Smoke is the working title of a Leningrad novel I’ve been writing for years, a Cold-War romance about falling in love with not only one person but with his entire culture. It’s a source of endless absorption on evenings and weekends, and a conversation piece for folks who greet me with “How is that great Russian-American novel coming along?”
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 20, “Welcome.”
Friendly supporters can see how long it takes the heroine to navigate one sentence and three steps on a dirt path. That might explain why it’s taking her narrator so long to get her through 450 pages.
On Friday morning we arrived at the train station. Misha took my knapsack for our walk to the dacha.
There was a small wooden shed near the tracks; Misha stopped at the window with a word of greeting, and reached in his pocket for change. Someone inside handed out two packs of Belomor Canal cigarettes.
As we walked on, I turned to him. “Please, do light up.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Would it be all right?”
“Certainly; my breathing is fine when we’re outside in the open air.”
He hitched my knapsack up over his shoulder, and struck a match.
The cool fresh morning forest closed in over our heads. We followed the soft pine-needled path to cut across a little dirt road; there a pickup truck was just hauling away a load of demolition rubble, and churning up engine fumes and powdered dirt.
I covered a cough.
Misha veered away, holding his cigarette behind him. “That settles it; I have no business smoking near you anywhere at all.”
“No no, it’s not your smoke.” I cleared my throat, fanning the air. “This is pyl.”
He raised a brow. “It’s what?”
“Pyl.” Still coughing, I pointed toward the truck.
He thought that over, and made a tactful suggestion. “You mean pyl’?”
“Oh.” I knew by now that he virtually never contradicted or corrected me, and certainly knew that he knew better, whatever the difference might be. “Ah, yes.” To me my pyl and his pyl’ sounded about the same. But for my l I scooped the tongue hollow with the tip raised. For his l’ he rounded the tongue tip down, with the middle of the tongue raised to the palate. (That apostrophe is linguistic shorthand showing that unlike my l, his l’ was palatalized, or “soft.”)
English speech can include a touch of incidental palatalization (try overexaggerating l as in liii versus luuu). But in English the difference is not phonemic — that is, it doesn’t change meaning; softening our consonants with a convex tongue would just come across as an individual affectation. Same with Spanish: the spelling “l” is always soft, always pronounced l.’ In Arabic, all “l” is soft l’ with one highly honored distinction: “l” is pronounced hard l in the name “Allah.” In all three languages, adding palatalization or not adding it might sound strange, but at least the locals will understand you and the waiter will still bring dinner.
But in Russian most consonants come in two flavors, hard or soft, and using one versus the other can give a completely different meaning. The difference is more than personal taste, more than the lighthearted “You like tomato, and I like tomahto” dialect distinction drawn by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Shall We Dance.” A student of Russian might think that its hardest pronunciation feature is those jolly consonant clusters (my favorite is the root “umershchvl–,” from my Orthodox prayerbook); but palatalization is the most exacting pronunciation point.
Some Russian comic could have a field day putting on an English accent and generating hilarious palatalization puns. Russian is packed with near-homonyms, pronounced identically except for the tongue position of one or more consonants.
The simple little syllable m + a + t can form four unique words, depending on how we pronounce the two consonants:
mat = “profane language” (no palatalization at all).
m’at = “mint” herb (palatalized m’)
mat’ = “mother” (palatalized t’)
m’at’ = “to rumple” (palatalized m’ plus palatalized t’)
(This might explain why in Leningrad our classmate Matt was automatically called Matvey.)
Years after that Leningrad summer, one of my language students refused to practice palatalization drills; he protested that using soft consonants would make him sound like a pansy Milquetoast. His insistence on using only hard consonants would be like a student of Mandarin learning only tones 1 and 2, rejecting tones 3 and 4. I had to break the news that once he and his hard consonants got to Russia, people would be surprised not by his virile image but by his sad inability to distinguish between “coal” versus “corner”; or “over there” versus “there’s a stench”; or “shelf” versus “Polish woman”; or “he was carrying,” versus “ox.”
Misha steadfastly refused to ever rebuke or ridicule me for making mistakes, especially when I rebuked myself. Because of his courtesy and tact, it was only later that I learned my lesson:
For a girl on a forest road, pyl’ and pyl meant the difference between remarking that the footing was “dusty,” or confiding to an honorable young man that she is breathing heavily due to excess physical “ardor.”