Today I have this piece (by reporter Anastasia Vorobyova) on the “discovery” of a new word combination in contemporary spoken Russian. The new word (or catch-phrase) is в смысле (pronounced, roughly: “f-smisli”). Russian people are saying this more and often instead of то есть (“to yest”).
Both combinations means, roughly, “that is”, or “that is to say”, but there is a subtle semantic distinction: в смысле hints at a dynamic thought process (“in the sense that…”), whereas то есть states a completed thought: “that is to say…” That is to say, if you are still verbally developing your talking point, then use the former; but if you are completing it, use the latter: “And in conclusion, I would say that…”
According to Professor Natalia Kuznetsova, Docent of the Department of Russian Language at Tyumen State University, the phrase в смысле, as a “connecting phrase” only appeared in Russian in the 20th century. And then its popularity has exploded in the past 30 years. Professor Kuznetsova calls herself a “Russianist”, but I would call her a Philologist. Which means, from the Greek, people who literally love words.
Tyumen is a city located 2,500 km east of Moscow, it was the very first Russian settlement in Siberia, founded in 1586 as a military camp. As the centuries passed, Tyumen morphed into an important industrial and transport center. Bordering on Kazakhstan, the Tyumen Oblast is rich in oil and gas and forms an important hub of the Russian economy.
When Russian soldiers and settlers migrated east into Siberia, they brought with them, of course, their language. Amazingly, the Russian language, over such a time and such a distance, has not broken up into sub-dialects or sub-languages. To be sure, there are regional accents, yet the language itself remains as one, from Königsberg to Vladivostok. And there is an institution, in the Russian Duma itself, which regulates the Russian language. This is done in European countries as well, there is usually some Academy which regulates the national language, sets rules for spelling and usage, and makes sure the national literary language don’t go ’bout changin’ too quick and everybody be speakin’ jive. For example, the Russian Duma recently regulated that “feminine” forms of nouns could be used to denote certain occupations, for example “blogerka” for a female blogger. Which, to my view, is a step backwards, but that’s a whole n’other blogpost.
In previous blogposts I might have made fun of “philologists” and even doubted whether this is a real profession. I wrote: “Philology is to Linguistics as Numerology is to Mathematics”, or something like that. I should repent and eat my words, though, because there is a real, and practical use of Philology. “In the sense that “national literary languages” could use some regulation here and there to make sure they don’t go completely off the reservation. Otherwise we would have Babel, not to mention Gomorrah and its twin city. Imagine living in a world where you walk down the street, and nobody can understand a word you are saying any more…
At the same time, languages need to grow and change. If Pushkin were to come back to life and appear on the streets of Tyumen, he would be understood, and he would understand, well, most of what was being said. To be sure, Russian is always borrowing new words, nowadays especially from American English, that’s the latest fad. Pushkin would be forced to learn new words such as “gamer”, “loser”, “site”, “server”, “videoblog”, and many many others.
Which is not actually the case with в смысле, which is clearly a native Slavic phrase. It obviously involves the native word смысл, which means “thought, sense, meaning” in all the Slavic languages. Hence, the phrase means, literally, “in the sense that”, but the actual semantic meaning is closer to “that is to say…”
The Russian word мысль (“thought”) derives from Proto-Slavic *muusli which would have been pronounced (one believes) not unlike the modern cereal muesli. Every Slavic language has the same word. Taking this word further back in time, to the language of the fabled Aryans, we have Classical Greek μῦθος (muthos), the source of our own modern word “myth”. The proposed derivation is from Proto-Indo-European *muHdʰ-. With the meaning of “word, speech”. (Hmm… I wonder if the word “mouth” is related? Much research that…) The father back in time one goes, the more speculative it gets, but there are those who believe there was a ProtoProto- language, uniting Indo-European with ancient Semitic language families. In which case, there is possibly a Coptic cognate ⲙⲟⲩⲧⲉ (moute), with the same meaning! In the meaning that, в смысле, when it comes to human language, it’s all about the meaning! And in conclusion, that is to say, that when we speak at all, in any language, in the sense that we are trying to say something and get our meaning across to others, that’s what it’s all about. In other words, то есть, Marshall McLuhan was wrong when he said “the medium is the message”. No, Sir, according to real linguists, the medium is just the medium, but the message is the message!