by Don  

How do Russians name languages? How do we discuss in Russian the fact that we speak or read or write a particular language? It probably seems like a simple question for a beginning Russian student because the first language names we learn are for the European languages with which Russian has been in contact for some time, and all those language names are pretty well the same; that is, they are referred to by an adjective followed by the word язык which means both language and tongue. Thus we get:

русский языкRussian (literally “the
Russian tongue”)
английский языкEnglish
немецкий языкGerman
французский языкFrench
испанский языкSpanish
финский языкFinnish

Now the first curious thing is this: you can't use those types of adjective-noun phrases to say “I speak Russian” or “I read Russian” or “I write Russian.” To express those ideas we have to use special adverbs beginning with по- followed by one of those language adjectival stems without the й at the end:

OkayNot okay
Я читаю по-немецки.Я читаю немецкий язык.
Я говорю по-французски.Я говорю французский язык.
Я пишу по-фински.Я пишу финский язык.

With the verb понимать you can use both forms: «Я понимаю по-английски» and «Я понимаю английский язык.» And you'll definitely here it in sentences like «А ты понимаешь русский язык?» “Don't you understand plain Russian?” when you want to imply the person you are talking to is a blockhead.

The next curious thing is that there are quite a few languages that you can't really discuss using the adjective-noun combinations that we mentioned above. For instance, in Arizona there is a Native American language called Navajo навахо. In Russian there is no phrase like навахоский язык or навашский язык. For such languages the only way you can get those ideas across is to use the name of the language in the prepositional case after the preposition на:

Он читает на навахо.
Он говорит на навахо.
Он пишет на навахо.

Although theoretically those sentences are perfect, some Russians are a bit uncomfortable with them and want to include the word языке in front of the indeclinable language:

Он читает на языке навахо.
Он говорит на языке навахо.
Он пишет на языке навахо.

Of course the straight accusative option is still available for понимать: «Он понимает навахо» “He understands Navajo.”

Other languages that work like this are тви Twi (language of Ghana), апаче Apache, чероки Cherokee, эсперанто Esperanto, and суахили Swahili (language of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda) , пушту Pushtu (language of Afghanistan and Pakistan), бенгали Bengali and урду Urdu and хинди Hindi (languages of the eastern Indian subcontinent). When languages are indeclinable, you don't really notice that after на they are in the prepositional case until you encounter one of the non-European languages that declines, like тагалог Tagalog (language of the Phillipines): «Говорим на тагалоге» “We speak Tagalog.” Tagalog is interesting because nowadays there is an adjective (and thence an adverb) тагальский по-тагальски that have been derived from the noun, so for this one you can say it the other way as well: «Говорим по-тагальски» “We speak Tagalog.”

If you mention a text written in the language, then the на form almost always works:

Я пишу статью на русском языке.I'm writing an article in Russian.
Она читает «Анну Каренину» на английском языке.She is reading “Anna Karenina” in English.
Мы нашли «Алису в стране чудес» на суахили.We found “Alice in Wonderland” in Swahili.
Он получил телеграмму на немецком языке.He got a telegram in German.
А сколько человек говорят на эсперанто?How many people speak Esperanto?

But what about languages that aren't spoken? What about languages that communicate using the hands? With them we can still use the verb говорить, but only the на complement is possible: «Я говорю на языке русских глухонемых» “I speak Russian sign language” (lit. “I speak in the language of Russian deaf-mutes”).

No feedback yet

Form is loading...