Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rasha Limbo and Going the Way of France and Italy

Rasha Limbo

I was listening to the Teaching Company’s lecture series “Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language,” and in Lecture 22: “Languages Sharing the World--Bilingualism,” Professor John McWhorter cites a study in which Russian-Americans were asked to tell how the same sentence might be said by different individuals. The topic of Rush Limbaugh came up during interviews.

The interviewer found that older immigrants who had come to America as adults rendered the sentence “I know another person who listens to Rush Limbaugh” something like this (I am spelling this phonetically with English pronunciation in mind, and I am certainly screwing up some of the words):

Ya zna-you eshch-yo odnovo chyel-o-vyeka kotoree slusha-yet Rasha Limbo.
(Lit.: I know one other fellow who listens to Rush Limbo.)

Second generation Russian-Americans, who were born in the United States would be more apt to say:

Ya zna-you dru-goi chyel-o-vyek ee on slusha-yet TO RUSH LIMBAUGH.
(Lit.: I know another fellow and he listens "to Rush Limbaugh.")

Aside from different word choices, the younger Russian-American also switches to English when he says “to Rush Limbaugh.” The older people said “Rasha” not because they can’t pronounce “Rush” but because Russian nouns are declined like Latin ones and “Rush” in the genitive (possessive standing in for accusative or direct object) or, perhaps, the dative* (indirect object) case becomes “Rash-a.” The younger people don’t want to—or don’t know how to—change the name to another case, so they just switch to English and say “Rush Limbaugh” with the preposition “to” in front of it. (There is no preposition in the pure Russian version because changing the noun to another case implies the meaning “to.”)

It is interesting that Rush Limbaugh is a topic of conversation in the Russian immigrant community, although it is nothing new to listeners of his radio program who might remember that Russian immigrants have called into his program now and then over the twenty-three years that it has been on the airwaves.

Going the Way of France and Italy

When Americans make fun of the French and Italian military it makes me queasy, not because I am particularly attached to or sympathetic to the French and Italians, but because I know enough about history to know how the two nationalities reached their low military reputation and how far they fell, and I know therefore that history—or more properly I should say fate—is fickle enough that the same decline that happened to them could happen to the United States.

In the mid-nineteenth century, France and Italy were respectable military powers—or, rather, parts of Italy were, since Italy was not unified into one nation until the 1860s. Indeed, during the first century of America’s premier military academy, West Point, cadets were thoroughly drilled in French because they were expected to study the strategy of Napoleon Bonaparte in the original language. When France and Prussia went to war in 1870, the world assumed that either the French would win or it would be a stalemate. That the French were massacred is no surprise to us today, but it was for contemporaries –other than some of the Prussians who, of course, anticipated a win. The French have simply never recovered their reputation as a great military power. It has been forgotten and replaced with ignominy.

Similarly, Italy’s reputation as a military power was drained away, never to be regained. Perhaps the key moment came during World War I. The Italians’ commander-in-chief, Luigi Cardona, was a martinet who was good at giving orders but no good at strategy and tactics. He sent armies of brave Italians to their deaths and lost battle after battle. Eventually, the Italian soldiers figured out the obvious: their commander did not know what he was doing and, if he ordered them to march forward, the wisest course was retreat. The shame ought to be on this individual commander, but instead, the lasting shame has been unfairly visited on the whole Italian military and, indeed, the Italian nation.

The lackluster performance of the Italian military under Mussolini during World War II served to worsen an already bad reputation. (This time the excuse was that no one in Italy, arguably including Il Duce himself, was that enthusiastic about entering World War II to begin with, and the conflict turned into a civil war in which Italians may have killed Italians more often than they killed Yanks, Brits or Nazis.)

I can only conclude that we Americans dasn’t be so smug as to assume that the same ignominy could not befall us. It is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think to say that all it might take is another few years of President Barack Obama or his ilk to make the United States another laughingstock in the world ranking of military prestige.

* Profesor McWhorter says it is genitive standing in for accusative, and I should bend to his expertise; it is just that I know Russian is not necessarily one of his languages, and he might be wrong; in which case, my guess that it is dative might be right after all.

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