German-speaking-proficiency shame

The last novel I read, Ivan Turgenev’s Liza (Everyman’s Library edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston) has a counterintuitive comment on how proficiency in different European languages was held in Russian society, or at least a certain part of it, at the time of the story’s telling:

The young Vladimir Nikolaevich spoke excellent French, good English, and bad German. That is just as it should be. Properly brought-up people should of course be ashamed to speak German really well; but to throw out a German word now and then, and generally on facetious topics – that is allowable; “c’est même très chic,” as the Petersburg Parisians say.

That these preferences are more a matter of etiquette than anything merely practical is shown by the next line, where Nikolaevich is praised for having learned, by age fifteen, “how to enter any drawing-room whatsoever without becoming nervous, how to move about it in an agreeable manner, and how to take his leave exactly at the right moment.”

Imagine the faux pas of slightly mistiming one’s departure from the room while speaking good German. Drawing room, incidentally, has nothing etymologically to do with drawing – it’s short for withdrawing room, which is the older name: a room to withdraw to. But I’m all for drawing there anyway.

17 Responses to German-speaking-proficiency shame

  1. Sherry Roth says:

    …wow, what a faux pas. But imagine speaking excellent English, bad French and only a smidge of Yiddish LOLOL I am SO out of there!!

  2. I wonder if that has to do with the German-speaking citizens of Russia, who tended to be petit bourgeoisie or even mere artisans. So if you spokje German well, it implied you were spending too much time with “those people.:

  3. Susannah says:

    Luckily, I couldn’t POSSIBLY make such an inexcusable faux pas: I speak excellent English, good French, and precisely two sentences of German, pronounced badly. And if I do say so myself, I possess a most extraordinary sense of drawing room timing.

    Oh…wait. That won’t do at all; I speak not a word of Russian!

    (Thanks for an interesting post. I loved it!)

  4. maceochi says:

    A quick search of the Russian internet would seem to show that this is sarcastic humour. While I haven’t read “A Home for the Gentry” (I had no idea it was alternatively translated as “Liza”), the description of Lavretskiy seems to fit with many other 19th-century likeable rogues in Russian literature. They want to be seen as educated, but not as going overboard with it. All educated Russians spoke French then as a matter of course, but German was a bit rarer. These cads spent more time on cards and billiards then on learning foreign languages.

  5. maceochi says:

    Re: drawing rooms. I would have translated that differently. “Vladimir Nikolaevich knew, from as early as fifteen, how to enter any living room, twirl about pleasantly in it and leave at the right moment.” The Russian word that Ralston has translated as “exactly at the right moment” is just one word, кстати (kstati), which means “precisely”, “to the point” and “by the way”. I think the humour here is in the fact that Vladimir Nikolaevich was such an adept social animal that he knew when to slip off without losing face – perhaps because the company in question was boring him. (Incidentally, I don’t know if Russian has a specific word for “drawing room” – the original word, гостиная, gostinaya, literally means “guest room” and is nowadays translated as “living room”. But of course that is not the proper term for a middle-upper class 19th-century house.)

  6. cynthiamvoss says:

    Interesting about the origin of drawing room. I always played with the thought (but knew it was wrong) that the name had something to do with the fancy curtains found inside one :-) Like they would draw the curtains and hang out there after dinner, or whatever those rich people used to do.

  7. thnidu says:

    I’m rather drawn to it.

  8. Stan Carey says:

    Sherry: Ha ha. I think with my poor German and rusty French and Irish I might sneak by, though my complete lack of Russian would eventually disgrace me.

    babydialectics: I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the culture in question to be sure of the reasoning behind it.

    Susannah: That sounds like an ideal combination, apart from the Russian side of things. Maybe you could time your exit precisely to escape being found out.

    maceochi: Yes, it’s obviously intended with some humour. Shame is such a strong emotion that I’m not fully persuaded by your suggestion, but you may well be right. Lavretsky is a different character from Vladimir Nikolaevich [Panshine], though. Home of the Gentry might be the more common title; my paperback is quite old, a 1969 reprint of a 1914 edition. And the version of it on the Internet Archive is subtitled “A nest of nobles”, which seems analogous to Home of the Gentry but a lot less grand! Thanks for the helpful notes on translation.

    Cynthia: It’s an appealing image! And no drawing room worth its pretty pictures is complete without a nice set of curtains (which must be drawn at just the right time).

    thnidu: I’m with you on that.

  9. astraya says:

    The high point of my ‘mastery’ of German was being mistaken as a German speaker by an actual German person in Germany, on the basis of my impeccable pronunciation of two words. As I left the rest-room of a motorway restaurant/service station, I said “danke schön” to the attendant, who replied in full-blown German. When I said “I don’t speak German”, she replied “Oh but you said that so well”. I’d just performed in Mahler’s 8th Symphony in the Albert Hall, London, and we’d had German pronunciation surgically implanted into us by the language coach.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well done on your German mastery. What instrument(s) do you play?

      • astraya says:

        My first degree was in classical piano, but I’m way out of practice. I’ve also played organ, electronic, keyboards, handbells, clarinet and recorder. Since my first year of university I’ve sung in church, university, cathedral and community choirs. The previous story arose because the small community concert choir I then sang in was invited (along with another another small community concert choir) by Sydney’s major philharmonic choir to join it and choirs from Birmingham and London to form the massed choir for a concert in the Albert Hall, London as part of the London Proms.

  10. Sean Jeating says:

    “Oh, was ist die deutsche Sprak ein arm Sprak! für ein plump Sprak.”
    [Riccault de la Marlinière in Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm 4,2]

    • Stan Carey says:

      On the other hand, as Flann O’Brien wrote: “Waiting for the German verb is surely the ultimate thrill.”

      • Sean Jeating says:

        Ha ha, and he also wrote:
        The Plain People of Ireland: Isn’t the German very like the Irish? Very guttural and so on?

        Myself: Yes.

        The Plain People of Ireland: People say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues.

        Myself: Yes.

        The Plain People of Ireland: The sounds is all guttural do you understand.

        Myself. Yes.

        The Plain People of Ireland: Very guttural languages the pair of them the Gaelic and the German.

      • Tomboktu says:

        Mark Twain wrote a long essay on “The Awful German Language”, which the Goethe Institut in Dublin used as a prize for student at its evening classes.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Thanks, Tomboktu. I knew the essay but not the detail about the Goethe-Institut. The essay can be read here.

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