On Dr Zhivago, Genitive Case of Adjectives, and the 1918 Russian Orthography Reform

Sep 22, 2014 by

[Thanks to John Gorentz for challenging me with a question that prompted this post]

Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak is one of the better-known works of Russian literature in the West. In a recent article about the novel in the London Review of Books, Frances Stonor Saunders writes:

‘Zhivago’, in the pre-revolutionary genitive case, means ‘the living one’. On the novel’s first page a hearse is being followed to the grave. ‘Whom are you burying?’ the mourners are asked. ‘Zhivago’ is the reply, punningly suggesting ‘him who is living’.”

I have been asked to comment on the first sentence of that quote: has the Russian system of cases changed in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917? After all, political upheavals often bring with them changes in the more superficial aspects of language, such as the orthography and the vocabulary, but grammatical innovations being decided on by a revolutionary government’s decree? That would be a much more peculiar event.


As it turns out, the change from the pre-revolutionary form živago, which in today’s Russian is written živogo and pronounced [živóvə], is a matter of orthography more than of grammar. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks carried out an orthography reform, for which they subsequently took the credit. Yet the proposal for the reform was actually developed in 1912 under the auspices of the Tsarist government by a number of eminent Russian philologists (or “linguists”, as we would call them today), including Aleksey Shakhmatov (see portrait on the left). The scheme was to be implemented six years later, and it was, the regime change notwithstanding.

The reform of 1918 made the Russian orthography simpler by eliminating several letters from the alphabet and replacing them by other already existing letters whose pronunciation was exactly the same. For example, by the time the reform was devised the letter ѣ (Yat) was pronounced exactly the same as е, so that the former letter was dropped from the orthography in favor of the latter. (We are not sure exactly how Yat was pronounced in earlier stages of the language, but the consensus view is that this letter signified a more open vowel sound, akin to /æ/.) Similarly, the letters і (I desjaterichnoe) and ѵ (Izhitsa) were replaced with и, while the letter ѳ (Fita) was replaced with ф.


Another change was to drop the archaic Back Yer letter, written as ъ and sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “hard sign”. In today’s Russian, the “hard sign” has no phonetic value of its own and is a purely orthographic device, whose function is to separate certain prefixes ending in a consonant from a following morpheme that begins with an iotated vowel. The “hard sign” is typically seen before letters я (/ja/), ё (/jo/), е (/je/), ю (/ju/), for example in razъjasnit’ ‘explain’, sъёmka ‘filming’, sъezd ‘convention’, and so on. Unlike the “hard sign”, the Back Yer historically was pronounced as a vowel, in fact, a very short version of /ʊ/, but by the time of the orthography reform the Yer vowels (both back and front) had completely dropped from pronunciation. As a result of the orthography reform, the Back Yer was dropped in writing as well, so that the spelling finally caught on with the pronunciation. This orthographic change eliminated the last graphic remnant of the Old Slavic sound system which allowed only open syllables (i.e. syllables ending in vowels but not in consonants). It is notable that the Back Yer letter is now being re-introduced in spelling of some words, especially as a graphic branding device, for example, in the name of the news agency Kommersantъ.

Finally, another set of orthographic changes involved several adjectival and pronominal endings, including the change to the spelling of the endings of masculine adjectives (and participles) in the genitive and accusative cases. The spelling -ago/-jago was replaced by -ogo/-ego. Curiously, for some words, namely those where the stress falls on the ending, as with živago (genitive singular of živoj ‘alive’), the reform brought the spelling more in line with the contemporary pronunciation, [živóvə]. The stressed vowel is now spelled as it is pronounced, which is how stressed vowels are typically treated in Russian orthography. Yet, in other words, namely those where the stress falls on the root, the reform arguably took the spelling further away from the pronunciation. The letter a in the old spelling novago ‘new’ arguably signified vowel reduction in an unstressed syllable, [nóvəvə]. This old spelling, however, was replaced by novogo. Interestingly, the most counter-intuitive aspect of the Russian orthography—the letter g in such adjectival endings—was not addressed in the 1918 reform.


Lastly, it is worth mentioning that the reform was implemented gradually, so that some historical documents (such as the document published on February 16, 1918 and reproduced on the left from Wikipedia) still contains the letter Yat in the second word of the title, Sovѣtu ‘of the Soviet’, but none of the other older spellings. Finally, it is ironic that the document announces the formation of the Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic, a short-lived self-declared republic that sought independence from Ukraine; today, nearly a hundred years later, another self-proclaimed entity in the region, Donetsk People’s Republic, is making the headlines.

Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: