‘I speak broken Russian’

June 16, 2014

I was in the Detroit airport yesterday, and saw a Transportation Security Agency sign in the Detroit airport that says “I speak …” (in English) and then says “I speak [language]” in various languages (e.g., “Ich spreche Deutsch” and “Yo hablo español”).

One of the languages is Russian, but the supposed Russian version of “I speak Russian,” while accurately translated word for word (“Я говорю Русский”), is not grammatical: In Russian, you would say, “Я говорю по-русски”; “по” means different things in different contexts, but here it is an idiom used to refer to speaking a particular language.

So the sign conveys that someone in the Detroit airport’s TSA branch speaks not very good Russian — though maybe that’s good enough for this sort of government work.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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