Tuesday, July 31, 2007

zhivi i zdrastvui

Don't ask me what it means, but I sang it this weekend with the Gay Mens Chorus of Los Angeles. It's an English transliteration of a Russian text from the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Gudonov. Imagine eight pages of that sort of thing.

The chorus memorizes our music, which is difficult enough, but when the text is in a lnaguage that I don't speak it becomes expecially difficult. We had texts in Italian and German as well. The Russian text was the worst because the sounds are completely different from English and there's no way to make any sense of the words. I never did understand what we were saying beyond some broad sense of singing praise fro the newly crowned Tzar. In memorizing an English text I'm helped by recalling the general idea being conveyed, or the picture described by the language. In English I can memorize sentences, and the idea of one sentence leads to the idea contained in the next so I can memorize whole paragraphs or the entire piece as a single unit. In Russian there was no logical way to figure out how one word lead to the next, it was all just random sounds.

Confronted with the meaningless sounds of Russian (which of course are not meaningless to a Russian speaker) made me see with amazement how language works. The idea that a certain arrangement of sounds contains a meaning capable of transfering an idea from one brain to another, is pretty awesome. The same thing is true of written language, of course. That this blog is about something, as opposed to just being an arrangement of letters and spaces is a remarkable intellectual achievement of our culture.

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