CHAPTER V. FIRST ATTEMPT TO LEARN RUSSIAN - PLAN OF EXPLORATION - DIVISION OP PARTY
One of the first things which the traveller notices in any foreign country is the language, and it is especially noticeable in Kamchatka, Siberia, or any part of the great Russian Empire. What the ancestors of the Russians did at the Tower of Babel to have been afflicted with such a complicated, contorted, mixed up, utterly incomprehensible language, I can hardly conjecture. I have thought sometimes that they must have built their side of the Tower higher than any of the other tribes, and have been punished for their sinful industry with this jargon of unintelligible sounds, which no man could possibly hope to understand before he became so old and infirm that he could never work on another tower. However they came by it, it is certainly a thorn in the flesh to all travellers in the Russian Empire. Some weeks before we reached Kamchatka I determined to learn, if possible, a few common expressions, which would be most useful in our first intercourse with the natives, and among them the simple declarative sentence, "I want something to eat." I thought that this would probably be the first remark that I should have to make to any of the inhabitants, and I determined to learn it so thoroughly that I should never be in danger of starvation from ignorance. I accordingly asked the Major one day what the equivalent expression was in Russian. He coolly replied that whenever I wanted anything to eat, all that I had to do was to say, "Vashavwesokeeblagarodiaeeveeleekeeprevoskhodeetelstvoeetakdalshai." I believe I never felt such a sentiment of reverential admiration for the acquired talents of any man as I did for those of the Major when I heard him pronounce, fluently and gracefully, this extraordinary sentence. My mind was hopelessly lost in attempting to imagine the number of years of patient toil which must have preceded his first request for food, and I contemplated with astonishment the indefatigable perseverance which has borne him triumphant through the acquirement of such a language. If the simple request for something to eat presented such apparently insurmountable obstacles to pronunciation, what must the language be in its dealings with the more abstruse questions of theological and metaphysical science? Imagination stood aghast at the thought.
I frankly told the Major that he might print out this terrible sentence on a big placard and hang it around my neck; but as for learning to pronounce it, I could not, and did not propose to try. I found out afterwards that he had taken advantage of my inexperience and confiding disposition by giving me some of the longest and worst words in his barbarous language, and pretending that they meant something to eat. The real translation in Russian would have been bad enough, and it was wholly unnecessary to select peculiarly hard words.
The Russian language is, I believe, without exception, the most difficult of all modern languages to learn. Its difficulty does not lie, as might be supposed, in pronunciation. Its words are all spelled phonetically, and have only a few sounds which are foreign to English; but its grammar is exceptionally involved and intricate. It has seven cases and three genders; and as the latter are dependent upon no definite principle whatever, but are purely arbitrary, it is almost impossible for a foreigner to learn them so as to give nouns and adjectives their proper terminations. Its vocabulary is very copious; and its idioms have a peculiarly racy individuality which can hardly be appreciated without a thorough acquaintance with the colloquial talk of the Russian peasants.
The Russian, like all the Indo-European languages, is closely related to the ancient Sanscrit, and seems to have preserved unchanged, in a greater degree than any of the others, the old Vedic words. The first ten numerals, as spoken by a Hindoo a thousand years before the Christian era, would, with one or two exceptions, be understood by a modern Russian peasant.
During our stay in Petropavlovsk we succeeded in learning the Russian for "Yes," "No," and "How do you do?" and we congratulated ourselves not a little upon even this slight progress in a language of such peculiar difficulty.
Our reception at Petropavlovsk by both Russians and Americans was most cordial and enthusiastic, and the first three or four days after our arrival were spent in one continuous round of visits and dinners. On Thursday we made an excursion on horseback to a little village called Avacha, ten or fifteen versts distant across the bay, and came back charmed with the scenery, climate, and vegetation of this beautiful peninsula. The road wound around the slopes of grassy, wooded hills, above the clear blue water of the bay, commanding a view of the bold purple promontories which formed the gateway to the sea, and revealing now and then, between the clumps of silver birch, glimpses of long ranges of picturesque snow-covered mountains, stretching away along the western coast to the white solitary peak of Villuchinski, thirty or forty miles distant. The vegetation everywhere was almost tropical in its rank luxuriance. We could pick handfuls of flowers almost without bending from our saddles, and the long wild grass through which we rode would in many places sweep our waists. Delighted to find the climate of Italy where we had anticipated the biting air of Labrador, and inspirited by the beautiful scenery, we woke the echoes of the hills with American songs, shouted, halloed, and ran races on our little Cossack ponies until the setting sun warned us that it was time to return.