Russian Word of the Day: Фамильярность-familiarity

What more unromantic word than ‘familiarity’? Ugh. Right? WRONG!!! Two of my MOST favorite poems in Russian play upon the concepts of formality and familiarity in Russian.

First to fully appreciate these poems you have to understand some things about the Russian pronouns ‘Ты’ and ‘Вы’.

A scene from the new Anna Karenina

Вы, the formal pronoun, is the word you use when someone is older, not familiar and you use to show respect.  Ты is what you use to talk to people who are younger, familiar and/or very close to you.  You speak to your friends and siblings and in most families even your parents and grandparents with ты. Interestingly, when you pray in Russian you also address God in the informal Ты.  Interesting, right? This makes sense because in many religions we also address God in English as ‘Thee’ and ‘thee’ in English is actually the informal of ‘you’.

So, back in the old days when these poems were written you would speak with the person you were courting on вы.  This dating experience would have been a very formal one. Then, once you got married you could start speaking to each other with ты.  So in this sense familiarity was kind of that beautiful and long-awaited destination at which you arrived after marriage.

Akhmatova and her husband and fellow poet, Gumilev

The first is by one of my most favorite poets ever, Anna Akhmatova.  I can’t find a good English translation of this, however, so you’ll have to just tolerate mine for now, or better yet, learn Russian so you can fully appreciate it.

И как будто бы по ошибке
Я сказала: «Ты…»
Озарила тень улыбки
Милые черты.
От подобных оговорок
Всякий вспыхнет взор…
Я люблю тебя, как сорок
Ласковых сестер.

As you read my pathetic translation rememer that ‘thee’ is FAMILIAR, and back in the day they spoke formally with ‘You’ until after marriage.

And as if by mistake

I said ‘Thee’…

The shadow of your smile

lit up your sweet features.

Such slips of tongue

Make one feel flushed…

I love thee like forty fond sisters.

Aaaaaahhh, I love that poem.  I did not do it justice, I know.  That last line just makes my heart melt. As someone with two sisters who I absolutely adore, I understand a thing about sisterly love. Before getting married I always loved imagining the love  that I would feel for my husband would be like how attached I am to my sisters times forty.

And now for our next heart-string-tugging poem.  This is written by the god of Russian poetry, Pushkin. I usually share this poem with my first year Russian students on Valentine’s day and let them try and figure it out.  They always do really well which is proof that Pushkin can be appreciated even at the beginning levels of Russian.

This again plays on themes of formality and familiarity.  You can imagine how weird it would have been back then to spend so much time with someone, love them so deeply and yet still have to speak to them in such a formal way.


A scene from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

“Ты и Вы”

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюблённой возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с неё нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

Remember You=FORMAL, Thee=INFORMAL

“Thee and You”

An empty you with a heartfelt thee

She accidently replaced.

And all happy dreams

In a smitten heart she awoke.

Before her I stand, deep in thought,

Unable to take my eyes off her;

I say to her: How sweet you are!

But I think: Oh, how I love thee.

Please excuse me, my heart’s exploding.

Happy Valentines Day!!!!!!!!!!

2 thoughts on “Russian Word of the Day: Фамильярность-familiarity

  1. Amazing blog
    But there is no Gumilev and Akhmatova
    Actually there are Mayakovsky and Lilia Brick at the photo
    And it’s SO FUNNY )))) Excuse me ))))

    1. You’re right. How could I have not noticed that this woman didn’t have the famous Akhmatova nose. 🙂

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