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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

A Guide to Russian Words and Expressions That Cause Difficulties. Marina Rojavin & Allan Reid.. Studies in Slavic Languages and Literature Vol. 23, Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. xv, 232.

In the arsenal of pedagogical materials this book will find its right place amongst what one could call "the rapid reaction forces." It aims to provide quick answers to many of those specific questions that every learner begins to face sooner or later in the process of studying Russian. As the authors point out, it "is neither a textbook nor a dictionary," but might become "a helpful auxiliary resource" in the process of dealing with the target language. It provides a brief, clear and, at the same time, quite satisfactory explanation of numerous Russian words and expressions which have a potential to cause learners serious practical difficulties or/and to become for them a source of a long-lasting confusion. Marina Rojavin and Allan Reid clearly base the choice of content on their rich experience in teaching Russian to English-speaking students. As Dr. Serafima Gettys observes in the Preface, "the Russian language is full of pitfalls for English Speakers." Without pretending to have solved this problem once and forever, the authors have selected and tried to clarify several hundreds of Russian words, synonyms, antonyms, related words, specific terms, and expressions, the correct and fluent use of which does not necessarily result automatically from mastering Russian grammar and often requires a significant familiarization with more general linguistic and cultural contexts. At the same time, the absolute majority of the selected "Russian words and expressions that cause difficulties" belongs to the core of the language and tend to become a source of major problems for learners at relatively early stages of their acquisition of Russian. The book offers readily available solutions to such inevitable and predictable problems. It addresses them directly and presents its answers in the way which both optimizes the clarity for the English-speaking learner and maximizes the ease of assimilation of the information that it provides.

The book consists of nine parts: About the Book, Preface by Serafima Gettys (Stanford University), Acknowledgements, How to Use the Book, Symbols, Abbreviations, and Terminology, English-Russian Glossary, Russian Word Index,,Entries, and Bibliography. In the introduction "About the Book," the authors clarify the purpose of the work that they have undertaken and provide a brief explanation of the selection of the elements included.. They point out the fact that "a minimal grammatical commentary is presented to facilitate understanding" and emphasize again that such "grammatical explanations have been kept to the minimum, while the bulk of "clarification is given in the form of verbal illustrations comparing the use of particular words in both Russian and English." In her "Preface," Serafima Gettys connects the book to what "has become known in foreign language acquisition theory as the lexical approach," which "relies on contrastive linguistic analysis" and "requires language awareness." Gettys considers the response that the book provides to these requirements to be completely adequate to the task and she praises the authors' work. In the brief but very useful part "How to Use the Book," the authors provide the explanation of various technical details such as the use of boldface type and italics, quotation marks and punctuation, all of which they employ in order to highlight numerous aspects of the use of a particular lexical item in its proper Russian meaning as well as in its relationship to a possible English equivalent. The part "Symbol, Abbreviations, and Terminology" continues the necessary explanation concerning with the practical use of the book in respect to some symbols and abbreviation that the authors use frequently. The authors also provide here an explanation of "Some Basic Grammatical Terms," a better familiarization with which is required for full understanding of the "minimal grammatical commentary" that is used. Both the "English-Russian Glossary" and the "Russian Word Index" are designed to help the readers to find answers at their specific questions as quickly and easily as possible; the former is destined to lead the reader, who begins with an English word and tries to find the best Russian equivalent for it, while the latter guides the reader through the Russian words explained in the book. The part "Entries" represents the very core of the book. Here, the Russian words and expressions as well as their pairs and groups are listed alphabetically and explained through both some grammatical comments and practical examples. Finally, the "Bibliography" provides a comprehensible list of dictionaries, language manuals, and other special materials, which can become useful for readers who want to extend their knowledge and improve further their understanding of the most complicated lexical items proper to the Russian language.

There is no doubt that everyone who studies or teaches Russian will welcome this book. Not only does it address the particularly troublesome lexical elements of the language but it also anticipates potential problems and offers readily available solutions which are specifically adapted to the reader in whose native language it is written. It generously shares with the reader, for whom studying Russian is a completely new and very much individual process, the experience accumulated by the previous generations of learners.

The authors act not so much as academic instructors but rather as wise guides, who lead a novice through the little known terrain and not only help in case of emergency but also alert to possible further dangers and annoyances such as common errors and particularly anglicisms. Thus, the book becomes a real guide providing quick and effective help in seemingly desperate situation.

Both the "entries" themselves, i.e. the words and expressions in question, and the illustrating examples have been carefully selected, and the latter ones shed light on the former ones under various angles. This is particularly important in the case of polysemy, which is a property of many of the Russian words included into the book. The variety of contexts in which Russian words and expressions are presented create a truly multidimensional perspective in which a particular lexical element appears not as an isolated unity but as an integral part of the whole that is called "the language." The authors successfully demonstrate a lot of creativity in both the selection of their examples and the art of putting them together. At the same time, all the entries follow the same ones established order ("entry" itself, English translation, explanation, examples, another explanation when necessary, following examples). This, in its turn, enables the reader to get used to the book very quickly. This happy marriage of a creative approach and an orderly presentation enables the authors to illuminate various facets of numerous important lexical elements. The authors show how elements work with each other and, most importantly, how one element can work with various other ones interacting with them in different ways. As a result, the reader gets some invaluable help precisely at the moment he needs it the most, namely when he has been left alone with numerous elements of both vocabulary and grammar and is supposed to find out how to put them together in the way to avoid a seemingly inevitable friction between numerous parts.

For example, the very first "entry" deals with an important problem of differentiation between the Russian conjunctions "а" and "но" (29-30). The authors present their entry "А - Но" and translate it as "But." First, they explain that "a means and, while" and it "expresses difference and comparison." They also mention other possible applications of this conjunction such as connecting "parts of a sentence when listing facts" and its use "at the beginning of interrogative and exclamatory sentences to give emphasis" (29) The authors provide examples which illustrate all the points that they have just mentioned. After that, the authors pass to the explanation of the conjunction "но," which "is used to show a contradiction between two parts of a sentence," "implies a limitation," and "can be translated as however, nevertheless" (29). This is followed by examples as well (29-30).

Practically all the entries are very good. Particularly useful are the ones that clarify the differences between such confusing elements as если vis-à-vis ли (88-89), любить v-à-v нравиться (129-130), надеть v-à-v одеть (141), сейчас v-à-v теперь (195-196), давно v-à-v долго (75-76). Many entries contain important observations, advice and warnings such as the preference of the verb "собираться" over the noun "вечеринка" (52), the suggestion to use only "который час?" while asking "what time is it?" and to attribute "сколько времени?" to the inquiry about the duration of an activity (58), the emphasis on "задать вопрос" as an equivalent of "to ask a question" and a warning against such a common mistake as "спросить вопрос" (178). One should particularly praise the brave attempt to make some sense of the particle "ну" (151). As the authors promise in the Preface, they pay attention to some apparently simple words which cause real difficulties but often remain overseen as, for instance, семья (196), кафедра (121-122), факультет (219) or an important distinction between больница and госпиталь (37).

From the technical point of view, the methods that the authors use to highlight some specific points (translation, examples etc.) are good and include various types, symbols etc. One can praise in particular the way in which the authors use the page space. They do it economically but still achieve both completeness and clarity of presentation. The use of the "English-Russian Glossary" and "Russian Word Index" might seem a little confusing in the beginning, but the reader certainly will get accustomed to using these indexes quite quickly and then will undoubtedly appreciate the laconic form of search and internal references that the author found for their unusual book. The book is very well edited, is a pleasure to handle, and thus represents a great success for The Edwin Millen Press as well.

Writing and editing a language book is a difficult undertaking, and it is a sad but well known fact that no such book is ever completely immune to some more or less disappointing deficiencies. This book is, of course, not an exception although the excellent work of its authors and editors have made it possible to keep the occurring annoyances to the minimum. The few errors that one can spot belong to the kind of printing ones and can be easily recognized as such ones by even the most inexperienced reader. The only really important mistake that may not be immediately obvious to all readers occurs in the entry "Весь - Целый," where the plural short form of the adjective целый is given as целы with the stress on ы while it should be целы with the stress on е (52). A textual error occurs in the entry "Усы," where the verb "отрастить" is given as a perfective equivalent for both "отращивать" and "сбривать" while the latter should, of course, have been paired with "сбрить" (216). While the letter "ё" is well marked everywhere else, it is printed as a simple "е" in one of the examples in the entry "Говорить-Разговаривать-Рассказать-Сказать," namely in the sentence "Перестаньте разговаривать, вы не даёте работать" (67). Other typographical errors are of really minor importance and do not represent problems for the reader as, for instance, a sudden capitalization in one of the examples in the entry "В Доме-Дом-Дома-Домой," where the letter "к" is capitalized in "Она любит быть дома и редко ходит куда-нибудь" (50), or an accidental misplacement of "mineral baths" which does not fit into its column in the entry "Ванна-Ванная" (49).

In composing their book, the authors demonstrate a good sense of measure and usually keep the difficult balance between completeness and reasonable limitations very well. Sometimes, however, they miss a good opportunity to discuss certain particular features.  Although the adverb "уже" is discussed quite well in the entry "Ещё-Уже," it might have been opposed to the comparative form of the adjective "узкий" (and adverb "узко") with the clear emphasis on the difference in stress (93). In the entry "Отметка - Оценка" the words in question are discussed only as "grade" while "оценка" can also mean "evaluation" and "отметка" might be "a note" or "a remark" (158-159). Finally, even though all the examples, that the authors provide are thoughtful and adequate to the task, some purists might happen to regret the fact that Genitive of negation is disappearing not only from colloquial Russian but also from the books intended for the instruction in this language.

The authors have been successful in creating a very good and extremely useful book, which will benefit equally both learners and teachers who are dealing with instruction in the Russian language. Foreign speakers of Russian of virtually all possible levels of proficiency will find something particularly interesting within the wide range of the material that the authors have included into their "Guide." The book can, therefore, be recommended for both individual learners and instructors as well as for institutions which provide any level of instruction in Russian.

Arkadi Kliouthanski

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