Perpetual Nabokov

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In the journal of proceedings of the linguistic anthropology symposium in 2016 at UT, my first writing on Nabokov out there.

He is at the interception of identities, which coincides for the writer with the interception of languages and ways of writing: English as opposed to Russian but also as opposed to American (as opposed to French).

Accented Speech

Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.

The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.

Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.

The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.

The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.

As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:

“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007

Another Page from “Convoluted Travelogue”

Collecting episodes, bits, and other peculiar miscellanea, which belong to the project now called “Vicissitudes of Using English (…) in the Experience of a Non-Native Speaker”



Few things are weirder than the spelling of the word “weird.”





Untranslatable Words: Dosada

Untranslatable Russian word, dosada. It’s subdued anger. One of the shades of anger anyway. Hard to describe. Annoyance. Annoyed anger maybe. Also the cause of such anger.




Language: Numbers

Numbers look so seraphically Cyrillic. They gaze at you with their big Cyrillic eyes out of the Latin-lettered hot mess of a text.



Queen’s English

Linguists in their natural habitat

A:   Why does the Queen say “we“ about herself? How is that correct in the modern English?

B:   I don’t know but she is the English Queen and therefore what she speaks is English.


Convoluted Travelogue

The Vicissitudes of Using English for the Purposes of Academic and Creative Writing in the Experience of a Non-Native Speaker

Change of Language: Convoluted Travelogue


I am grateful to Olga Breininger for prompting me to develop these segmentary notes, which I have been writing for more than three years, into the segmentary notes you now see. She did it when, answering my question whether she wrote prose in English, shared with me a suggestion and a question: “Academic texts are easier to write in English than prose—I have a feeling that I have not yet fully mastered intonation, lack plasticity, rhythmicity. How did you move towards the work in two languages?”

Olga is a native Russian speaker, and so am I. The sentiments she described were not unfamiliar to me. “Convoluted travelogue” maps my (unfinished) journey from being a monolingual author to being a bilingual author. I am one of those English learners for whom English was never a language of instruction, until I got into the American academia, to be more specific, into a PhD program. The struggle that many of those whose trajectories go along the same route my journey went, is often hidden. Nevertheless, it is there.

Not that I did not have some training in English over the course of my life. I diligently studied English in school and in college. My instructors, whose passion and love to the language I would always remember gratefully, were not the native speakers, but they loved their profession. It surprised me greatly, when I landed in Heathrow airport, that I could barely understand speech floating around me.

I consider myself a late-in-life English learner, as I started seriously studying, speaking, writing, extensively reading and communicating in the language past my thirties.

These notes were written in both languages simultaneously, as they appear here. I had the intention to, eventually, translate Russian pieces into English, and/or vice versa, but I came to accept this project as is, by now. I am aware that my decision diminishes the circle of potential readership of the project drastically, but I am willing to give it a try. It is mainly for those who go through a similar struggle: native Russian speakers in American academia and writing-related fields.

As for the genre of this text, this is a diary, and this is not; this is a series of reflections, and this is not quite a series of reflections; let us call it a travelogue of a risky inner expedition.