Word-Formation and Etymology in the Contemporary Russian-Language Classroom

Every teacher of Russian knows how important and interesting Russian Word-Formation is in teaching the language. Why, then, is Russian Word-Formation (not to mention Russian Etymology) ignored in the daily American classroom? Does it require too much preparation on the part of teachers and students? Are there too many linguistic obstacles involved? And what about the students? Would a knowledge of Word-Formation and Etymology help students to master the language? Would it help us to attract more students to the study of Russian? To my mind, the answers to all these questions are a ringing “yes”.

I fully agree with the Australian linguist Paul Cubberley that “Word-Formation and Etymology do need to be better utilized, including emphasizing their separate roles. The more practical teaching methods which have been pushed for some time now have not encouraged study of these, but students do like them, they do make language more real for them in other ways than just speaking.”

In spite of the fact that there are textbooks on Word-Formation (Townsend, Cubberley, etc.) and even some material on the subject in various textbooks for American students, Word-Formation has not yet become an effective instrument in the everyday teaching of Russian in the United States. And if students are deprived of learning at least the basic elements of Word-Formation from the very beginning, then later, in Slavic graduate programs, where it traditionally is taught, they usually encounter many difficulties in grasping its principles and practice.

When should one introduce and how should one employ Word-Formation? The answer is, quite simply, from the moment one starts teaching Russian. First of all, it is necessary to give students a general picture of Russian Word-Formation on the basis of models, suffixes, prefixes, etc. It is very helpful in the beginning to make students compare some international words and similar word-formational elements. Then, using a text, one can start to analyze non-derived and derived Russian words, paying attention to the morphonological aspect as well.

At the beginning level, students learning Russian Word-Formation and different word-formational types of words go through the following stages: a period of observation, a period of imitation, a period of accumulating different models and building words on the basis of learned types. Later, at the intermediate level, students learn to distinguish between synchronic word-formational connections among words when they build word-formational nests using a stem, and diachronic processes that are reflected in some words, their structure, semantics, usage, etc. At this stage it is important to teach students the differences between word-formational stems and etymological roots, because almost always in the U.S. classroom they are used interchangeably and without any explanation.

At the advanced level students are easily able to grasp a systemic approach to Word-Formation. In the learning process students also become aware that there are hidden reefs on the way to mastering the principles of Word-Formation: for example, when they read Russian fairy tales and encounter such words as smešok (smex), grešok (grex), petušok (petux), with a x/š alternation, they see contemporary word-formational and semantic connections between words and their stems as well as the very old Russian suffix -ok. On the basis of analogy they seek to find a suffix and a stem in mešok, porošok. At that moment the instructor must teach her/his students to pose several questions to themselves: what is the stem for these words in contemporary Russian, what was the stem in the past, why was mex a stem for the word mešok in the past, where can they find additional cultural and historical information about this word, etc.? What was the meaning of the word mex within the proverb “Ne vlivaj molodoe vino v starye mexi”? In arriving at answers to questions like these, students address and come to appreciate very interesting linguistic, cultural and historical material in the learning of Russian.