Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sometimes Grammar Is Just... Nice.

Natalia was invited to a birthday party today for a really sweet girl in her class. This party was actually "American-style;" the kids were dropped off at the party. (Natalia was thrilled!) We're in Moscow, people, so it's completely natural—and cool—that the party was held on the boat in front of the President Hotel, right next to the Peter the Great monument and old Red October chocolate factory. It stays in that same spot year-round, particularly now when it's literally frozen in place. The location was great—they basically had a room on the boat, and the kids were free to run around (the room, not the boat!). Natalia thought it was the best thing ever to go to a party on a boat!

The birthday girl has a sister in the fourth grade in our school, so I've seen the girls' mom and dad "in passing" for the past 2 1/2 years. Not having kids in the same class until this year, we've never really chatted except for a few minutes while waiting for our daughters, or before and after piano recitals. Even though Natalia and her younger daughter are in the same class, we haven't overlapped that much at pick-up or drop-off this year, either.

I often see the girls' dad, and he just gives off this aura of being such a great father and all-around nice guy... Even when you don't really know him, he puts you completely at ease. The same is true for the girls' mom; she has a smile that just radiates sincerity. Even though we barely know each other, there aren't any pretenses, there isn't any awkwardness, and I feel as if we've been friends for a long time, but just haven't had the chance to really "chat" yet. I've had the sense all year that at some point we'd be really good friends, thinking how silly it was how we "wasted" all that time before realizing it.

In any case, because we've never really talked other than superficially, we've been "acquaintances" all this time... When I came to pick up Natalia this afternoon, however, she invited me to join the group, have some dessert and a cappuccino.

And then it happened. We went from "Вы" ("Vui"/formal "you") to "Ты" ("T'ee"/informal "you"). She initiated it, kind of laughing and shyly smiling at the same time, "Давайте на Ты!" ("Davayte na t'ee!"/"Let's use the informal subject pronoun!").

It may seem so silly, but I think it's really cool that there's an informal and formal way of saying "you" in Russian (and in other languages). You remember the day you go from one to the other with friends. I can clearly recall all the times I've had the same moment with other friends with whom I speak French, Spanish, Italian and Russian.

For those of you who don't know these languages, it's kind of like the day I graduated from 9th grade and the most special teacher I ever had told me I could call her "Pat" instead of "Mrs. Clark."

In Russian, it's a grammar moment. And it's just, well, nice.


Natalie said...

glad we don't have that here! There are too many people I don't want to be informal with but would be completely offended if I wasn't. I would hate to make it official or fake that they were my informal friend! (or am I reading into it way too much). That's awesome though; the best kind of friends are the ones you can relate with long before you're even friends.

Anonymous said...

I love your post about ty and wy. It is such a funny linguistic trick. It brings so much emotion into the life and conversation and relationship between people. I am almost completely off it, but still have one Russian guy at work with whom I am constantly switching from one form to another.

The Expatresse said...

I've had those moments in French or Spanish ("Did they just 'tu' me?"). It's nice.

This is also a nice thing:

A reminder of how to respond to unpleasant people.

Lisa said...

Kind of works like thou/thee did in the Shakespearean era. Nowadays people think this is "formal" language because it sounds archaic to us, but it was the more familiar form of "you".

Amanda said...

I'll always remember my first French teacher explaining the importance of "vous" vs. "tu". She told us about the time she was talking to a French friend, who she'd addressed as "tu" for as long as she could remember. Then one day, for some inexplicable reason, she found herself saying "vous" instead! She said her friend's look of shock was as if she'd slapped her in the face!

Because of this I was SO aware of the difference between the two, and reminded myself to use "vous" until it was acceptable to call them by the informal "you". So I was completely shocked when I first met my host sister and she greeted me using "tu"! Turns out the younger generation doesn't apply this rule when speaking to people of the same age or younger. However another friend did tell me, that as a foreigner it would not be a huge boo-boo to mix the two forms up, and no one would be offended or think me disrespectful if I stuffed it up!

I have to say, I was very relieved to hear that!

The Expatresse said...

I have a terrible time using "tu" in French because we were simply NOT taught it in high school. "You will screw it up," they told us. I mean, we learned the form, but we never practiced saying it. Of course, almost all of my French conversations take place with people who are practically family, and for the life of them, they cannot understand why I am unable to produce tu-forms of verbs.

Annie said...

I fell in love with this whole idea when I read some book about Quakers as a child....and proceeded (to my parents' horror...they must have been concerned to have such a weird child) to use "thee" and "thou" for the next few weeks.

It is very cool, but I suppose must also cause some extra awkwardness here and there, as someone forgets (like when some child at school whose mother is my friend accidentally calls me "Annie") and most especially during those worried-about-everything-social teen years. I do have to say that it caused ME some awkwardness in Russia and I always erred on the side of "BWE" with any adult, even Alla.

I have to laugh to think of that boat as a birthday party destination, but it really does seem "made" for such a thing.

Annie said...

As far as it being an "American style" birthday party.... I have to remind you that here it would be a slice of congealed pizza and a coke that you'd be offered - not dessert and cappuccino!

Anonymous said...

My Russian-born daughter Katya just stumbled on your blog when searching for American Girl doll info. We have fond memories of our 2 trips to Russia in 2008 to adopt Katya. Loved Moscow and are hoping to work there so we are enjoying your blog. Thx!

Cheryl in Idaho

Anonymous said...

Привет, давно читаю ваш блог, пишите почаще!

Приобщить детей к русской культуре и языку поможет литература.
Большинство детей в России выросл на этих книжках: Носов трилогия о "Незнайке", Волков и его серия о "Изумрудном городе", народные сказки, сказки Пушкина, "Конёк-горбунок" Ершова, "Малахитовая шкатулка" Бажова. Может ещё Кир Булычёв... но он скорее для мальчиков.

Есть ещё замечательные фильмы-сказки Александра Роу.

Надеюсь, это вам поможет.

Извините что не по-английски.

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Jojo, Julz, Julianne said...

Rosetta Stone and I are not friends lately, so this whole post went wayyyyy over my head!!!
But I did understand the basics!!

Henry said...

I'm working in Germany now, and for a major German airline. You forgot to mention that the formal and informal is also used in German. (I believe you speak German too right?) Anyways, I was prepared on my first day of work at this huge multinational to use the formal form, but they told me almost immediately just to use informal. I was relieved. Oddly, or not mysteriously, since I'm the intern, the secretary insists I use the formal with her, and she always calls me Herr J....... and it's awful. It's like she's try to make things more complicated than they have to be.

Anyways, while in Russia I'm of course used to the informal and formal. I remember one summer as a kid when my mom insisted I get violin lessons, that I always called by teacher by the "ты" form and he would always scorn me for it. I couldn't help it though since I never had anyone with whom I had to use the "вы" form.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday!

Jojo, Julz, Julianne said...

Happy Birthday Tammy!
The Green Girlz are wishing you the very best!
Hoping you are resting and enjoying this Sunday!!

Karyn said...

I've been studying Russian for a long time and this one is still difficult for me. I usually use Ti, since we're mostly Americans and mostly younger. But then I feel like I'm calling someone old if I use Vi. I guess I feel, for my purposes, it's better to err on the side of informal. I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable with this issue!!

Annie said...

Karyn - that is very funny! I always err on the side of being formal! I think that is the way I am in English too (Mrs. and Mr., for example). I figured no one could be angry if you gave them extra status - at least not like they'd be if you were too informal with them.

Meghan said...

Hi, I came across your blog a few days ago while browsing the web for I don't remember what. I'm really enjoying reading about life in Moscow (I'm such a Russophile!). Anyway, keep up the good work, I love reading your blog!

Meghan (in Canada)

Anonymous said...

Whaddaya think?

Annie said...

Sorry, Tamara - I just wanted to tell Meghan (from Canada) I just tried to comment on your blog, but it seems to be messed up so that the word verification won't come up to verify....just though you should know - in case you don't!

garnet said...

The party sounded amazing. Lucky Natalia! This post reminded me that I really need to get my Romanian grammar down well. I spent some time thinking about whether I use formal or informal and came to the conclusion that I'm not sure. I probably use informal most simply because I'm not speaking generally to people that aren't family or close friends -- though recently we've had the older parents of some Moldovan friends (with whom I speak English although the husband will speak Romanian to me) and I found that it kept coming out as "tu" if I tried to speak, but that didn't feel right given our ages and how well we knew each other. Then I realized, however, that there are some expressions that I only really "know" using the formal version. And then I started thinking that we don't actually use the pronouns too much -- it is more the verb forms that are indicating formal versus informal and some verbs come out more naturally formal and others more naturally informal. I wish I had several years of free time to really go and learn languages properly.