Going ‘past your ears’

I recently saw a group of people signing to each other in the Moscow metro, and realized I had no idea how to describe what they were doing in Russian.

First off, a deaf person is глухой, with the root probably coming from ухо, ear. This adjective has many other meanings, but one of the more interesting is its conversational use to mean bad, hopeless: – Как у тебя с поиском работы? – Глухо. ( – How’s the job search going? –Terrible.)

If someone is merely hard-ofhearing, they are тугоухий, with the prefix indicating difficulty. (С деньгами туго: I’m having money troubles.)

The word that seems tonally equivalent to hearing-impaired is слабослышащий – literally, «weakly-hearing». If you want to be somewhat less polite about it, you can say that someone is deaf as a stump: глухой, как пень (whereas in English we would probably say deaf as a post, among other options.) Дед был болен, необщителен и глух как пень. (My grandfather was sick, unsociable, and deaf as a post.)

The process of going deaf can be described with the verb оглохнуть, which can also be used in an offensive manner, as in English, if someone feels an obvious message was not received: Людмила переспросила кондукторшу, где нужно сходить, и та спокойно проговорила: «Я уже объявляла, оглохла, что ли?» (Lyudmila asked the conductor where their stop was, and she answered calmly, “I already announced it; what are you, deaf ?”)

Sometimes people are deliberately deaf; deaf to reason, sense, or someone’s good advice: All her mother’s good advice about staying out of trouble fell on deaf ears. (Она пропустила все мамины советы мимо ушей – literally, she let all the good advice go past her ears.)

In this category of non-literal deafness you also have being tonedeaf, unable to recognize different musical notes or reproduce them properly. In Russian you’re not deaf, you just don’t have good musical “hearing”: У него нет (музыкального) слуха. One idiom puts the blame on an animal attack: У нее хороший слух, а мне медведь на ухо наступил. (She’s got a good ear, but – literal translation – a bear stepped on my ear.)

For the literally deaf, one form of communication is sign language. There isn’t a single term for this language; it’s sometimes referred to as жестовый язык or as язык жестов. Both of these clearly mean a language created from gestures, but there could be some confusion, as язык жестов also refers to body language in general, the movements you make that convey additional meaning. Russian sign language is apparently close to American Sign Language, (амслен in Russian), because they’re both descendants of the French system.

As to what people are doing when they’re signing, it looks like: Они говорили на языке жестов.

Sign language interpreters are called сурдопереводчики in Russian. The prefix has an interesting etymology, related to the Italian sordino, a mute or damper for musical instruments. So we can think of this as quiet or «mute» translation. The adverbial phrase под сурдинку can be used in a literal fashion to describe something happening quietly: Я стал им под сурдинку рассказывать… (I began to tell them quietly/ under my breath). It can also be used colloquially to indicate something happening on the sly: Они собирались под сурдинку уезжать. (They were planning to leave secretly/without anyone seeing them.)

You wouldn’t think deafness would be a quality to be promoted, but Russian schoolchildren are admonished with this saying to encourage them not to talk with their mouths full: Когда я ем, я глух и нем. (When I eat, I’m deaf and mute.)

Someone who is actually unable to hear or speak is referred to as глухонемой; another term for sign language is язык глухонемых.

As for not being able to speak, you’ve probably heard of the etymological connection between немой, mute, and немец, German. Today, of course, no one associates the word for a German man with muteness, but немец used to signify all foreigners, because their speech was unintelligible, incomprehensible.

You’ll hear this word come up in the cultural sphere as well; in Russian, early films were not silent, they were “mute”, немое кино.

As mentioned above, there are situations where it’s better to keep your mouth shut; one Russian saying equates a person who knows how to do that with a fish, for some reason: Я никому не расскажу, буду нем как рыба. (I won’t tell anybody; I’ll be mute as a fish.)

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”

Leave a comment