Language and Writing: Russian Poetry

Language critically shapes writing. As someone only fluent in English, I often wonder what it is like to read a translated work in the original language. There are little jokes and references and inflections that are difficult or impossible to translate. When we read Shakespeare, it’s pretty obvious that we don’t hear the words the way people of that day did.

I studied Russian for a year in college, long enough to see that, structurally, Russian is a great language for poetry and rhyming. Much of this advantage arises from the grammatical cases in Russian. A case performs the same task as a part of speech in English. Russian has 6 cases (Hungarian has 7, Finnish has 15!), for things like direct objects, prepositions, negation, possession, and others. When a word is placed in a case, it is altered by the rules for that case, similar to how a verb is conjugated in romance languages. English mostly doesn’t have cases. To give one example where case exists in English: we use “I” or “me” for the personal pronoun depending whether the personal pronoun is the subject or the direct object.

For an example in Russian, take the phrases:

  • “I have a book” is “У меня есть книга” (transliteration: oo menya yest’ k’nee-ga)
  • “I don’t have a book” is “У меня нет книги” (transliteration: oo menya nyet k’nee-ghee)

The word “book” is altered between the two sentences, because it exists in the first and is negated in the second. In terms of cases, “книга” is in nominative (neutral) case in the first, and the genitive case in the second. Changes to words due to case can be more significant for other cases. Just from this example, the sound of the word in Russian is sensitive to its role in the sentence.

Additionally, because words are essentially “tagged” with their role in the sentence, word order is much more flexible than in English. The phrase “книги у меня нет” would still be meaningful in Russian; it would have a slightly different shade of meaning, perhaps an answer to a question. So, words themselves are easier to change, and they can be rearranged more easily. In English, we can barely change our verbs!

I imagine that all languages have their pluses and minuses for artistry and clarity. English has more words than most languages, which allows for finely shaded meaning in those words, which technical writers prefer. But after struggling with poetry assignments as a kid, man, studying Russian made it seem like were doing that bit all wrong!

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