Unknown Knowns of Russian

The Russian language has many unknown knowns. This is one of the pleasures of learning the basics of Cyrillic Alphabet

On Monday I was listening to Esko Aho, ex prime minister of Finland, deliver a talk about various kinds of challenges Finns face in Russian markets. As I was about to receive, a few minutes later, an award for the proposal to teach the Cyrillic Alphabet in Finnish Schools, I was trying to pick something from his talk.

At some point Aho was referring to Donald Rumsfeld’s well-known remarks on the known knowns and unknown unknowns. I had a vague recollection of reading that Slavoj Zizek had been emphasizing the importance of unknown knowns as something that Rumsfeld never paid much attention to.

Whatever the details, Aho’s talk made me think of something to say when I was asked to receive the award. I was not pretending to use the terms in the exact meaning of Rumsfeld or Zizek, but just to make a point about the importance of learning the Cyrillic Alphabet. A very simple point:

For a visitor who speaks at least one of the main European languages, entering Russia without any knowledge of the Cyrillic Alphabet often means being overwhelmed by linguistic otherness: Oh, what a strange language, I cannot understand anything. It seems so difficult to know Russian that I could not even imagine starting to know it. Russian language seems like a known unknown.

Once we make the minor effort of learning the basics of the Cyrillic Alphabet, the situation changes. There are so many concepts and words in the written linguistic environment that suddenly seem familiar in Russia. A key reason is the tendency of the Russians to use so many loanwords from other languages. We know more Russian than we know we know.

Teivo Teivainen
Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki
Twitter: @TeivoTeivainen

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