банки из-под варенья

Что остаётся от сказки потом,
После того, как её рассказали?
What remains of the tale
After the tale was told?

Tamara asked, “Is there a way of saying «банка из-под варенья» in English? Or Spanish?”

No, there isn’t. (Yes, I checked with Spanish speakers.)

In Russian, «банка варенья» (without any preposition) means “a jar of jam” while «банка из-под варенья» means “an empty jar which formerly contained jam”. Here, из-под points to the former use of the jar as a container. (Yes, in Russian it is also possible to say «банка для варенья», that is, jam jar).

Of course, this is not only about jam jars. In English, an (empty) beer bottle (“a bottle designed as a container for beer”) is clearly different from a (full) bottle of beer; a wine glass (“a type of glass that is used to drink and taste wine”) is not the same as a glass of wine. The same story with their Russian equivalents: «пивная бутылка» vs «бутылка пива», «винный бокал» vs «бокал вина». In Russian, we use adjectives (пивная, винный) to indicate the purpose of a container. Likewise, in English, we use words beer and wine as adjectives by placing them before the nouns. This still doesn’t provide an elegant way to translate, say, the lines by Bulat Okudzhava:

В склянке тёмного стекла из-под импортного пива…
In a dark glass bottle of for which previously contained imported beer…
In a dark-glass imported-beer bottle…


Why did we talk about that in the first place? Because of a Russian meme: «Банки из-под варенья никогда не бывают пустыми». It could be roughly translated as “jam jars are never empty”.

Google it. In many cases, it is attributed to Lewis Carroll. In fact, it comes from Алиса в стране чудес, the Soviet-era musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, released in 1976 as a double LP. It was created by Oleg Gerasimov (1929—1997), actor and director of Moscow Art Theatre (МХАТ), and contained songs by Vladimir Vysotsky (1938—1980). Both Gerasimov and Vysotsky were among the voice actors in the play. I was introduced to it in 1977 by my cousin and, after a few listenings, knew it by heart (as, I’m sure, did millions of Soviet citizens). For me, it was also the first encounter with Carroll’s story.

Back to our meme: What did Carroll actually say about the jar?

She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE,” but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody underneath, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

To my great disappointment, jars are never mentioned again. OK, I thought, maybe the theme of jars was further developed by Russian translators. The play was based on work by Nina Demurova. Here:

Пролетая мимо одной из полок, она прихватила с неё банку с вареньем. На банке было написано «АПЕЛЬСИНОВОЕ», но увы! она оказалась пустой. Алиса побоялась бросить банку вниз — как бы не убить кого-нибудь! На лету она умудрилась засунуть её в какой-то шкаф.

Well, this is quite faithful to the original. Just in case, I had a look at another Russian translation of Alice that was widely available in the USSR at the time, viz. that of Boris Zakhoder:

С одной из полок Алиса сумела на лету снять банку, на которой красовалась этикетка: «АПЕЛЬСИНОВОЕ ВАРЕНЬЕ». Банка, увы, была пуста, но, хотя Алиса и была сильно разочарована, она, опасаясь ушибить кого-нибудь, не бросила её, а ухитрилась опять поставить банку на какую-то полку.

Finally, I checked out the version by Vladimir Nabokov:

Она падала вниз так плавно, что успела мимоходом достать с одной из полок банку, на которой значилось: «Клубничное варенье». Но, к великому её сожалению, банка оказалась пустой. Ей не хотелось бросать её, из боязни убить кого-нибудь внизу, и потому она ухитрилась поставить её в один из открытых шкафчиков, мимо которых она падала.

Nabokov took the liberty to replace orange marmalade with strawberry jam, probably because he doubted that a seven-year-old girl (or any Russian reader) would fancy orange marmalade. Nevertheless, once again, this passage is the first and last time we hear about jars. We only can conclude that the maxim of never-empty jars was created by the play authors. Russian Wikipedia lists a number of other discrepancies with Demurova’s translation attribited to Gerasimov and Vysotsky.

What’s it all about? According to CliffsNotes (CliffsComplete Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland),

The jar in and of itself is only a jar. Placing a label on it that reads “ORANGE MARMALADE” might indicate that the object we call a jar contains a substance called marmalade. However, this jar contains nothing, rendering the label deceptive. The label would more accurately read “Empty.”

Yes, that would be more accurate but not 100% accurate. Now it is technically possible to clean and evacuate a jar (which formerly contained marmalade, jam etc. etc.), say using a vacuum pump. But it still won’t be completely empty, completely free of its past content, of its past story.

«Так что же остаётся, когда съедена банка варенья? Что останется, когда спета песня?»

So what remains when a jar of jam is eaten? What will remain when the song is sung?

Alice, you may recall, asks a lot of questions.


some peculiarities of Russian

This post is based on a presentation prepared by Tamara for her Spanish class.

Many people believe that Russian is a difficult language to learn. While it isn’t difficult for me, and shouldn’t be that difficult for speakers of any Indo-European language anyway, there are several important differences the Spanish (as well as English) speakers should be aware of. She also used some examples from Finnish, just to put things into perspective.

а. Alphabet

Modern Russian uses a variant of Cyrillic alphabet with thirty-three letters. These include ten vowels, twenty one consonants, hard sign ъ and soft sign ь. It looks like this:

Even though it may appear a bit frightening, I recommend to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as soon as you start learning Russian. Reading Russian in transliteration will only confuse you. For example, the character y is often used instead of two rather different letters (and sounds): the vowel ы and the consonant й. It is also used to indicate the “softening” of consonants (see below). As a result, the words you pronounce won’t sound anything like Russian.

б. Sounds

Some sounds in Russian present a difficulty for Spanish and/or English speakers.


  • Е: after a consonant, pronounced as /e/ or /ɛ/; in all other cases (at the beginning of a word, after a vowel, after the hard and soft signs) pronounced as /je/ or // in Spanish yerba /ˈjeɾ.βa/ or English yes /jɛs/.
  • Ё: after a consonant, pronounced as /ö/, like in German mögen; in all other cases pronounced as /jo/, as in Spanish cuyo /ˈku.jo/ or English yolk /joʊk/.
  • Ы /ɨ/. There’s nothing like this sound in either Spanish or English. Just listen: 🔊. A commonly suggested trick to reproduce the sound of ы is to bite a (clean) pencil or pen so to spread the corners of your mouth while saying //, as in cheese /tʃiːz/.
  • Э: /ɛ/ like in English pen /pɛn/.
  • Ю: after a consonant, pronounced /ü/; in all other cases pronounced /ju/ as in Spanish yuca /ˈju.ka/ or in English yoo-hoo /ˈjuːˌhuː/.
  • Я: after a consonant, pronounced /æ/; in all other cases pronounced /ja/, as in Spanish cuya /ˈku.ja/ or English yard /jɑːd/.
  • Spanish has only five vowels, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/, which always sound the same, stressed or not. There are more vowels in Finnish but they also always pronounced the same way, irrespectively of stress. As for English, they do not even know how many vowels there are, let alone which ones to use. The only thing everybody seems to agree is that most unstressed vowels in English are reduced to schwa /ə/. Vowel-wise, Russian is somewhere in between these two extremes. The stressed vowels always sound as expected. Unstressed а and о are usually pronounced as something between /a/ and /o/; unstressed е, и, э and я, between /e/ and /i/; unstressed у and ю, between /o/ and /u/. The good news is that even if you pronounce all vowels Spanish (or Finnish) way, you still will be understood.


  • Б and В: /b/ and /v/, respectively. Unlike Spanish, there is always a clear distinction between these two sounds.
  • Г: normal /ɡ/ as in Spanish guerra or /ˈɡera/ or in English get /ɡɛt/; in Southern Russian dialects, often pronounced /ɣ/ as in Spanish lago /ˈla.ɣo/.
  • Ж /ʐ/, similar to /ʒ/ in Portuguese janeiro /ʒaˈnejru/, French jour /ʒuʀ/ or English measure /ˈmɛʒə(r)/.
  • З /z/, same as /z/ in English zoo /zuː/ but not Spanish zurdo.
  • Р /r/ (rolled r), same as /r/ in Spanish perro /ˈpero/.
  • Х /x/, same as /x/ in Spanish ojo /ˈoxo/ or in Scottish loch /lɔx/.
  • Ц /t͡s/, as /ts/ in English nuts /nʌts/ or in Italian pizza /ˈpit.tsa/. This sound is not normally found in Spanish.
  • Ш /ʂ/, similar to /ʃ/ in Portuguese caixa /ˈkajʃa/, French chic /ʃik/ or English sheep /ʃiːp/.
  • Щ /ɕɕ/, which is not a combination of š and č in spite of being often transcribed as shch. It is similar to /ʃˈʃ/ in Italian uscita /uʃˈʃita/.

з shouldn’t be a problem for English speakers, ditto р and х for Spanish speakers.

  • Most Russian consonants come in two variants, “hard” and “soft”. The “softening” of Russian consonants before vowels е, ё, ю, я is often transliterated in English with letters y or i, which makes learners to pronounce, say, a phrase “Юля, я тебя люблю” (“Julia, I love you”) as /ˈjulja ja tiˈbja ljubˈlju/ instead of /ˈjulæ ja tiˈbæ lübˈlü/. The “softening” achieved with the soft sign ь alone is practically impossible to transliterate. You just have to listen and speak!
  • The consonants ж, ц and ш are always hard (even if followed by soft sign), й, ч and щ are always soft.

On the other hand, Russian does not have /ð/ and /θ/ sounds so common in English and in Peninsular Spanish, as in Madrid /maˈðɾi(θ)/. And there is no /w/ sound, so when transliterating English names, one has to decide whether to use в or у. For example, “Watson” could be transliterated as either Ва́тсон or Уо́тсон.

в. Declension

  • Modern Russian has six grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional. This sounds like a lot, as neither Spanish nor English have cases. But this is only two more cases compared with German (with which Russian shares four cases) and same number as Latin. Compare that with Finnish (15 cases), Hungarian (18) or Tsez (64) and stop complaining. Here’s how the word дом (house) will change in all six cases:

    case singular plural
    Nominative дом дома́
    Genitive до́ма домо́в
    Dative до́му дома́м
    Accusative дом дома́
    Instrumental до́мом дома́ми
    Prepositional до́ме дома́х

    And here’s what Finnish can do with their house (I didn’t bother with the case names):

    talo house
    talon of (a) house
    talona as a house
    taloa house (as an object)
    taloksi to a house
    talossa in (a) house
    talosta from (a) house
    taloon into (a) house
    talolla at (a) house
    talolta from (a) house
    talolle to (a) house
    talotta without (a) house
    taloineni with my house(s)
    taloin with (a) house
  • Russian has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Cf. Spanish (masculine and feminine), and English (traces of).
  • Russian nouns, pronouns, adjectives, present and past participles, and numerals are subject to declension: they change their endings to indicate number, gender and case.
  • In Russian, there are three noun declensions conveniently named “first”, “second” and “third”.
  • Adjectives, present and past participles, and ordinal numerals have to agree (in number, gender and case) with nouns and pronouns.
  • Russian cardinal numerals два (two), три (three) and четыре (four) make the count noun to change differently compared to plural, as if they were “not quite” plural:

    singular один дом one house
    “few” два до́ма two houses
    “few” три до́ма three houses
    “few” четы́ре до́ма four houses
    plural пять домо́в five houses

г. Verbs

  • In Russian, there are only three tenses: past, present and future. (Some linguists go even further and say that Russian has only two grammatical tenses: present-future and past).
  • In the present and future tenses (or present-future), there are two conjugations; like in Spanish, each has six different forms: 1st singular, 2nd singular, 3rd singular, 1st plural, 2nd plural, 3rd plural.
  • In the past tense, there is no difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but the verbs are number- and gender-specific.
  • There are no such things as perfect, imperfect or pluperfect tense. Instead, most verbs come in two flavours, imperfective (несовершенный вид) and perfective (совершенный вид).
  • There is only one type of verb “to be”: быть (unlike Spanish ser and estar). This verb is hardly ever used in present tense, so some apparently complete sentences do not contain a verb, for example «Я — русский», “I (am) Russian”.

д. Articles

  • That’s easy: Russian does not use articles. (Nor does Finnish.)

deep and inscrutable singular name

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey —
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter —
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum —
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.


want harmony, go talk Sanskrit

Look at the English language. The words that express peaceful harmony are so few, so pale, so flaccid, while the words that express disgust, dismay, revulsion constitute a vast and delicious vocabulary. “You’ve got bubblegum for brains, you jackass, you douchenugget, you are so average, did you eat dumb flakes for breakfast? Go sit on your thumb, you feeb, you nincompoop, you fathead” — it goes on and on and on. Shakespeare is loaded with insult from our rich Anglo-Saxon heritage. It’s a language for people who don’t like each other. You want harmony, go talk Sanskrit.

Garrison Keillor, When it’s over, maybe Trump should move to Nebraska


words they say

Based on a True Story

“Good morning, children.”
— Gutmonin.
“Today, we are gonna talk about Hallowe’en.”
— Helluin!

Well it was clear from the very start that these children don’t want to talk. They want to shout. But I have a secret weapon: colouring pages. Hallowe’en-themed, as it were.

— Quiero una araña.
— Quiero un murciélago.
— Quiero una calabaza.
“No, no, no.”
— ¡Araña!
“Here’s the deal: you have to speak in English to me.”
— Quiero…
No quiero. This is a spider. This is a pumpkin. This is a bat. All right?”
— ¡Bat! ¡Bat!
— ¡Batman!
“Not Batman. A bat.”
— ¡Espayder!
“No ‘Espayder’. Spider. Spy-Der. Spider.”
— ¡Espayder!
— Quiero spider.
No quiero. ‘Can I have…’”
Quen ay jav
“‘…a spider’.”
— ¡Espayder!

What did I get myself into? Can anybody hear the difference between ‘a spider’ and, well, ‘espayder’?

— Quiero bat.
— Quiero espayder.
— Quiero los todos.
— Quiero pis.
“Please go.”

The colouring pages are finally distributed.

— ¿Puedo colorear?
— ¿Puedo recortar?

Mind you, only the most polite ask this. The others have already taken hold of the crayons, felt-tip pens and scissors.

There is a pair of kids who never do what I ask. Instead of colouring, they cut things out, or glue the worksheets to the walls. One of the favourite activities is to cut out something (say, a bat) and stick it to the blank A4 paper sheet. Fifteen minutes later, the result is exactly the same as the original worksheet but a lot more crumpled and covered with glue and some unidentified dirt on both sides.

The others really like colouring and showing me their work.

— Mira, que bonito. (About their own pictures.)
— Mira, que feo. (About the neighbour’s work.)
— Mira, que botas muy chulas. (Points on her welly boots.)
— Tengo mocos.

My very first day in this class, one three-year old girl was looking at me intently for about twenty minutes. Then she said, very seriously:

— Eres guapo.

Later that month, we did some sort of Hallowe’en presentation, where I was supposed to be a vampire. I was dressed in black, had a (mostly white) face paint and a grey hair wig. Most of three- and four-year-olds were scared of me, which I judged to be a success. Not this girl though. She came close and asked me:

— ¿Quién eres?
“I am, er, a vampire, don’t you see?”
— Eres guapo.

Now and then, I show them the videos. Music videos and animations. And now they make requests.

— ¡Mana Mana!

I don’t know how much English they learned from that particular song, but everybody loves it. They crowd around my laptop.

— ¡No veo!
— ¡Que no veo!
— ¡No veo!
“Guys, can you please step one step back? Then everyone could see.”
— ¡No veo!
— Álvaro me ha empujau.

Until I started to work in school, I was convinced that the most popular given names in Spain are Juan and María. Nope. I don’t even have a single María. But there are lots of Álvaros, Brunos, Martinas and Saras.

— ¡Se ha acabau!
— ¡Otra!
— ¡Otra vez!

When I introduced them to Simon’s Cat, they ignored it. At first. Then, about a month later, a request arrived.

— ¡Un gato chino!
“You what?!”
— ¡Un gato chino!
“Do you mean Simon’s Cat?”
— ¡No, un gato chino!

By now, Simon’s Cat is one of their firm favourites.

— ¡Se acabó!
— Es muy corto.
— ¡Otra!
— ¡No veo!

There is one five-year old boy who is not interested in anything the others are doing.

— Estoy aburriendo.
— Estoy aburrido.
— Quiero algo divertido.
— Quiero algo volando.

I like it when they give me clues what to do next.

“Good morning, children.”
— Gutmonin!

I point at the blackboard where I did stick seven A4 paper sheets evolving towards a flying machine.

“Today, we are going to make a paper airplane.”

I find all twelve of them standing under number 7.

— ¡Quiero eso!
— ¡Quiero un avión de papel!
“No, no, no. We all are going to learn how to make a paper airplane. Everybody take a sheet of paper…”

And so it starts.

“…and fold it like this…”
— ¿Me ayudas?
— ¿Me lo doblas?
— ¿Me lo haces?

And this is just a half of the class. There is no way I am making 25 paper airplanes in one hour.

That was a stroke of genius, I admit it freely. Seven months later, only a handful of them learned this craft. But it provided me with another weapon.

— ¡Quiero un avión de papel!
“In English, please.”
— Es que no sé como decir.
“Ask Hugo, he knows.”

A minute later:

— ¡Plan! ¡Plan!
“What plan?”
— ¡Plane!
“Plane what?”
— ¡Quiero a plane!
No quiero. ‘Can you make…’”
— ¡A plane!
— ¡A plane!
— ¡A plane!

Now the teachers tell me: you know, your planes fly really far!

Yes, I know.

Apart from teaching in a classroom, I take turns to supervise them during the recess. Or before. Or after.

“Can you please put on your coats.”
— ¡Has dicho una palabrota!
“Did I?”
— ¡Has dicho ‘puta’!

Oh my. I have to be careful with these things.

To be fair, very few of them hesitate to use swearwords, especially in my class. In the beginning, they did not realise I know all this lexicon.

— Álvaro me ha empujau.
“Oh no, not him again.”
— ¿Puedes guardarlo? (Gives me a toy.)
“Claro que sí — oops, yes of course.”
— ¿Puedes atar mis cordones?
“Sure I can. And a magic word?”
— ¡Fuerte!

They do ask lots of questions, these kids. Mostly in Spanish.

— ¿Tienes novia?
— ¿Tienes bebés?
— ¿Por qué no hablas español?
— ¿Por qué llevas coleta?
— ¿Por qué andas en chanclas?
— ¿Cuántos minutos faltan? (Till the end of the class, that is.)
Can I go to the toilet please?


By midday, they drain all my energy. But sometimes they ask or tell me something that makes it worth it.

— ¿Cómo sabes todas estas cosas?
“Because I was paying attention when in school.” (It’s a lie, I didn’t.)
— Toma, esto es para ti.
“It is beautiful, Daniela. Thank you.”
— Quiero ser tu ayudante.
“Do you really? Can you help me to tidy up then?”
— Can you make a plane for me? Please?


the present simple is not that simple

The only simple thing about the present simple is that we use one word (e.g. use) rather than two (e.g. has used or is using). That the verb form, except when one uses third-person singular, is the same as the infinitive, does not make it any simpler. Nor does the present simple always refer to present. To use another frequency adverb, it hardly ever specifically refers to present. (I didn’t realise that until I started to prepare my lesson on present simple last week.)

The main use of present simple is to describe habitual actions, such as daily (weekly, monthly etc.) activities. When we say “Ritchie plays guitar” that does not refer to Ritchie’s activity at this exact moment. Right now he may be fast asleep. The grammar books often contrast present simple with confusingly named present continuous (“Ritchie is playing”). Why it is called continuous? All physical processes have some continuity, i.e. take non-zero time. Still, I’d say the tense expressing habitual actions has more right to be called continuous, for they continue for longer time.

Sure enough, present simple is also used to state “general truths”, such as “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases”. By definition, general truth is generally true for the present just as it is for the past and the future.

Perhaps the only scenario when the present simple really deals with the events in present is a live commentary. We heard a lot of it during the last World Cup — insert your favourite quote here.


gangelwæfre and other kennings

Old English shared with its Germanic compeers a system of word formation that built up compounds out of preexisting elements. Nouns could be joined with other nouns, adjectives, or prefixes to form new words. Verbs could be compounded with prefixes or nouns to denote shades of meaning. Thus a word like timber could receive the prefix be- to become betimber (“to build”). Or an ordinary creature such as a spider could be called by the compound gangelwæfre, “the walking weaver.” Old English poetry is rife with such noun compounds, known as “kennings”. Poets called the sea the hron-rad (the road of the whale), or the swan-rad (the road of the swan). The body was the ban-loca (the bone locker). When Anglo-Saxon writers needed to translate a word from classical or church Latin, say, they would build up new compounds based on the elements of that Latin word. Thus a word such as grammatica, the discipline of literacy or the study of grammar itself, would be expressed as stæf-cræft: the craft of the staff, that is of the bookstaff or the individual marks that make up letters (the Old English word for letter, boc-stæf, is very similar to modern German Buchstabe). A word like the Latin superbia, meaning pride, came out in Old English as ofer-mod: overmood, or more precisely, too much of an inner sense of self. A word like baptisterium (from a Greek word meaning to plunge into a cold bath) was expressed in Old English by the noun ful-wiht: the first element, ful, means full or brimming over; the second element, wiht, means at all or completely (and is the ancestor of our word “whit” — not a whit, not at all).