Humor Ordering an Apricot in Russian

Humor of Ordering an Apricot in Russian is adapted from a book by linguist John McWhorter: ‘What Language Is’, pages 158-160.


Language learning is tough.

My week in St. Petersburg back in the nineties was instructive.

My Russian was rudimentary, to put it kindly, and my attempts to get anything done were always tragically comic.

I wanted a cup of tea with no sugar for a friend and one cup with sugar for me, and walked into a cafe to try to order that.

But just that simple thing meant dealing with Russian’s case markers.

Using the word for ‘sugar’ alone, ‘saxar’, was like sitting down in the woodwind section of an orchestra with a kazoo.

To say ‘without sugar’ means using the genitive – ‘bez saxara’

-- but ‘with sugar’ requires the instrumental -- ‘c saxarom’.

I barely knew this and, apprised of it by my bemused friend, could barely render it live when facing real Russians who didn’t speak much English and, at that time, were not much accustomed to foreigners stumbling in and butchering the language.


And to this day I don’t know why when I asked for an apricot, seeing them hanging from a stand, I was given a steaming cup of coffee.

(“ABRIKOSY” -- did the ‘–kosy’ part sound like “kofi” ... ?)


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