[lg policy] Russian: Geography as part of language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 29 14:14:16 UTC 2014

*Geography as part of language*

March 20, 2014 Alexey Mikheev <http://rbth.com/author/Alexey+Mikheev>,
special to RBTH

A number of expressions and collocations in Russian feature geographical
adjectives. Many of these refer to places abroad and have their origins in
food, history and culture.


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Like any other language, Russian is full of set expressions and
collocations based on place names or adjectives derived from them. Some of
these expressions easily translate into English, e.g. Russian roulette;
others do not, e.g. "Swedish table" (*shvedsky stol*, шведский стол), which
means a smorgasbord, or buffet.

The adjective Swedish is used in two other set expressions in Russian,
which do not quite translate into English: wall bars are called a "Swedish
wall" (*shvedskaya stenka*, шведская стенка) and "Swedish family" (*shvedskaya
*semya, шведская семья) refers to an open relationship.

Another expression that will probably baffle a foreigner but is known to
practically everybody who grew up in the Soviet Union is "Armenian
radio" (*armyanskoye
radio*, армянское радио), which was a fixture of numerous, often political,
jokes in which (for some reason) the Armenian radio received a naïve
question from the audience and came up with an invariably paradoxical

*[image: Allegoric maps of Europe from the First World

VIDEO: Allegoric maps of Europe from the First World

The adjective Chinese is used in Russian in the expressions "Chinese
puzzle" (*kitaiskaya golovolomka*, китайская головоломка), meaning a
conundrum or something dizzyingly complex, and "the last Chinese
warning" (*posledneye
kitaiskoye preduprezhdenie*, Последнее *китайское предупреждение*), meaning
numerous but empty threats. While the adjective ‘Spanish’ comes up
primarily in the collocation "Spanish boot" (*ispansky sapog*, испанский
сапог), the name of a medieval torture instrument.

Some geography-inspired set expressions derive from literature or arts. For
example, the expression "secrets of the Madrid court" (*taini Madridskogo
dvora*, тайны *Мадридского двора), *meaning intrigue and scheming in the
high echelons of power, goes back to the title of a popular historical
novel by a 19th century German writer, George Fullborn.

The adjective ‘Swiss’ in Russian is usually associated with accuracy
(thanks to the watch), while punctuality and precision are usually
described as German.

There are many geographic adjectives in names of various foods, e.g. Korean
carrot salad, French bread (which in the 1940s, at the height of the Stalin-era
campaign against cosmopolitanism, was renamed "Сity bread"), Dutch cheese,
or Krakow sausage. As well as in the names of drinks like Riga balsam or
Warsaw coffee (coffee with baked milk). The names of many desserts for some
reason came from the old Socialist bloc: Berlin biscuits, Prague cake, Tula
gingerbread, or Leningrad ice cream.

Some Russian geographical names have acquired additional meanings and
connotations. For instance, the desks at the back of a classroom are often
described as “Kamchatka”. While Kolyma, an unofficial name for the Magadan
Region, which used to be primarily known for its labor camps, has become
part of a popular meme thanks to cult 1960s Soviet comedy "The Diamond
Arm". In it, the main character, who is afraid of being convicted of a
crime he did not commit, makes a casual acquaintance at a restaurant and
his new companion, on leaving, tells him: "Next time you are in Kolyma, be
sure to look me up." On hearing this, the main character chokes on his
drink and replies: "I'd rather you come over instead."


The Russian picture

The city of Tambov, located in the heart of central Russia, has for some
reason become a symbol of everything provincial. While the southern port of
Odessa (now part of Ukraine) has become associated with its own inimitable
brand of humor.

Generally speaking, North in Russia is associated with hard labor, while
South is where people go on holiday. West is a symbol of civilization and
progress, while East brings to mind conservative traditions and a certain
mysteriousness. A famous quote from another film classic, the 1960s Soviet
western "White Sun of the Desert" - "The East is a delicate matter" (*Vostok
– delo tonko*, *Восток – дело* тонко) - has too now become a meme.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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