Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. Mai 2003

National Concepts and Globalisation

Valery Timofeev (St. Petersburg)


The idea or rather the hypothesis that underlies this paper was stimulated by a trivial chat with a friend of mine. Being a linguist by trade, Russian by origin and living in Finland, she is well aware of cross-cultural discrepancies and provided me with a curious example. It was a TV commercial of an international brand of Persil washing powder. Two young ladies were shown sitting in a crowded place, some restaurant or a café. One of the ladies notices quite a peculiar manner her friend has chosen to wear her wristwatch. It was placed above the cuff of her blouse. It turned out in a second that the only reason for placing her watch there was to cover some stain that regular detergents failed to deal with. "Oh dear, you should use Persil instead!" So everything was straight and simple. But before that, when the attentive and thoughtful lady was describing her version of her friend's peculiar manner of wearing her watch in Finnish (and I guess that the German, French and English versions were quite similar to that in Finnish), she said: "You are such a busy person. You have to wear your watch so that it can always be seen." While in Russian the same lady made quite a different guess: "Your watch must be terribly expensive since you wear it so that everyone can notice it."

The Russian version, when translated into English, seems to be full of irony; it describes the lady's manner as showing off. It would definitely undermine the main purpose of the ad, which was to provide a friend and those watching the commercial with thoughtful advice about using detergents. The Russian version was made in Russian, in Russia, by Russians and for the Russian audience. And it worked. The ad provided the audience with a clear message - the reason to prefer Persil to regular detergents. The Finnish, German, French or other European message would be: use Persil because it works. The message in Russian is quite different and a more complicated one. The message was: buying Persil you buy prestige, since well-to-do people are advised to buy Persil and the stereotype behaviour, which we interpreted as showing off, was in this case just a sign of wealth. The interpretation of the message is based upon dozens of similar commercials that proved to be effective by positioning new or expensive products as having an image no wealthy person can do without.

The idea that there is some sort of cross-culture discrepancy is evident. The question is what is different? The Russian notions of wealth or the way Russians treat the behaviour stereotypes generalised by other cultures as showing off or both.

The first and obvious idea would be to treat the problem as having something to do with the specific situation the Russian nation is facing. That is the period of early capitalism, which other European nations went through centuries ago. That was the origin of the term 'new Russians', which was coined by Europeans who observed quite picturesque escapades of Russian business society in the 90s. The nouveau riche stereotypes were not less evident in Russia. We have hundreds of jokes about the 'new Russians'. The novelty of the phenomena was obvious for both Europe and Russia though for different reasons. Soviet Russia managed to get rid of its rich citizens radically, the very notion of individual wealth was rooted out of the system of cultural concepts being replaced by the idea of the wealth of the country, of the strength and achievements of the beloved homeland. To boast of the wealth that belongs to the country's strength and achievements is not a case of showing off, it is a matter of being proud of the nation's accomplishments.

While Europe managed to forget its own impressions of the 19th century, Russians were spending time in Paris, Baden-Baden, etc.

Putting the historical perspective aside, the described example of the cross-cultural discrepancy is sufficient to start searching for some kind of culture specific configuration (Anna Wierzbicka's term). After looking through dozens of dictionaries on Russian culture concepts, books on Russian mentality and related subjects, I was surprised to find nearly nothing concerning the specific way the Russians treat the idea of 'exalting in rank, wealth, etc.' or the notion of 'wealth', although the methods of describing and interpreting notions of Russian culture by using ethno-linguistics promised to be of great help.

The method I chose to use is based upon the ideas and techniques proposed by Yuri Stepanov (his extensive volume "Constants Dictionary of Russian Culture" contains a lot of useful material), by Anna Wierbicka who worked out the techniques of using key words and lexicon analysis to describe culture specific configurations, by Alexey Shmelev, Anna Zaliznjak, Apresjan, Arutunova and many others who, belonging to the Moscow linguistic school, use the theories of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Worf as a starting point.

A list of verbs describing acts and behaviour related to the idea of 'showing off' contains at least a couple of dozen. The fact that the Russian list is nearly twice as long as the English one and several times longer than the list in Finnish, tells a good deal to those who, like A.Wierzbicka, believes in the factor of semantic field density to describe culture specific configuration.

The list easily divides into two parts:

1. The words describing behaviour aimed at maintaining the illusion of one's wealth, social position etc. (, )

2. Words like , , . denote the negative attitude caused by behaviour that might be based upon the real position, wealth, etc. The very idea of accentuating one's position, wealth, etc. is repulsive. So the negative attitude is caused not by behaviour based upon a wrongly conceived idea of self-respect which is not intended to give a wrong impression, as is suggested by the somewhat misleading translation "putting on airs", provided by most of the Russian-English dictionaries.

List number two is more than three times longer than list number one. That was really a surprise. If the language contains dozens of words denouncing the very idea of 'exalting ones rank, wealth', then all the impressions and examples, like the one I have started with, are simply misleading. Something is wrong, but there should be a simple solution to the problem; it is somewhere here, close at hand. After looking at the complete list once again (or several times to be frank), it struck me that it might be divided into two lists, not according to the semantic principle but as belonging to two different socio-cultural strata, or rather two languages high and low. Something like Ferguson's diglossia. Ferguson describes diglossia as "a relatively stable situation in which in addition to the primary dialects of the language [...] there is a very divergent, highly codified superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an early period or in another speech community" (245). It is obvious that Russian language diglossia cannot be described in the same way as diglossia in Arabic or Greek. [According to Yuri Stepanov, Russian diglossia is not only certain period in its history when there two logoi, one for God and one for profane matters, its traces might also be seen in contemporary Russian].

The first list thus contains the words belonging to literary Russian (high language in Ferguson terms). It is very short: , , , , , , . The list covers both ideas describing behaviour aimed at maintaining the illusion - , , and denoting negative attitude to behaviour accentuating one's position, wealth and even smart clothes: , , , . - is the only verb in the second part of the list that belongs to literary strata, the rest are colloquial, the last two (, ) are more common for children's speech.

The second list contains verbs and words, which, if ever present in dictionaries, would be marked as "vulgar" - , , , , , , etc. They denote a negative attitude to the type of behaviour exalting position, wealth, strength, etc. and are treated as not being appropriate. The verbs are both semantically and morphologically similar to each other, being all just euphemisms to a taboo verb , which contains the root corresponding to a well known four-letter verb in English. All of the verbs mentioned are similar in structure, which denotes something in between two ideas out-standing and out-placing or rather, tending to be out placed (due to the reflexive suffix ).

The low language or the speech community that uses it, has coined a dozen euphemisms to be used across the border that divides the languages and the communities to denote behaviour which does not seem appropriate inside the community, addressed to a former member of the community in a form that at the same time takes into account the new status of the addressee (euphemism) and reminds of his/her former status and norms that the addressee refuses to share by demonstrating his/her new status. Thus each behaviour stereotype that might be called 'showing off' obtains a double, reversible status determined by the community norms. When a person crosses the community border, that is, leaves the community, the act of 'showing off' (in terms of the former norms) turns into an act demonstrating that he/she holds the new position rightfully, and that what used to be 'showing off' turns into noblesse oblige in the new context.

It might be also instructive to note there is a special word used by prisoners (that is, by the very core of the low-language community) for the term indictment; it is formed from the same taboo verb and has the same morphological structure, out-stand out-place. Thus it denotes the same idea of different norms and values being contrasted, the contrast of we versus they, our norms versus their norms.

At the same time the most common way of demonstrating that 'what you consider my 'showing off' is what I feel obliged to do, but I do understand your feelings', would be using the low language as a kind of a bridge connecting the communities. That might be one of the reasons the low language lexis is rapidly gaining the status of a 'norm' recently.

Thus the choice of words used to describe stereotypes of behaviour exalting one's position depends on whether the speaker considers the observed behaviour rightful or not - the interpretation being determined by the real position of the actor.

A new tendency might be observed in contemporary Russian society. The economic and social changes that have been taking place since Perestroika has made it possible for some members of the low-language speech community to obtain wealth without leaving the community. This resulted in developing a new means of discerning among members of the low-language community those who use certain behaviour stereotypes by right and those who are just putting on airs: the former group is "", the latter "".

The idea that the way Russians perceive stereotypes concerning ways of showing one's wealth and position depend on the actor's position in society, thus making the ethical norm relative rather than absolute, might seem dismaying. But the situation might change in the future, as it has changed in most European societies. If we have a close look at English lexical means of denoting 'showing off' stereotypes, we would have to observe that the majority of them belong to the colloquial and vulgar lexis. And finally observing the etymology of the word "prestige", which is used in many languages, might also be instructive: what we now consider to be 'respect or reputation derived from achievements, power, etc.' used to be an 'illusion, conjuring trick' in Ancient Rome.

© Valery Timofeev (St. Petersburg)

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Valery Timofeev (St. Petersburg): National Concepts and Globalisation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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