The Notion of Understanding in Russian and English

Boris Iomdin, V.V.Vinogradov Russian Language Institute

Recently, the so-called naïve picture of the world, or generalized concepts of the reality contained in people’s minds and reflected in their languages, has been actively studied within the framework of the Moscow Semantic School (Apresjan 1995, Apresjan et al. 2005, Zaliznjak et al. 2005). Primitive concepts of man’s inner world represented in natural languages are especially interesting. According to Jurij Apresjan, they “reflect the introspection experience of tens of generations for many thousands of years and may serve as a trustworthy guide into this world” (1995: 351).

One of the most complicated systems of man’s inner world is the mind, and the vocabulary used for describing its elements is especially versatile. It is also largely metaphorical. The paper analyzes the concept of human understanding in Russian and English. Although the vocabulary of understanding is differently structured in each language, it seems that very few deep notions underlie this lexical layer. Still, the paper shows that these few notions provide ample opportunities for word formation, production of new idioms associated with the idea of understanding.

Different views on the relationship between the man and the fact generate different metaphors. Here, three main ideas are important: (1) motion, (2) possession, and (3) light. Consider the Russian verbs dojti, doperet’ (literally ‘to reach, to trudge through’) meaning both ‘to finally understand’ and ‘to finally become clear’. In English, consider get next (to an idea), bottom (someone’s plans) VS. rush into one's mind, cross one's mind, sink in. In Russian, the main verb for understanding ponimat’ is historically related to a bunch of verbs meaning ‘to have, to grasp, to catch’ etc. In English, consider I have your idea, I take your meaning, I don't get you. The idea of understanding as light is most important in Russian. Even the verb osenit’ (‘to dawn upon’), literally meaning ‘to shade’, in its mental uses is synonymic to ozarit’ (literally ‘to illuminate’), which is an amazing example of an old meaning maintained in the history of a word and reflected in its metaphorical usage (cf. 4). In English, consider become clear, dawn (upon somebody), flash, see daylight. The idea of light is indeed closely related to the idea of seeing, and mental perceptions are in many languages referred to in visual terms (see also 6: 48).

Studying mental activities as reflected in the language may prove useful for modeling the human thinking.

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Boris Iomdin. 2004. Osenit’, ozarit’. New Explanatory Dictionary of Russian Synonyms. 2nd edition. Ed. by Jurij Apresjan. Moscow-Wien.
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