A key to unlock national character

If the upper-case Word that was in the beginning created everything, then would it be too much to suppose that lower-case words lie at the beginning of nations?

Where are his Russian colleagues?

Perhaps it would be. It’s too daring a jump to suggest that languages create nations, not the other way around. But what’s indisputable is that a nation’s language gives a clue to its character – and vice versa.

I’ve often compared my two best languages, English and Russian, to point out how much the differences between them tell us about the respective national characters.

The language of the dynamic, pragmatic, can-do English revolves around the verb, the action word. The best English sentences tend to have no more than a few non-verbal parts of speech to each verb, and the verbs are ideally as active as possible.

Moreover, since the verb forms the fulcrum of an English sentence, it must be used precisely. Hence the multitude of verbal tenses, each appearing in their infinitive, continuous and perfective variations.

The Russian verb, by contrast, is a poor relation entitled to three tenses only. The more static, contemplative, emotional Russian character needs a different language to express itself, one that can at times dispense with verbs altogether. Nouns and modifiers come to the fore instead, many with numerous affixes conveying nuances of meaning and emotional colouring.

If a nation’s character finds its exhaustive expression in its language, a nation’s language finds its artistic expression in its literature. And here a friend of mine has provided a helpful insight that’s worth developing.

Russian children grow up reading adventure stories. Americans Jack London and Mayne Reid, Frenchmen Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Boussenard and Gustave Aimard, Britons Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe are among their favourites, and there are quite a few others.

But did you notice something? There isn’t a Russian name among them. Russians love reading adventure stories, but they refuse to write them. And yet most of the writers I mentioned lived in the 19th century, the time when Russians created one of the great literatures of the world.

Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov (to name the most famous ones) delved the depths of human nature and condition, uncovering many a stratum few Western writers ever explored. However, the genre of picaresque or adventure novel seemed to have passed them by.

Yet even great English writers, such as Fielding, Swift, Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens in some of his novels, felt no compunction about turning to that genre. They didn’t think its constraints prevented them from hitting their artistic targets.

I’m convinced that this too reflects the difference between the Russian and English languages, which in turn elucidates the difference between the two national characters.

While the Russian keeps asking multiple variations of the same question, ‘Why-oh-why?’, the Englishman instantly segues to ‘What are we going to do about it?’. His very viscera craves action, not so much rumination.

When replying to questions posed by English audiences, I sometimes try to slow them down, suggesting we first understand the problem before rushing to solve it. No such issues with Russian audiences. They are happy to contemplate, sometimes bewail, the problem for so long that there’s no time left for a solution.

You understand of course that this is an oversimplification, a mere attempt to outline a tendency, rather than trying to jump to an all-encompassing conclusion. Still, there’s a hint there somewhere at the workings of the Word that was in the beginning – and of many words that followed in its wake.

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