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Fossilized Speech and Its Episodic Disinterment (“во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины”)

The way any living language is spoken (synchrony) always inevitably includes elements––phonological, grammatical, and stylistic––that are characterized as obsolete or obsolescent. This situation answers to what in the Prague School was described as “dynamic synchrony,” i. e., the presence as relics of older stages of any given language’s historical development, which is to say that there are always fossilized (“old-fashioned”) strata in any living language.

This idea was exemplified with striking patency when Y-H-B attended a meeting of a scholarly society in Seattle and had occasion to speak his mother tongue (Russian) to a fellow scholar, a Russian émigré many years his junior who was born and educated in the former USSR. At several points in the several conversations that took place between them over the span of three days, it was remarked with repeated amazement and delight by his interlocutor how Y-H-B had somehow managed to preserve and continue in what can only be described as fossilized form the refined pre-Revolutionary speech of the Russian educated elite to which his parents belonged and preserved over the long span of their worldwide peregrinations as refugees.

In order to understand the astonishment and incredulity of Y-H-B’s interlocutor, one needs to know that Russians as an ethnic group have a traditionally heightened fondness for their mother tongue. This affect was captured by the great Russian novelist Turgenev in his most famous prose poem (1882), which goes as follows:

«Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины, ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык!.. Не будь тебя — как не впасть в отчаяние при виде всего, что совершается дома. Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!»

[“In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!” (translated by Constance Garnett)]

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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