On Languages

July 04, 2021 - 8 min read

"Wanna go to a soup place?" We were about to disperse our ways and go home, or a hotel in my case. I had a flight at six in the morning and I wasn't sure about one more place.

"A soup place?" I double-checked.

"Yes, a soup place."

"Like a hot liquid... something? The one you eat with a spoon?” I triple-checked. Food, I remembered the word.

"Exactly. That one."

"Is there really a soup place open at 1am in Istanbul?"

"Apparently there is. And they serve a variety of soups. It's close to your hotel, by the way."

I paused for a few seconds weighing the outcomes and thinking about my hangover self. That self rarely says thanks.

"Some liquid is definitely what we need right now. I'm in."

"You got that right, man."

In Istanbul, you can get a cab by accidentally raising your hand. So did we. All three together, one Russian, one German and one Turkish, we got in the car and started our way towards eating soup in the middle of the night.

That was on the night after the 1st of December, 2018, one among many memorable days in my life. That was the first day I spoke English with real people offline. The first time when I did not want them to check me into a hotel, or bring me pasta with a glass of wine, or let me through a border control after asking a couple of generic questions. These are the things you can train via trial and error or memorise from a textbook. But situations in which people do not act like robots demand you to think in real-time. That is when your supposedly advanced language skills collapse.

During that day I was in my current employer's office for an onsite interview, trying to get a job, talking to people, or pretending to talk. I was nervous. My mind was glitching and my tongue was twisting. I was catching myself using wrong words, grammar and, perhaps, sounding weird. Although everyone seemed to understand me it was hard to talk and impossible to joke or understand jokes. It increased pressure on my ironic introverted self by a margin and woke up my anxious impostor self.

But in the second half of the day something happened. All interviews went well, I got a bit relaxed, got to know my potential colleagues better, drunk a few bottles of beer, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of... something? Don't overestimate my drinking abilities, please. The latter two bottles were for three of us who left in the office protecting the evening from being forgotten. I desperately needed to know what was in that bottle.

"How do you pronounce it?" I pointed out on the label.

"Raku."

What, I thought.

"What?" I asked.

"Rakı. The sound of the last letter doesn't exist in English. So it's Rakı. Not Raki and not Raku but something in between"

"Rakı? Like this?"

"Owww, good job, man!"

I was lucky this sound exists in Russian but I decided not to reveal where my Turkish pronunciation skills were coming from.

Rakı is a Turkey national drink made from distilled grapes and anise, as I learned later. It is transparent but gets milky if you mix it with water – the usual way of drinking it. I emptied the glass in one shot and the guys laughed yet seemed impressed.

"It wasn't supposed to be a shot, man."

Ah, now I understand why it was so weirdly big, I thought.

"Can't get away of my Russian habits, sorry".

This was a mistake but it definitely nudged language barriers to disappear and anxieties to get milky as rakı in the glass did. The potion wasn't the reason but after a while, I became more fluent in English, the only language all of us could use to communicate. Many of the words and sentences said by me were still wrong but I didn't care anymore. Repeating what I said on request didn't make me anxious either. Now I realise that it happens in native speech, too. We do not pay attention to the quality of sounds and word choice. All three of us were in a similar position. Although the guys did have more fluency in English, no one was native in that language, which, I suppose, saved the situation.

I started learning English in childhood. I needed it to play World Of Warcraft. The game client I had was only in English. All the spells and skills were in English. I needed it to survive in the virtual world just like I need it now to survive in the not-so-virtual world. I was looking up unknown words or understanding them from context or looking at spells’ icons. I still don't know the exact translation of many of them and use them in their game meanings.  Thus, my vocabulary is skewed towards fancy and old-fashioned words used almost nowhere but in the fantasy genre describing magic, sorcerers, dragons, knights, kingdoms, old weapons, creatures. Nobody uses them in everyday life, but whenever I stumble upon them I get bliss. "I know it! I learned them from WoW",  a nice and nostalgic feeling. WoW had been the only environment where I learned and used English for a long time until in university I volunteered to translate some Machine Learning tutorials from English. It wasn't a selfless decision. I had an advantage and I was freed from some other quite boring work in exchange for doing the translation. All thanks to playing video games, ironically. This is how I got into Data Science, got the first good job, worked there, applied for the second one and, before relocating to London, went to Istanbul for that one day interview I almost forgot about in this paragraph.

But anyway…

The cab ride was short and we got to the soup place. Its closeness to my hotel was defined by a few meters which made me happy. After we ordered our soups and Turkish tea, stopped teaching each other bad words from our languages (mine were not fun, everyone knew them from years of playing Dota or Counter-Strike, suka-blyat’, you know?), and switched to finding words of the same origin or completely identical words, like incir or samovar. It's fascinating to learn whose language borrowed a word from whose and find something in common. It reveals a lot about history, etymology, the exchange between cultures in the past. These are not my drunk thoughts but my current sober thoughts, by the way. My drunk thoughts were about the etymology of the word tea.

"How do you say tea in Turkish?"

"Chai."

"Really? The same as in Russian."

"Interesting."

"Yes, and that confirms the thing I learned about it. Do you know why we say it the same way, but in English it's tea?" I got a negative curious nod and continued my story. "Back in the day, tea leaves ended up being called tea if they travelled by sea and chai if they traveled by land."

"Owww, that's an interesting observation, man."

"You see, countries that got tea via the Silk Road are more likely to call it chai rather than countries that got tea via marine routes."

”What about chai latte then?”

“I suppose it’s just well marketed tea with milk. Do you know about Baltic tea?”

”No. What is it?”

”It is a cocktail sailors used to drink.”

“Does it contain tea?”

”Not quite so. It is vodka mixed with cocaine.”

Russians brought chai from Turkey together with the word. That what I thought. Our language has been influenced by many other languages, earlier German and French, now English. Many words were borrowed and have preserved their state for centuries, others has changed, adapted, modified, for some, only a root is what has left. These tiny bits and pieces are what helps you to trace the history of the country and the language and its connection to other languages.

Modern Russian consists of words of old Slavic, Latin or Greek origin and, a fun fact, Gulag parlance. This prison lingo was evolving on its own and at some point, the furuncle burst and filled the language with hundreds and thousands of new words and idioms which we now use in everyday life.  On top of it, we've got a variety of old and new anglicisms, like any other country in the world. Some of the new words have quickly lost their original meanings, often used inappropriately, and hated by boomers.

For some people, unravelling this tangle is a lifetime job. For me, it's an occasional hobby led by random curiosity sparks. But it's not only about Russian, I do the same with English, Spanish and a bit with Turkish. All languages have this blended nature. They are an imprint of history and culture. A snapshot that tells about your country and the world more than you think. It shows who was emulating and taking lessons from whom at certain points in time. When one country became dominant, in a military, cultural or technological sense, its language started to spread around, penetrating other languages, modifying or even defining their future.

The more you learn about your native language, and the more foreign languages you learn, the more patterns and similarities you can see and the more connections you can build. It does not only opens new opportunities (as it did for me, the fact I can communicate this to you is the result of that) but fills everything we take for granted with additional meanings and it suddenly starts making sense.

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