Robert Swetz, a blogger and photographer, posted What is the best version of The Holy Bible? He was asking the advice of the members so that he could deal with as "pure" and as "original" source as possible.
I never opened a Bible, so to me the topic was purely academic, but somehow it made me think and got stuck in my head like a popular tune. Not about the Bible, but about the change that time brings to life and the language.
In essence, the language is like the river Ganga - remember: you can't enter it twice? Every time the river is different. In a rushing stressful contemporary living we tend to forget that time is not the wrist watch, it is much bigger than that, and we can't just roll forward the hands of the watch and get into the future. What we fail to understand is that we can't roll the hands back and get into the past. We are living in a particular time, and me today most probably would not agree to shake hands with me of 40 years ago. Me today and me then are different people.
We came to US in 1991. In spring of 1992 we bought a car, which, surprisingly, was moving pretty well. That's when we started exploring America. We felt like Columbus. Our trips were to the neighboring Westchester County (NY), and up to south Connecticut. We were poor like church rats, and yard sales replaced the fanciest Shopping Malls.
In one of those tours of the beautiful suburbs, we ran into a Russian guy, whose family was in the US since shortly after the revolution of 1917. He was in his 40s, he was born in the US and he has never been in Russia, but he was still unmistakably Russian. The family taught him Russian very well. He was fluent and his Russian was beautiful for the ear, but it was different from the Russian we spoke. I remembered that "old" Russian immigration of the beginning of the 20th century (so called first wave) and their descendants considered the way we speak vulgar. Of course, we did not see it this way. We are speaking intelligent and somewhat refined Russian, but, I think, we sounded vulgar to this guy.
It's been 17-18 years ago. We do not have Russian radio or Russian television at home (even though it is really easy now), so we are sort of isolated from the Russian media, which is healthy for our souls. Time from time I grab a Russian newspaper when I stop at a Russian deli, but it is a rare occasion. When we go back to New York to visit old friends, they have Russian TV, and we are surprised how vulgar the anchors sound. We were listening to a national news program, and I could not believe my ears. It was like as if this was a newscaster from the jail. Word choices, simple mistakes, intonation...
In 1995 we went back to Russia to visit the graves. I remember talking to friends, and I wanted to find the Russian version of the word "traffic", and I couldn't as when I left Russia this was not yet the problem. So, I started explaining to them what that was, and then they said "Ah, yes, That's traffic".They said traffic the way we say it here. I did not know that this is now a Russian word. It is in the dictionary.
At one time I had great ideas to have the Russians invest in US, and I was preparing an article about real estate in Florida, and I remember how difficult it was to find the Russian definitions of "Development", "Touwnhouse" and many others. Yes, you could explain, but there were no terms like that in Russian. At least that's what I thought until, after writing the article, I ran into a Russian Real Estate site, where I learned that "development" and "Townhouse" and many other words are now Russian words. And it did not take long, less than 2 decades.
Our American friends invited us to their home. They showed us a Russian Samovar (copper tea pot), which he bought while working in Tehran, and asked us to tell him what was inscribed on the copper. We looked at it, but could not understand. I could say that it was in old Russian, but I did not understand it. There was a date stamped on it: 1895. It was made just 50+ years before I was born, and I could not read it? It was humiliating.
Yes, there was a reform of Russian language after the revolution. They simplified the syntax, eliminated some letters. I knew that. But I could not imagine that I would not be able to understand the phrase written not thousand years ago, but just 50-60 years before I was born.
In July 1985 I went to the oldest Russian village in the North. 100 kilometers under the Arctic Circle on Pechora river, this was not that far from Vorkuta, a coal-mining place in the Arctic where we lived at that time. Ust Tsilma (my best shot to convert the name of the village into English) is the place of a famous folk festival. Not something that people, drunk and sober, get to celebrate all over the country, but a very formal and traditional celebration going back to 17th-18th century.
It is a fascinating festival. The dresses, that villagers keep for literally hundreds of years. They gather on that special place called Gorka (hill), form a geometric figure and then start signing and dancing. It is very ritual, very strict, amazing with all those dresses and head pieces. but my problem was that I could not understand a single word. Did they sing in Russian? Oh, yes. So how come I did not understand a single word, not even a hint, not even an idea what they were singing about?
I can watch a movie in Chinese and I would understand something if not a lot (depends not on my sophistication, but rather on the level of primitiveness if the movie LOL). But here they were singing in Russian, and I, a University graduate with some graduate studies, could not understand a word. The only consolation was that every other guest did not understand a word either.
The village started in 1542 and by 17th-18th century it started getting the influx of people running from religious persecution when the orthodox church branched and one branch was official and the other was annihilated. Far North was not easily reachable, and people lived simple lives and did not mingle with the rest of the world, until fairly recently. And if they picked modern language when the were no longer isolated, and they are speaking the same language every other Russian speaks (with some dialectal flavor), the songs of the Gorka stayed the way it was in the 17th century. This was the Russian language of the 17th century, and we did not understand it.
I am not sure whether English had changed as dramatically, but can we really understand the language people were speaking 300 years ago? Would we be able to enjoy Shakespeare of 1590?
It is mind boggling how fast we are changing, how fast life is changing.