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Our Language, Ourselves

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Here's the thing about about language: What isn't said can be as subtle as what is.

While preparing to spend some weeks touring the late unlamented Soviet Union, I once took a highly abbreviated course in Russian offered by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Then I went off, armed with my pidgin Russian, to see what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again), as well as points as far east as Novosibirsk.

Wherever I went, my attentive hosts -- and there are no hosts more attentive than the minders assigned visitors in a police state -- tended to assume I was a comrade from Cuba, since my primitive Russian bore telltale traces of a Cuban accent. Little did they know that our crash course in Russian had been taught by an exile from that prison isle, who'd taken the first chance he'd gotten to make it over to the land of the free. And I certainly felt no need to go into detail.

At one point in our whirlwind tour, our closely watched group of American editorial writers and columnists made a brief stopover in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital. Mongolia did not strike any of us as the garden spot of the Union of Soviet Socialist (so-called) Republics, and except for our guides-cum-guards, the Mongolians did not deign to speak to speak Russian or, for that matter, English. And so we were all reduced to pointing and exchanging hand signals, which can constitute an eloquent language of their own.

I asked what the Mongols thought of our leader -- Ronald Reagan at the time -- and they gave us an emphatic thumbs-down in response. Then what did they think of Nikita Khrushchev, and got an equally negative reply. But there was one leader they gave a thumbs-up: the Mongols' own Genghis Khan. For sign language can speak volumes. And on this subject, these modern-day Mongols, descendants of the Golden Horde, could scarcely contain their enthusiasm.

The sights on our way east aboard both Aeroflot and the Trans-Siberian railroad had indeed proved educational, if not in the way our guards intended, but it was the sounds that proved most memorable of all:

The sound of a planeload of passengers applauding with relief every time our flight made it safely to the ground. Then the well-armed captain proudly made it down the aisle. He seemed as relieved as the passengers to get his legs back on terra firma.

The sound of a well-trained children's choir in Yerevan, Armenia, paraded out to show us the excellence of Soviet education whether they wanted to or not. They were forbidden to speak their native Armenian -- down with bourgeois nationalism! -- but were drilled in Russian.

The hissing sound made by the obvious KGB man striding through a hotel and shooing away any and all in his path while he muttered muzhiki! -- peasants! The contempt in his voice was as obvious as his steel teeth, the pride of Soviet dentistry at the time.

The creaking sounds of Sovmachinery, which never seemed to work just right. Yet the trains ran on time, just as they once had in Mussolini's Italy. And if they didn't, the crew could be dispatched at once to a prison camp in the frozen wastes of Siberia. Maybe the Soviets were too busy gearing up for outer space to tend to mundane matters like making sure staircases in hotels reached the next floor without leaving an embarrassing gap at the last step. By then Sputnik had circled the globe, alarming Americans already fearful that we were losing the nuclear arms race to Soviet adversaries.

The murmuring sound of a devout reader spreading out his copy of Pravda on a barely lit sidewalk in Baku, the better to recite his Muslim prayers on it.

It is all still with me, a kaleidoscope of memories. Scenes and sounds mix and match, but all testify to the lasting imprint that language of all kinds leaves on the ever-absorbent human mind.

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