Celebrating the “great and powerful”

Jun 10, 2010 by

June 6 — also the birthday of the famous Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin — was for the first time celebrated as the Day of the Russian Language, thanks to the UN decision which proclaimed special holidays for all six official UN languages: English, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French and Russian.

Filled with national pride about their language, many Russians are also concerned about the current status and the future of their language, especially about the allegedly shrinking vocabulary and loosening of grammatical norms. A particularly heated public debate started because of the recently sanctioned uses of kofe ‘coffee’ in the neuter gender (instead of the formerly grammatically correct masculine), as well as dogovor ‘agreement’ with stress on the first syllable (instead of the third) and yogurt ‘yogurt’ with stress on the second syllable. For many Russians, especially teachers, editors and others working with the language, giving an official stamp of approval to such forms, which were formerly considered “colloquial” and even “incorrect”, threatens the “pristine nature” and — even the soul itself — of the “great and powerful Russian language” — a famous quote from Ivan Turgenev, who wrote the emotional words memorized by every Russian child (here and below, translations are mine):

In the days of doubts, in the days of burdensome brooding about the faith of my homeland, you are my sole support and comfort, the great, powerful, true-to-life and free Russian language! Without you, how could I not despair at the sight of all that is happening in my homeland? But it’s impossible to believe that such a language was given to a less than great people!

And Turgenev was not the first Russian writer to sing praise to the language. Thus, already in the XVIII century Mikhail Lomonosov writes:

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V said that it’s appropriate to speak with God in Spanish, with friends — in French, with enemies in German, with the female sex — in Italian. But if he were proficient in Russian, he would have added that in this language it is appropriate to speak to all of them. Because he would have found in it: the lordliness of Spanish, the agility of French, the hardiness of German, the gentleness of Italian — in addition to the richness and pithiness of Greek and Latin.

But let us return to our times. While many lay people, educators and writers worry about the impending doom, true experts — linguists — are less concerned about the possible death or contamination of the Russian language. Such is, for example, the opinion of Viktor Zhivov, the deputy director of the Institute for the Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences, interviewed by BBC Russian. Consider, for instance, the claim that Russian vocabulary is shrinking: the eminent XIX century Russian dictionary by Dal — the closest Russian equivalent of the Oxford English dictionary — had over 200,000 word entries, while the last orthographic dictionary of Russian contains less than 160,000. Zhivov’s explanation: the different principles behind the decision to include or not to include certain words. Contemporary dictionaries do not include dialectal words (that is what Dal’s dictionary is really famous for), nor really novel words, such as tizer, tandemokratija or guglit’ (the latter is a verb with a typical ending -it’; can you guess the meaning of these words?).

Moreover, experts distinguish between the richness of the overall vocabulary which accumulates during centuries of the language development — hundreds of thousands of words, up to a million, including obsolete words, dialectal words and specialist words — and the kind of vocabulary that is known to and used by an average speaker. According to expert estimates, nobody uses more than 100,000 words, and the active vocabulary of an average native speaker is no more than 11-13 thousand words. After all, the dictionary of words used by Pushkin himself in his writings contains a little more than 21 thousand words, and the dictionary of Shakespeare — no more than 20 thousand words.

While old words fall out of use, especially those that denote artifacts and concepts no longer in use, such as kibitka ‘Gipsy-cart’, jamschik ‘cart-driver’, obluchok ‘driving-box (of a cart)’ and kushak ‘sash’. These words are from four lines of a poem by Pushkin and all cause problems to an average Russian school-kid, according to recent reports. But the same falling out of use is equally common with novel and even slang words: for example, the word gerla ‘girlfriend’ (with stress on the second syllable; from the English girl), which was very popular some 30-40 years ago, is practically unknown to today’s youth.

And if the overall rate of change is considered, in the words of Viktor Zhivov:

… it is impossible to say that right now is an especially tempestuous time of change [for the Russian language]. Considered in a larger perspective and compared with the times of Peter I, it is in those earlier times that the process of finding new names for old concepts was far more rapid than now.

And in a larger perspective, this is not surprising: the epoch of Peter I was when the Modern Russian language was formed. A similar picture can be observed in the development of English: the 400 years that separate us from Shakespeare have not changed the language as much as the preceding 400 years, which turned Middle English — inaccessible to us — into a language that we can understand, with little difficulty.

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