May 01, 2005

War-Torn Language

War-Torn Language

Given that, in the 20th century alone, some 30 to 50 million Soviets died as a result of war, it should be no surprise that war has made its mark on the Russian language. To summon up Lenin’s famous precept from the Civil War (9 million killed): Учиться военному делу настоящим образом, we have “learned the art of war the real way,” or perhaps “the hard way.” And, as the proverb has it, Война не лечит, а калечит. (War does not heal, it scars.)

In the Kievan Rus era, Kiev’s Prince Svyatoslav addressed his warriors on the eve of an enemy invasion with the words: Да не посрамим земле Русские, но ляжем костьми, мёртвы ибо срама не имам  (“Let us be worthy of the Russian land, for the fallen ones know no shame”). A slightly modernized version of the latter portion – мёртвые срама не имут – has entered modern usage and is commonly seen in press headlines and word plays (e.g., компьютеры спаму не имут – “computers know no spam,” replacing sram, “shame,” with spam).

Closer to our era, General Alexander Suvorov, the great war hero, reminded that: Воюй не числом, а уменьем (“make war not with numbers, but with your talents”). Russian linguist Vladimir Dal , meanwhile, collected many sayings from the War of 1812, including these two about Napoleon: Наступил на зeмлю русскую, да оступился (“he stepped on Russian lands, but stumbled”), and Отогрелся в Москве, да замёрз на Березине (“he warmed up in Moscow, but froze on the Berezina” – referring both to the occupation and burning of Moscow and the French defeat).

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