-group jargon. Moreover, to the extent the language is a pro-social tool and jargon is anti-social, the words have even become anti-social. How many other such terms are floating around our languages?

What terms and words immediately provoke group-oriented behavior? Slurs are an obvious example: using the word fag as opposed to gay, or nigger as opposed to black or African-American will immediately identify the speaker’s group. But what about more subtle examples? How are children’s attitudes towards math shaped differently by lessons with large amounts of math jargon versus lessons in conversational language? What about perceptions of a job applicant who says “I been” or “y’all” as opposed to one speaking a more standard dialect of white English? How many are we simply unaware of due to the masking of constant unconscious usage?