Monday, May 31, 2004

Listening in

One of the great advantages of speaking other languages is the ability to eavesdrop on conversations that aren't terribly well concealed - usually because the speakers don't fathom that anyone else can understand them.

Over the last few weeks, I've had the opportunity to hear a lot of Russians on the Tube and on the street - it's an unmistakable language and an unmistakably soft tone compared to other Eastern European languages. Sometimes, I'll twitch to someone speaking Ukranian or Romanian, Byelorussian or Polish, but I've always found pleasure in simply listening to the musicality behind well-spoken Russian.

It was with some surprise, then, that I realised I could perfectly well understand two men who sat opposite me on the Tube today. Looking at them, one could easily be forgiven thoughts of mortality. They would have been 6'5-ish and looked like they might have been cobbled together from several nightclub bouncers a-la Frankenstein's monster. Fists like small puppies rested on thighs that scraped the armrests of the seats. Squeezed into these British-sized surroundings, they looked like Vikings stripped of their armour and given jogging gear and a mobile phone as compensation. They were evidently uncomfortable.

So it came as a gentle shock to hear them speak in the poetic manner of the well-educated Russian. English is my main language, but if I want to hear something that stirs the soul, I have to read something in Russian or Polish. The environment is weaved through descriptions so that a sight is linked to a colour whose vibrancy is tied to the taste of something enjoyed long-ago or a smell triggers the memory of a food and it's texture on the tongue is brought to mind. A true sensualists delight.

I especially like the way some words are softened, given almost childlike affectation when used in an affectionate or familiar manner - for example a mother may give her child a pair of shorts (or 'shorty') to wear and tell him to put on his 'shortiki'. I'm not sure if I can describe it exactly as I'm no linguist, besides saying that I like it so much.

I strained to hear the two over the rattle of the carriage and inane announcements at each stop and was sorry that they departed, leaving me to my English-language book and wistful memories of travelling in St Petersburg.

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