The Russian Tongue: Baby talk and Russian gangsters

Sara Buzadzhi
Sara Buzadzhi - Sputnik International
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I recently spent a week hanging out with some small children, and realized that I was lacking a lot of vocabulary for talking to and about kids.

I recently spent a week hanging out with some small children, and realized that I was lacking a lot of vocabulary for talking to and about kids.

 The littlest ones can be referred to officially as новорождённый (newborn) or грудной ребёнок (infant). More conversationally, small children are often called малыш, obviously derived from an adjective for “little,” малый. This is also a term of affection between adults, like “baby” in English.

 Russian doesn’t have a special word for “toddler,” so you just have to go with двухлетний мальчик and so forth.

 There are, of course, many ways to talk about a cute little baby if you’re not afraid of sounding sentimental. One fun affectionate name for a baby in Russian is крошка – the literal meaning of this is “crumb,” but used here because it’s something tiny: Крошка моя! (My little cutie pie!)

 Малютка is another word derived from малый, and if you want to get really over the top, you can refer to a child as малюсенький: Он ещё совсеммалюсенький! (He’s still such a tiny little thing!)

 When adults start using baby talk, it’s known as сюсюканье, a word which could come from the high-pitched cute noises women make around little kids: Все в доме были готовы Коленьку целовать, носить на руках, дарить всё, что он только пожелает, нянькаться и сюсюкать с ним. (Everyone in the house was ready to kiss Kolenka, pick him up, give him anything he wanted, to take care of him and talk baby talk to him.) This verb also means to lisp, unsurprisingly, since it’s a manner of speech that imitates children’s imperfect pronunciation.

 As for patterns of speech, a common structure in English is to ask the baby rhetorical questions (e.g. Who’s the big boy?). A common pattern in Russian is to use the first-person plural to make statements: Какие мы большие! Какие мы хорошенькие! (Literally: How big we are! How adorable we are!)

 Russians don’t seem to do the whole peek-a-boo thing exactly like Americans do, but they do say “Куку!” – pretending to pop up from hiding (imitating a cuckoo, apparently). They also wiggle the index finger and middle finger in a child’s face, which is called делать козу, literally meaning “make a goat,” because of the resemblance to horns, it seems.

 When they start gaining some motor functions, you can play patty-cake, which in Russian is called ладушки:

Ладушки-ладушки!
Где были – у бабушки!
Что ели – кашку,
Что пили – бражку!

(Basically, you ask the kid where he went, ate and drank. He went to his grandmother’s, where she fed him porridge and a homebrewed drink more alcoholic than kvas, which seems a bit odd, but maybe they were more lax about those things when this rhyme was invented.)

The name of the game is most likely a variation on the word ладошки, a diminutive of ладонь (palm), as this is a game where you’re hitting palm against palm.

Incidentally, ладушки can also be used as a colloquial diminutive of ладно (OK).

And when they reach the age of reason, there are too many games available to mention here. But one of the key games is, of course, tag – салки (to play tag – играть в салки). In English, when you are the player doing the tagging, you’re “it,” but in Russian, the verb водить is used. The word has many meanings such as drive, lead and guide, but here it simply designates the kid’s status: Дима водит. (Dima’s it.) When you manage to tag someone, you use the verb осалить: Cамому маленькому никак не удаётся кого-нибудь догнать и осалить. (The smallest [player] just can’t catch anyone to tag.)

Then there is жмурки, where the tagger is blindfolded (blind man’s bluff), also the name of the 2005 comedy film about 90s-era crime in which Nikita Mikhailkov plays a smalltime gangster. The name of the game comes from the verb жмуриться (to squint or to close one’s eyes tightly) but the title of the film was also a play on words, since жмурик is also criminal slang for a corpse.

Of course, kids often have the most fun when they’re creating some fantasy world. If they want to play pirates, for example, you can say играть впиратов.

As American children a generation or two ago played cowboys and Indians, Russian children played казаки-разбойники, a game where the two opposing sides were Cossacks and bandits. It’s interesting that while historically the cowboys took over in the United States, the Cossacks got wiped out in Russia.


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Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of www.themoscownews.com, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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