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Going back to the formal pronoun

August 17, 2017

I get why people don’t like The Insulted and the Injured (Униженные и оскорбленные, 1861) as much as Dostoevskii’s later novels, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it, possibly because it was one of the first novels I read in Russian after reading the more famous Dostoevskii ones in English. I’ll be curious what else Languagehat has to say about it after this post (personally I love how over-the-top the “mustache-twirling villain” is), which picks up on an issue, formal and informal pronouns, and a passage that I was also struck by. [Update: see LH’s further thoughts here.]

LH sends us back to a post from 2009 about the familiar singular pronoun ty and the formal (or plural) vy. I’d been told that these days, if you switch to ty with someone, you stay with ty for life except perhaps in extreme cases like divorce. But apparently the range of opinions among native speakers is broader:

Whatever the exact degree of freedom in modern usage is, the original point Anatoly and LH made in 2009 is that Tolstoi’s characters in Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина, 1875-77) switch from ty back to vy more freely than modern speakers would. This matches what I would later keep seeing in Pisemskii, where the main character of Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) would switch back whenever he got upset with one of the noblewomen was involved with. The same character rapes a third woman and there are pronoun shifts on both sides. (The fourth woman whose life he makes worse is of peasant origin, and he says only ty to her, and she vy to him, for that reason.)

Are there other literary examples like the ones from Anna Karenina and Troubled Seas? The point of the passage in The Insulted and the Injured seems to be that these changes were hard to make and lasting once adopted, even in the nineteenth century. Or is it the opposite, that it was hard (using Anatoly’s metaphor) to stretch the rubber band over to ty, but easy to let it snap back to vy?

In Turgenev, Nekrasov, Tolstoi, and Leskov (and Leskov again, with a cymbal-crash example), you see the interplay of personal ty/vy dynamics with rules about how people from different social estates were supposed to address each other, before and after February 19, 1861, but I’m especially curious about intra-nobility examples of changing from ty back to vy.

On a different linguistic note, I’m happy I read the comments on LH’s 2009 post so I could learn about Repin’s painting The Zaporozh’e Cossacks Devising the Rules of Russian Accentuation!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2017 1:07 pm

    Thanks for reminding me to add a follow-up, which I’ve done in a comment to the post.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for it, possibly because it was one of the first novels I read in Russian

    I can understand having a soft spot in that case, but why on earth was that one of the first novels you read in Russian? Why not something shorter and better?

    • August 17, 2017 1:23 pm

      I had read Fathers and Sons (shorter and arguably better) before that, but I don’t know if it should count because my Russian was then at the absolute minimum you need to make it through a book, and I’d read an English translation before I started.

      But to answer your question, Dostoevskii was the writer who got me into Russian in the first place, and I wanted to read the things I hadn’t read. I read The Gambler and The Adolescent in Russian around the same time.

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