Analysing English structure in order to get to a foreign language

I received this question today from one of the followers of Huliganov’s Russian course and whilst I don’t normally do one to one, I thought it was worth giving a considered reply, as it is a question which actually, until people understand their first language – especially if their first language is an uninflected or less inflected language like English – will inhibit their ability to get their head around structures in a foreign language. Which makes it a vital question no doubt for many people who are having difficulty taking off in their fiorst foreign language.

We start off tending to think that structures in a foreign language will mirror those in our own. When we were kids, my little brother once asked whether “orry” was French for “good” because he heard that “au revoir” was “goodbye” and he naturally tried to map these three French syllables onto the two in English and wanted to make sure he was getting the split right. For learners onto their third and fourth languages, they’re already expecting that the words for farewell may well have something to do with “until we see each other”, and so this sort of thing tends to be a bugbear for learners of their first foreign language, and much less once you get on to further foreign languages with your native preconceptions about what the differences are really like between languages already long superseded.

(As an aside for this paragraph, but one which illustrates the idea here well, basically ‘taking leave’ in any language is going to be some combination of hoping that the person will be in God’s care until they see each other again, or enjoining them to take care of themselves until that time, or both, but which bits of that idea remain in the few syllables or even one syllable that are left to make a farewell default phrase in a language can vary enormously. Some languages focus on the God part, like “adios”, or “ciao”, or even “tschuess”, which are abbreviations of them English too, with good-bye, is also a contortion of “God be with you until we meet again” The devil, by the way, has managed to get us taking God’s name lightly in different ways in different languages – he’s never happy until he can get us saying “God” while not thinking about God in a glorifying way, and so almost every language has some fossil of God and His Salvation taken in vain whenever people either take leave of each other or greet each other (“hello” originally meant “hallowed be the name of God”, and Austrians say “Gruss Gott” even if they are atheists, and mean precisely nothing religious by it) or thank each other (merci, gracias, spasibo, etc originally all mean “may you receive mercy from God for the mercy you have shown me” – a bit works salvation, but still originally a full thought about God and His mercy, but now entirely dumbed down), or most especially when it comes to expletives, which I will not even rehearse. Other languages when it comes to leave-taking focus on the “us seeing each other” part, like “do svidaniya” “au revoir” and “auf wiedersehen”. You need to go a way back to bring them all together into the one “God be with you – and you watch out for yourself also – until we see each other again, hopefully” which is what each of them started off as. Except Hungarian of course. They do have the “a viszontlatasra” auf Wiedersehen idea in one form, but they also have “szervusz” which means “I remain your servant, until we see each other again”. And also there is the Polish langauge, which has its auf wiedersehen in “do widzenia” but also has a less formal “cześć” which means “honour”. Presumably this originally meant “try and stay honourable until we see each other again. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. In fact, don’t do have the things I would do, either”. Incidentally, many languages spoken by Muslims have the original God words intact in leave-taking, like the Persian “Khoda hafiz” or the Turkish “Allaha ismarladik”. Maybe the devil thought it was a waste of his time trying to corrupt those languages as he has a good enough hold on them anyway since they don’t have much access to Christianity?)

So this meandering brings us back to the point that languages construct things very differently. As a six year old boy, it was natural of my brother to think that languages would be similar to each other, but anyone who thinks that languages are similar to each other are in for a big surprise…

… In fact, they are fairly similar, that’s the surprise, but there are still various different preferred ways that languages have developed to construct things and each language therefore gives a slightly different perspective on something, as you will see from the question I received from Greg today, and the answer you will see below to his question.

So, the question was:

Hello, I am teaching myself Russian and I wondered, if a noun is the object in a sentence, it must be in the accusative case. If it is the subject of a sentence then it has to be Nominative, so if it is both the subject and the object, which one do I use?

for example: лошадь=horse and забава=fun

to say “horses are fun” would i say “лошадь забава”, “лошады забава” or “лошадьа забава” or somthing else?

Thanks for having a look at this as it has been holding me back for a while.


And here’s the answer:

The problem that we have is that words in English don’t always change their appearance when they are nouns and when they are adjectives.

To explain this, let me give you two sentences – one is

“horses are mammals”

and the other is

“horses are strong”.

Which is a noun and which is a verb? With these words it’s easy, becasue they do change. I can say that horses are mammalian animals, except for seahorses which are piscean animals. I can say that horses are strong animals but I can say that the possession of horses was a STRENGTH for Gengis Khan’s army. For him, horses were a strength. So with strong/strength, mammal/mammalian you know which are the thing words and which are the describing words, which are the nouns and which are the adjectives. But when you come to a word like “fun” and a lot of other modern words, or youth words, you’ll find that the same form is for a an adjective “the fun house” and the noun “welcome to the house of fun”. In your sentence, is “fun” being used more like the words mammals and strength, or more like the words “mammalian” and “strong”?

You got it, the word “fun” you wanted to use is the adjective form. That would be “zabav-nye” but naturally from ‘fun’ it means funny, which is something different to what we mean by “fun” as an adjective. If you want to say the horses are funny you can say loshadi (with a soft ‘i’ not a hard one like you gave) – zabavnye which means the horses are funny or ‘loshadi byvayut zabavnymi’ with the adjective in the instrumental plural which is “horses can be funny”, as in “horses are often funny, tend to be funny”.

BUT this is not the same as saying that they are fun. You need to look at the equivalence of the expression and be more precise about it in Russian. You are not really saying that horses are there to amoooze you, like in the goodfellas film, so what you are sying is “I enjoy being with horses” or “One can have a good time with horses”. It would be far more idiomatic to rebuild that whole idea in Russian using one of the impersonal constructions I teach in the course. You can take away the subject – which in fact is not horses at all but the person who is finding them so pleasant, from the Russian perspective – and simply say “S loshadyami veselo” “With horses it-is-merry”. This will give the hearer in Russian precisely the same idea that you say in English with a sentence exactly the other way round.

Now you think “Huh, if someone came up to me and said “With horses it is merry” I wouldn’t understand him and I’d think I was talking to Yoda off of Star Wars”, but that works precisely the same way the other way round. If someone comes to a Russian and says “loshadi zabava” then if they think about it they’ll get the idea (and while they struggle with the syntax rather uncomfortable images may enter their minds about what sort of fun you have in mind with these horses, since you’ve put it in such a roundabout way) but in the end they’ll probably think you sound like Yoda off Star Wars, too.

Russian is simply more literal and logical than English. The Russians will think that, in and of themselves, the horses are not fun. They are not really the ones who are generating the fun, we are. We are creating the sensation of fun, and they are entirely passive in the process. As long as they have their fodder and water, and some grooming and don’t get worked too hard, they do not care what we think of them, or what names we give them. We do not know if they are amused at anything we do in relation to them or not, as they cannot tell us. But they have the capacity to amuse us, and so being with them, it (as in the mood of people) is merry. Much more logical, in fact, than imputing some intrinsically amusing activity or frame of mind to horses. If I were to stretch this any further, I might invoke the truism that Latin and Slavic are for the verb, while Germanic is for the noun. In fact I’ll just throw it in there for today and bring it out more another time, but this idea actually does something to explain why the syntax of some languages seem back to front in others.

In any event, to get from one language to another, you have to think “what am I really trying to say here, and how would the apparatus available in that second language be most comfortable in conveying precisely that idea”? And this will hold true even when you start on languages which are at the extreme end of differentness from your own, as well, some times, in analysing the differences between neighbouring languages like English and French, and finding out why it’s not a problem that “orry” doesn’t mean “good”. The fact is there ain’t no “good” in our “goodbye”ing, and truly learning languages takes a lot of trying. Just hang on in there (a good example of something in English which would make no sense literally translated into any other language) and it’ll come in the end, and give you into the bargain a new understanding of the workings of your first language, and with it the ability to think more deeply in that one also.


12 thoughts on “Analysing English structure in order to get to a foreign language

  1. I would love to hear more about the statement “Latin and Slavic are for the verb, while Germanic is for the noun”. Does it apply to modern Romance languages as well as to Latin? Do you know of any studies related to this matter?

    Thanks for any clues you might be able to share.

    1. Indeed it does. And I am not talking about academic studies but what you will see all the time as a polyglot. Something gets phrased as a noun in Germanic and nouns get used as verbs. In Slavic or Latin the phraeology revolves around verbs and the verbal prefixes are far richer. In Germanic many of the uses verbal prefixes are calques from a Latin term anyway.

      If you look at Spanish everything looks nice and easy with nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs – and then you get to the verb and it is a complex and subtle minefield. In Germanic you have a small corpus of strong verbs with a vowel gradation of three steps, fitting roughly into about eight classes, but the way they are used in German for example is really lax. Half the time it doesn’t matter if you say “ich begann” or “ich habe begonnen”.

      In Slavic you can trace the majority of nouns to a verbal root.

      Let me give one example.

      In English we would say “I caught a cold” – in other words a very generic verb used to be the vehicle for a specific noun, the noun is where the rhematic meaning, (the rhema or new information) is in that sentence.

      French “je me suis enrhumé” clearly they are more comfortable with making a verb out of it, and putting the critical rematic info inside the verb. The Spanish “tengo un resfriado” clearly comes from a verb, “resfriar”

      German can do either, but the form “Erkaeltet” seems to be a calque. The base of this is still “kalt”, an adjective. When you boil it down you get more verbs coming from nouns, not so much nouns coming from verbs.

      Now look at Russian, “ya prostudilsya”. Ok, a verb. There is a noun “prostuda” for a cold but the verbal prefix gives the game away about the verbal origins, and the base is “studit'” to cool something down. Polish “przeziębiłem się” is the same case, just a West Slavic root.

      You can find a lot of these, and awareness of the phenomenon can be very helpful.

      And we have gone from “rhume” to “rhema” in just a couple of easy blows into a tissue of linguistic speculation…

      1. Thanks for this response. I was skeptical because in everyday life, it is easy to find plenty of exceptions to this rule, at least as I was more simplistically understanding it. Taking the ‘horses are fun’ example, I was thinking simply of which would be the most likely word class to carry the main semantic load of the predication, and I find plenty of examples in both directions. Quedar como un bobo, (have to) handle someone with kid gloves (where the verb and the noun seem to share the semantic load), dejarse pisotear, eso es muy difuso or para decir poco for understatement, carve out a niche, star in a show, and so forth. But given your response, I see that the phenomenon occurs also with word derivation and the source of even the verbs used in Germanic languages (globe to global to globalize comes to mind) and the nouns used in Romance languages (Echarle un barrido al apartamento, for example). Now even some of what I had been thinking of as exception can be seen to illustrate the very principle expressed by your truism.

        Now that I understand your assertion, I will be looking for quantifications of the phenomenon and thinking about ways to study it. Thanks for the thought-provoking post and response.

        1. P.S. Sorry if I’m missing something, but I can’t find any definitions for rematic. Could it be semantic that you wanted to say? I suspect interference from an autocorrect system.

          1. P.P.S. Would resfriar the verb come ultimately from frio</em) the noun or adjective? At any rate, I see the overall point of your response and examples.

            1. The discussion of whether frio is a prime adjective or comes from a verb which is prime is a question for Latin scholars. I probably made a challengeable assumption that the prime element, back in Latin, is verbal, but I’m quite happy to be corrected if someone can illustrate a more enlightened position.

          2. Sorry, this is a result of me carrying back into English discussions and research I did in Polish. In Polish the spelling is rema, but of course this has a rough breathing in the original Greek, so in German and English the term is Rhema or Rheme. The consideration of this in English language is more commonly referred to it appears as ‘Topic and Comment” and and it’s interesting to read the German version of that article if you have German. I will edit the article for correct spelling to avoid further confusion.

            1. Aha, thank you. I don’t have German at this stage, but I appreciate the pointer.

  2. Interesting post!

    The Polish “cześć”, that is used also to greet people, not just to take leave of them, comes from the old knights. It means something like “respect, reverence” or if you want to use the word “honour” it’d be in a sentence “I honour you”. When two knights met on a road they could either show each other respect or draw their sabres in a duel. It was a way to tell a friend from an enemy.

      1. I’m happy to hear that!

        I’m beginning another blog about the Old Republic of Poland if you’re interested. I mean to write about various things, including the language. For one I want to clear the confusion about the word “Russian” as used in English, when it often refers to Ukrainian.
        Here’s the link:

        1. That will also be very interesting. I will add a link in my blogroll. You are certainly very talented at making these blogs look aesthetic and interesting. Do you have a background in publishing?

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