Tweaking Russian Orthography

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 18 13:25:31 UTC 2002

New York Times, April 18, 2002

Russia Resists Plans to Tweak the Mother Tongue

MOSCOW, April 17  "Everything is permitted," that master of the Russian
tongue, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote in "The Brothers Karamazov," in a maxim
that could be applied to questions of language as well as philosophy.

"Baloney," another language master, Lyudmila Konstantinovna Cheltsova,
might well reply. Ms. Cheltsova is the secretary of the Orthographic
Commission of the Department of Language and Literature of the Russian
Academy of Science.  Since 1996, her commission has labored to revise the
rules of Russian spelling, in no small part to accommodate foreign words
and prefixes that have flooded some might say polluted native Russian
since the nation became independent in 1991.

"It's not a reform," Ms. Cheltsova said. "We're just trying to put things
in order." But it has nevertheless been greeted with unremitting scorn by
Russia's tradition-minded press and much of academia. And now the coup de
grce, so to speak, has been delivered by no less than the wife of
President Vladimir V. Putin.

Speaking on Monday at a forum in St. Petersburg on "Linguistic Policy in
Contemporary Russia," Mr. Putin's wife, Lyudmila, called the academy's
proposals "totally self-serving."  "When the country's economy still has
to be rebuilt," she said, "now is not the time to go reforming the
language, which is still developing. So I would like to call on everyone
taking part in today's conference to draw up a policy to maintain,
preserve and advance the language."

Mrs. Putin's remarks were front-page news in some newspapers here. That is
no great surprise. Russia is not France, where the national policy is to
forcibly cleanse the language of heathen invaders like "e-mail." But it is
fiercely nationalistic, and many of its intellectuals are loath to tinker
with a language already so devilishly convoluted that even Russian leaders
seldom speak it well.

Mrs. Putin, a trained linguist, graduated from the Spanish department of
the philological faculty  the department of languages and literature  of
St. Petersburg University. She is also president of a nonprofit
organization, the Fund Supporting the Russian Language.

Her words were in any case a bad omen for the orthographic commission, a
collection of scribes, linguists and other experts who have been laboring
for years to bring some order to Russia's increasingly antiquated spelling
rules. As Ms. Cheltsova pointed out in an interview today, nobody except
the commission has looked closely at Russian spelling since 1956, and even
the 1956 rules were but a dressed-up version of proposals from the 1930's
that were shelved during World War II.

Early this year, capping six years of work, the commission produced 23
specific proposals to change Russian spelling rules  documented, footnoted
and peer-reviewed in an exhaustive 356-page tome. The proposed changes
would alter roughly one in 50 of the rules governing Russian spelling,
mostly at the margins.

One proposal, for example, would simplify the spelling of certain words,
like "painted" and "fried," that can be both participles and adjectives.
Most participles must now be spelled with two "n's" (in the Cyrillic
alphabet the "n" sound is represented by "H"); the proposal would see all
words spelled with one "n," eliminating a modest embarrassment for most
Russians, who have no idea which is which.

Another rule would standardize hyphenation for English prefixes, like
"mini"- and "maxi-," which were not part of Russian in the 1950's. Yet
another would dictate capitalization for certain religious terms and
holidays, from "God" to "Mother of God" to "Easter" and "Christmas," which
were resolutely lower-cased in Soviet times but are frequently upper-cased

Still another would require hyphenation to break up the tongue-tying
quality of certain adjectives like "khlebobulochny"  Soviet-speak for
"bread and pastry products."

Defenders of those changes, which have run a gantlet of academic reviews,
say their motives are altruistic. In Russia, where the Catch-22 quality of
Soviet life has yet to vanish entirely, some life-changing decisions, like
admission to a top university, can still turn on issues like the proper
spelling of words for which no accepted spelling exists. There is the hope
that a common set of spelling and grammar rules will bring Russians a baby
step closer to the cherished notion of a national idea  a shared ideology
to replace the one lost when Communist dogma was shattered.

On a more mundane level, many simply believe society would be better
educated, and life a trifle easier, if everyone agreed on how the language
should be spoken and pronounced.

"Since orthography was a mess, people were appealing to different
dictionaries," Ms. Cheltsova said. "But because dictionaries and textbooks
are written by different authors, they reflect different views and give
different ways of writing these words."

That said, public reaction to the proposals has been overwhelmingly
hostile. Much has centered on a since-dropped proposal to change the
spelling of two common foreign words "parachute" and "brochure"  which
have long been Russified. Both are spelled with a Cyrillic letter
pronounced like "you"; the now-abandoned change, mirroring the practice
with similar words, would have spelled them with a letter corresponding to
the sound "oo."

Ms. Cheltsova said she holds out hope that Mrs. Putin will read the
orthographic commission's 356 pages of recommendations and decide that, by
and large, they merely bring order to chaos. The proposals remain a draft,
she said, and they could be altered later by a Kremlin council on the
Russian language, or by the ministry of education.

But something must be done, if only to satisfy the demands of the
education minister, Vladimir Filipov. Mr. Filipov is widely reported to
favor legislation levying punishments on journalists and public figures
who misuse the Russian tongue.

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