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The Russian Review/Volume 1/March 1916/The Russian Language in America

< The Russian Review‎ | Volume 1‎ | March 1916

The Russian Language in America.

By J. Dyneley Prince,

Professor of Slavonic Languages in Columbia University.

The present War has placed the United States on a most enviable commercial footing, and this is especially true in connection with the possible future trade relations with the great Russian Empire. Far-seeing business men all over the country have already begun to realize this fact with respect to Russia and are, therefore, encouraging young men to take up the study of the Russian language. Columbia University has just founded a chair of Slavonic Languages and Literatures, the chief object of which is to stimulate Americans on the eastern sea-board, to take an interest in Russia, not only from historical and literary angles, but also to offer every facility to Americans to cope with the difficulties of the Russian language. For the Middle West, the University of Chicago has undertaken the same task with a new Department of Slavonic, whose chief interest centres in the economic side of Russian development. Mr. Vanderlip of the National City Bank of New York City has established classes in the Russian language in the bank, in order to enable young men to interest themselves practically in Russian business, and the Young Men's Christian Association has founded classes in Russian with a similar object.

There can be no doubt that one of the first needs for the United States must be to send trained personal investigators to study the present conditions in Russia. The Germans did this long ago, and, in consequence, have enjoyed many years of uninterrupted profitable trade with Russia. There is no use in sending men to deal with Russia who do not speak Russian, and in this, the Germans showed their wisdom. In no language in the world are there so thorough and so scientifically arranged grammars and handbooks of Russian as are found in German. Most unfortunately for the English-speaking peoples, there is not as yet in our tongue a single satisfactory grammar of Russian from the scientific point of view, so that in Columbia we are forced at the present moment to work under a great disadvantage with students who can read neither German nor French.

Russian is not like some other languages. It is impossible to learn to speak and write in it intelligibly without a thorough comprehension of its very complicated grammatical system. Aside from the fact that the noun declensions exhibit a difficult phonetic development with a generally logical system of case-endings running throughout and that the adjectival declensions must be learned as a development distinct from the nouns, the Russian verb presents the greatest difficulty to the non-Slavonic speaking student. Here we find, with each verb, arbitrarily formed perfective and imperfective aspects, denoting respectively complete and incomplete action. There is no norm for presenting the intricacies of this phenomenon to the student, who must, therefore, by force of practice alone, familiarize himself with the aspect of each verb which he uses. This act of memory is all the more necessary, because the present tense of the perfective is the common future of each verb, and it is, of course, impossible to speak or write comprehensibly without a knowledge of the future form. Intricate as this may at first sight appear to the novice, it is really not so difficult to acquire as might be thought, provided always that teachers of Russian can present to the student lists of verbs giving the needful aspectival forms. Unhappily, the authors of grammars of Russian in English pass over this idiosyncracy of the language with great aplomb, usually being content to state that the verbal aspects must be learned by use, instead of giving a detailed list of the several hundred ordinary verbs, with both the perfective and imperfective forms. With such a list at his command, and a person who speaks Russian at his side, it would not take long for any person of average intelligence and grammatical training to become quite at home with the ordinary Russian vernacular.


The best method is to train students first thoroughly in the accidence of the Russian language, teaching them to recognize both by sight and orally the nominal and adjectival endings and the personal inflection of the verb. They should then be required to read simple Russian stories, always at first from accented texts, by means of which they learn to recognize the verbal aspects. Translations of the same texts in English should be handed to them, from which the students must reconstruct in Russian the stories already read. So far as the so-called "free" accent of Russian is concerned, the learner must acquire it in much the same manner as the English-speaking child is compelled to learn the equally arbitrary spelling of English, i. e., by rote, as he proceeds. After reaching a certain point in their studies, the students at Columbia are referred either to the evening classes under the tuition of a born Russian who speaks as much as possible in Russian, using however, at first, the words which the students already know, or, if this is inconvenient to the students themselves, they are recommended to a private Russian expositor of the language for conversational purpose only. At the end of two semesters of such work, it has been found that the students who apply themselves to this rather exigent method are well able not only to converse on simple topics, but also to read a newspaper in Russian and to enjoy the easier forms of Russian literature.

With a force of men trained in this way to an independent use of the Russian vernacular, the United States would be in a position, both during and after the War, to avoid all foreign agents and middlemen in mutual trade, and thus to establish an American sytem of credit with Russia. That the possibilities of Russo-American trade are enormous, may be seen from the fact that Russia is already calling to us in this country to take the place of her natural ante-bellum market — Germany, whose indefatigable agents have already broken the ground for us. Before the outbreak of hostilities, the Russo-German trade amounted to the immense sum of £60,000,000 annually, and this is only the beginning of future demands from Russia for foreign goods. The country which foresees the situation commercially is going to be one to reap the great benefits of the Russian markets, the needs of which have been ably pointed out by the pamphlet recently issued by the Boston Industrial Development Board: "Russian Trade and New England," March, 1915. At the present moment the Russian commercial attache, M. Medzikhovsky, now stationed in New York, is ready to point out to various American trade centres the most efficient means of establishing direct commercial relations with Russia. The Russian Minister of Commerce and Industry and the Russian Chamber of Export are inviting Americans to engage in mutual trade. In other words, Russia has opened her arms to us commercially, and, if we do not take advantage of this opportunity we may be sure that other countries will get the start of us in this new and rich field of activity.

The keys to the situation are: 1) general information, which may be had for the asking, and 2) personal investigation of Russian opportunities on Russian soil, which can be done only by Americans who can speak Russian.