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Stephen Fry: It Takes Subtlety to See the Similarity Between Latin and Slavic Languages

Earlier this week I had to recall how, during a trip to Carmarthen in 2007, I walked into a Waterstone’s shop and took a textbook on the English language off the shelf. It was a manual for school pupils, and, to my utter surprise, there was no section on grammar that explained things like “noun”, “verb”, and “adjective”. I realised why a few years before I had had a great trouble trying to teach Russian to an English person who had no idea which words were “nouns”, and how they were different from “verbs”.

Stephen Fry argues in his new programme about world’s languages, that it takes subtlety to see the similarity between Latin and Slavic languages. Knowing a few languages myself, including Latin, Russian, and English, I can say that it does take subtlety – ONLY IF we approach the subject from a common point of view that sees Slavic (Russian, in particular) as some kind of a totally different language system. On the other hand, IF we know that Russian underwent a reform that used the German language for a model, we may guess that, in fact, there is more similarity between Russian and Latin than one would otherwise think – simply because German had been influenced by Latin, too. The same would go for other Slavic languages, especially in the countries in the Latin sphere of influence, like Poland or Czech Republic.

True, it is harder to identify such tenses, as Praesens Historicum or Plusquamperfectum in the Russian language. The same is actually true of the English language: English uses “narrative present” or “dramatic present”, but, unless you are a linguist, you are blissfully unaware of such thing. As with Praesens Historicum, e.g., this is the case of a Present tense being used in the context of describing the past. For those interested and able to read in German, here is a paper by Baldur Panzer, Die Funktion des Verbalaspekts im Praesens historicum des Russischen. At the same time, other tenses can be identified by the use of adverbs, as is the case with the Latin Imperfectum, or the English Present Perfect. And one should not forget that French language, for instance, uses the tenses that did not exist in Latin language, like Passé Immédiat.

Every language requires subtlety to comprehend the rich mozaic of meaning, images, and historic traces. I do believe that everybody is capable of learning, understanding, and using languages. The only problem is that we normally approach the process rationally, whereas the language is a system of symbols, with every word, and every sentence, painting a new picture. We need a fair amount of imagination to understand the differences between various present, past, and future tenses, just as we need even more imagination to figure out why there are so many verbs to describe the act of using the eyesight: “see”, “observe”, “look”, “watch”, “view”, “stare”, “gaze”, to name but a few. A scene from “Sophie’s choice” comes to mind, when Meryl Streep’s character says (Praesens Historicum!) that “quick”, “rapid”, “swift” and a handful of other words all meant the same thing in Polish.

And again I will argue that, until we apply imagination to understand the “iconography” of our native language, we will be failing at foreign languages.

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