Russian Language Council
gbarrett at AMERICANDIALECT.ORG
Fri Feb 18 13:51:27 UTC 2000
The best line: "The only good thing the council can do is hire a lot of underpaid
philologists and linguists and save them from starvation."
Linguistic Police Set To 'Save' Russian
By Anna Badkhen
Special to The Moscow Times
Bureaucrats abuse it. Mass media manipulate it. And shop owners contaminate it with
Any way you look at it, the Russian language is in jeopardy.
But lovers of the mother tongue, take heart. Russian authorities say they have found
a solution to the country's sagging linguistic standards: the government-based
Council for Russian Language, created by presidential decree last month to "maintain the
purity" and "increase the knowledge" of the great Russian language.
According to Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, who was tapped to chair the
council, the decree was issued in reaction to "the powerful wave of common
dissatisfaction over what is being done to our native language."
Nothing short of state policy will reverse the disastrous decline of the country's
native tongue, she added in a recent interview with the weekly Kultura newspaper,
describing the Russian language as "a matter of national pride among Russian citizens."
Matviyenko's council features a formidable body of linguistic watchdogs, including
Education Minister Vladimir Filippov, writer Valentin Rasputin and Yevgeny Chelyshev,
head of the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Language and Literature.
Chelyshev said the council is scheduled to meet for the first time only in March, so
specific methods of linguistic salvation have yet to be discussed. But Vasily
Kiselyov, an Education Ministry official, said plans are already in the works to penalize
government officials and journalists, whom he counted among the primary culprits.
Punishments, he added, should be severe.
For example, bureaucrats who are "not aware of the basics of the native language"
should be fined for their abuse of the mother tongue, Kiselyov said.
"I can't listen to some politicians without laughing my head off," he said.
Itogi magazine, which dedicates a page in each issue to quoting unintelligible
blurbs from the country's authorities, in its latest issue highlights remarks from Our
Home Is Russia representative Vladimir Ryzhkov, who describes his party's political
alliance with the pro-government Unity bloc as "a party which will rest in peace on a
specific and colorful ideological program."
Russians have long been entertained by the speech of officials.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the first Soviet president, was infamous for his wrong stresses
and incorrect word endings. In an interview this week, Chelyshev blamed Gorbachev for
"contributing to the pollution" of the Russian language.
"His wrong accents and misuse of words all blended into the spoken language, but
they deformed the language!" Chelyshev said. "I'm surprised Gorbachev's imagemakers
never pointed out to him that a politician can't speak like that. And the same goes for
the imagemakers of a lot of other political figures."
For example, the colorful speech of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin -
whose vocabulary is full of words of his own invention - has turned him into what
political analyst Boris Kagarlitsky called "a champion" of language abuse.
"His Russian is not illiterate; it's just very particular. His speech is very rich,"
Kagarlitsky said dryly, recalling a recent remark by the politician that can be
loosely translated as "It doesn't matter who wants to do what. All the wantings should be
The decree's author, acting President Vladimir Putin, to the contrary speaks proper
Russian, Kagarlitsky said - although his curt and somewhat unimaginative approach
leaves something to be desired.
"Putin's speech is correct, but his entire vocabulary is only about 1,500 words - a
fifth grader's vocabulary," he said.
In some cases, Kagarlitsky hastened to add, the problem with Russian officialdom is
one of substance rather than style. "It would be wrong to say that they cannot
correctly express their thoughts," he said. "It's just that they don't have any particular
thoughts to express."
But Kiselyov of the Education Ministry said officials are socially obligated to
promote good language skills.
"When an official goes to speak in public, he must be aware of the responsibility he
has before his audience, and before the language," he said.
Another major challenge facing the embattled language, specialists say, is the
abundance of anglicisms and foreign words transliterated into Russian. Chelyshev said that
ridding the language of "useless foreign words" is one of the council's top
priorities - although he added they have yet to figure out how.
"No language can exist without foreign words that are useful and meaningful,"
Chelyshev said. "But words like shop or khotel spelled in Cyrillic do nothing but litter
Regional authorities have repeatedly attempted to regulate the creeping growth of
transliterated Western words that have made their way into Russian. In 1997, city
governments in St. Petersburg and Moscow threatened to rid the streets of signs reading
seks shop, ais krim or dans-kholl, but the regulation was never enforced.
"Bureaucrats who permit [shop owners] to put up signs saying sekond-hend ... should
be aware that these words have Russian translations," Kiselyov said. He also
suggested that linguistic censorship should be introduced in the mass media, which "often use
jargon and foreign words, when they should be a model of proper Russian language."
"But most importantly, [linguistic] censure must exist inside of every person,"
Meanwhile, the well-respected St. Petersburg poet Viktor Krivulin said that creating
a state policy for preserving the Russian language will only harm it in the end.
"I understand perfectly that the language is in bad shape, and is experiencing
pressure from English," Krivulin said in a telephone interview. "It should be changed, but
changes cannot take the form of a government intrusion."
Any attempts to "artificially introduce language norms," the poet added, "will split
the Russian language in two - a real language and an official language."
According to Kagarlitsky, there is light at the end of the tunnel, language council
or not. "As soon as the social situation stabilizes," he said, the language will be
purified by "natural" means.
"The only good thing the council can do," Kagarlitsky said, "is hire a lot of
underpaid philologists and linguists and save them from starvation."
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