Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: Roots of the Russian Language - An Elementary Guide of Wordbuilding (George Z. Patrick, Ph.D)

Expanding your vocabulary in any foreign language is a challenging task.  Fortunately, there are many materials out there that makes this task a lot easier for those who study Russian.  George Z. Patrick's Roots of the Russian Language is one book that I consider valuable to any learner of the Russian language who wants to examine the morphology of Russian words.

Publishing Information


The original publication of this book took place in 1959.  This review will deal with the 1989 version of the book, published by Passport Books (part of the NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group).  Mentions of specific pages are in reference to the 1989 version with the dark red cover as seen in this picture.  

Book Structure 


The first thirteen pages of the book are devoted to morphology.  In this section you will find a brief explanation of stems, roots, prefixes, and suffixes, as well as a list of the most commonly used prefixes and suffixes.  There is also some discussion of consonant changes within roots (such as к/ч, г/ж, х/ш, ск/щ, etc.) in this section.  

After this is the second section, which is the main focus of the book.  The roots are presented as a header - the Russian root (and any of its variations) are underlined, and its main English translations are written next to the root.  Below this header are two columns.  The left-hand column contains vocabulary words and their English translations.  The right-hand column contains an example sentence (one per vocabulary word), and a rough translation of the sentence.  The sentences are translated more for their meaning as a whole rather than a literal breakdown of the words, though a literal translation is included in a few places.  Some of the roots have only three or four word-sentence pairs listed underneath, while others have as many as fifteen (generally, roots that appear in a large amount of frequently used words will have more pairs listed underneath them). 

The third section, only five pages long, contains practice exercises very much like those found in morphology textbooks in Russia.

The fourth and final section is the index, divided into an index of words and an index of roots, so that both can be looked up according to page number.

Positive Aspects


Whenever a Russian word is used in this book, the correct stress is marked with an acute accent, ensuring that those who learn new words from this book will pronounce them correctly.

Some of the example sentences used are pretty interesting.  Occasionally a popular phrase will be used, such as Бедность не порок (Poverty is not a crime).  It's good to know such phrases if you plan on learning about Russian culture as well as the language.

Negative Aspects


­This book contains a few minor orthographical errors.  On page 65, there are two example sentences where the particle ли is incorrectly attached to the preceding word with a hyphen (two sentences at the bottom of the page begin with *читали-ли and идели-ли).  The rules of Russian orthography state that the particle ли is to be written separately from the preceding word and without a hyphen. 

Also, the short "practice exercise" section in the third part of the book is unnecessary.  No answer key is provided, so it's not possible for a person doing the exercises to quickly "check" his or her answers afterwards.  The book is more of a reference book than a textbook, so it is strange that the author even decided to include exercises.

Who should use this book?


I recommend Roots of the Russian Language to intermediate or advanced learners of Russian.  If you already have a sizable vocabulary under your belt, you'll get the most from browsing the lists.  For example, you may be at the point in your Russian studies where the words иметь, приятный, and снимок may already be second nature to you.  But would you have guessed on your own that these three words all share the root ем-/им-/я-, meaning "possess, have"?  Probably not.  That's where this book comes in - it allows you to examine what you already know, and then make educated guesses about the roots of words you don't know.  The morphological breakdown of each listed word (e.g. при-н-им-ать) helps a great deal with this process. 

That said, if you are at the level where you are writing academic papers on the topic of Russian roots, this book will probably be too oversimplified for you.  While the list of roots is a fairly extensive list, it is still just that - a list.  There is no discussion of the etymology or additional commentary within the lists.  If you want an in-depth source for the etymology of Russian words, go look at Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary.  The Yandex online dictionary is also not a bad alternative, since it draws from reputable sources such as the works of N. M. Shanskiy.  The site is in Russian, but I would expect that people interested in the specifics of Russian etymology would already have a high reading proficiency.

If you are a complete beginner to the language and aren't interested in taking a precursory glance at the morphology, save this book for later and pick up The New Penguin Russian Course in the meantime.  Roots of the Russian Language is not a textbook for learning the language, and it is not meant to be perused from cover to cover.  If you aren't very familiar with Russian, browsing the lists in this book will not be much more interesting than browsing the entries in a Russian-English dictionary.  Of course, if you are proficient in another Slavic language and can read Cyrillic, you may enjoy this book even at a beginner's level in Russian.  Same goes for those who can read Cyrillic and just like examining Slavic languages from a linguistic point of view.

All in all, I think that this book is something fun to look through from time to time.  If you like thumbing through dictionaries from time to time, or if you tend to be curious about how words are linked together in Russian,  go ahead and buy this book.

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