Down with the Nasty Asiatic Vowel!

This is a very silly story, but how can I resist a story that involves Russian vowels? According to this Atlantic story by Farangis Najbullah, the ever-controversial Vladimir Zhirinovsky “has now targeted a letter in the Russian alphabet”:

The letter in question is the vowel “ы”—a difficult-to-pronounce sound for non-native Russian speakers that is usually transliterated simply as “y” in English. Zhirinovsky says he wants the letter removed from the Russian alphabet, calling it a “nasty Asiatic” import. The vowel came to the Russian language from the Mongols, Zhirinovsky was quoted as telling the State Duma on March 12.

“Only animals make this sound, ‘ы-ы,'” he said, adding that the regular ‘и’ (‘i’) is enough for the Russian alphabet. ‘Ы’ doesn’t exist in any other European language, argued Zhirinovsky. “This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don’t like us in Europe,” he told lawmakers.

The politician seemed to have a longstanding issue with the “guttural” letter, which he claimed his son wasn’t able to pronounce as a child. “He once told me, ‘Dad, dad, look, there’s a ‘мишка’,” the Russian word for ‘bear.’ “I thought ‘What ‘мишка’? A bear? But he meant ‘мышка’,” the word for “mouse.”

There’s not much to say other than “what an ignoranimus!,” but it’s amusing, so I thought I’d pass it on. (Thanks for the link, Adam!)


  1. marie-lucie says:

    Usually, people are proud to be able to pronounce sounds which are problematic for their neighbours. And most young children take a few years before their pronunciation blends with that of adults. So Zh junior pronounced ‘mouse’ like ‘bear’. What other sound would Zh senior suggest instead of the offending vowel?

  2. J. W. Brewer says:

    Oddly topical suggestion from the wikibio’s review of Zhirinovsky’s Greatest Hits: “has advocated forcibly retaking Alaska from the United States (which would then become “a great place to put the Ukrainians”).”

  3. How I love the letter, “ы” — what would Solzhenitsyn say, he’s likely standing behind Zhirinovsky, tapping his head and saying, “This one is cuckoo!”

    I should try writing a poem on the letter, “ы” — because of the affection I have for ir.

  4. Here’s some encouraging advice for Zhirinovskiy’s son, from today’s New York Times:

    By the way, how does the lad handle the first syllable of “Zhirinovsky”? Maybe it’s easier for him to pronounce because the vowel is spelled и, not ы.

  5. The best approximation in English would probably be the phonemes represented by “i” in the words “sin” or “tin”. Eastern Slavic “ы” derived from long “u”, i.e. “mūs” in Latin and Old English vs. “mysh”.

  6. Zhirinovsky appears to be one of those right-wing political clowns of which the USA has so many – for instance Pat Buchanan. I wonder if Buchanan holds strong views on vowels ?

    I particularly liked “Only animals make this sound, ‘ы-ы’”. That’s not true, of course – Russians make that sound. I think Zhirinovsky means either that animals shouldn’t make that sound, or Russians shouldn’t.

    Zhirinovsky says: so eliminate the vowel ! Another solution would be to eliminate the animals making that offensive “wee-wee” sound, but that would mean getting rid of all those cute little piglets. Zhirinovsky is no fool: he knows that cutlets have a larger support base than vowels do.

  7. Ian Press says:

    Ever read the Strugackij Brothers novel ‘Трудно быть богом’? It has a character, an animal, the ‘голый вепрь Ы’.

  8. des von nlsn-hydn says:

    It’s Zhirinovsky that needs disemvoweling!

  9. Rodger C says:

    It’s funny in the first place to have a Rissian nationalist named Żyrinowski.

  10. Rodger C: Indeed. But it’s not as un-Russian as his father’s original last name, Eydlshteyn. (I wish I was kidding.)

  11. Ever read the Strugackij Brothers novel ‘Трудно быть богом’? It has a character, an animal, the ‘голый вепрь Ы’.

    Yes indeed; I wrote a bit about the novel here, and I’m surprised to see I didn’t mention the голый вепрь Ы, because I remember greatly enjoying it and planning to say something about it at LH.

  12. Denis Akhapkin says:

    There is an old tradition behind him, started from Konstantin Batyushkov: «И язык-то по себе плоховат, грубенек, пахнет татарщиной. Что за «ы», что за «ш», что за «щ», «ший», «пры», «тры»? О, варвары!»


  13. That’s great, it was worth making the post just to learn that!

  14. Stefan Holm says:

    Isn’t ы needed to make the Russian vowel system complete? All vowels come in pairs, one ‘hard’ and one ‘soft’ (palatalized): а-я (a-ya), о-ё (o-yo), у-ю (u-yu), э-е (æ-ye) and ы-и (y-yi). Why would the unpalatalized i stand out as an Asian import?

  15. Is “the” English vowel system complete ? It’s very yingy-yangy to expect that things must come in pairs. That’s the Asian connection..

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s probably just feeding the troll to respond to this sort of thing, but plenty of non-Russian European languages have this vowel, more or less.

    Cymru am byth!

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    (Mongol influence on Welsh has not hitherto been generally remarked upon.)

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Come to think of it, Classical Mongolian in fact *doesn’t* have this vowel. The i-vowel patterns in vowel harmony with both front and back vowels, but the presumed proto-Mongolian contrast of a front and back high unrounded vowel had been neutralised in favour of the front vowel.

    The modern Mongolian languages have done funky things to the vowel inventory which have turned it into an ATR harmony system instead of front/back.

  19. des von bladet says:

    Phonemes* often come in +- pairs. It is one of the reasons binary feature structures are still popular in phonology. But gaps are also common – there’s no /z/ in ‘Wegion, for example, and no voiced counterpart to /k/ in Dutch.

    * Yes, I know.

  20. Stefan Holm says:

    Stu: It may be that English doesn’t have a ‘hard-soft’ yingy-yangy thing. But instead it has (like all Gmc languages) a short-long contrast (partly obscured though in modern English by its strong diphtongization). Russian, on the contrary, doesn’t differ short from long – all vowels are ‘half-long’. Asian or not: ‘some’ contrast I believe could be found in all human vowel systems – pitch/tone is a third alternative.

    Even PIE had such contrasts, as we have inherited in e.g.the i-a-u of drink-drank-drunk (Sw: dricka-drack-drucken, Ger: trinken-trank-getrunken) or spring-sprang sprung (Sw: springa-sprang-sprungen, Ger: springen-sprang-gesprungen).

  21. I once had a colleague, a Romanian-born linguist (!) who had studied in France, who once explicitly told me that this phoneme, in Romanian (where it is spelled â or î) was “ugly”. I certainly had the impression that the absence of this phoneme in French and its presence in Russian is what colored her perception of this phoneme’s “ugliness”.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    My Welsh forebears evidently felt otherwise:

    Written Welsh “u” was in Middle Welsh pronounced like Modern French “u” in “tu” but in modern Welsh it has become the allegedly ugly sound in question (falling together with written “y” in final syllables) except in the speech of the benighted South Welsh who have fronted it to “i”, presumably in order to avoid the taint of Mongol sympathies …

    (The name of the country, Cymru, is actually simply a deliberately graphically differentiated form of Cymry “Fellow-countrymen, Welshmen” made after the time of the sound merger.)

    And Tolkien thought Welsh sounded beautiful. Take that, Zhirinovsky! Man’s an Orc.

  23. So another example of *y > ɯ! (Just like in Quanzhou Chinese!)

  24. Another fun example that came to mind from Belyi’s Petersburg:

    — «В звуке „ы“ слышится что-то тупое и склизкое… Или я ошибаюсь?..»

    — «Нет, нет: нисколько», — не слушая, Липпанченко пробурчал и на миг оторвался от выкладок своей мысли…

    — «Все слова на еры тривиальны до безобразия: не то „и“; „и-и-и“ — голубой небосвод, мысль, кристалл; звук и-и-и вызывает во мне представление о загнутом клюве орлином; а слова на „ еры“ тривиальны; например: слово рыба; послушайте: р-ы-ы-ы-ба, то есть нечто с холодною кровью… И опять-таки м-ы-ы-ло: нечто склизкое; глыбы— бесформенное: тыл — место дебошей…»

    Незнакомец мой прервал свою речь: Липпанченко сидел перед ним бесформенной глыбою; и дым от его папиросы осклизло обмыливал атмосферу: сидел Липпанченко в облаке; незнакомец мой на него посмотрел и подумал «тьфу, гадость — татарщина»… Перед ним сидело просто какое-то «Ы»…

  25. Wonderful! How I love Bely…

  26. @David Eddyshaw: I had never noticed the similarity between non-rhotic “orc” and “oik” before. Thanks!

  27. As a Russian student, I didn’t struggle too much with making the sound ы in words like vy and ty and such. But In saying the letters of the alphabet, its name in isolation was very hard for me. My teacher (American) pronounced it in an emphatic way that had what seemed like two syllables, and I felt silly imitating it.

  28. “Come to think of it, Classical Mongolian in fact *doesn’t* have this vowel.”

    Hat, isn’t “Asiatic” the go-to form of demonization in Russian culture? It’s a little ironic, given the man’s ancestry, but he sounds pretty assimilated.

  29. @Lane: But ‘yery’ is two syllables. (That’s what we called it in high school Russian fifty years ago, anyway.)

    As I recall, Trager and Smith had a nice symmetrical (3×3) vowel system for English, rounded out by the yeryish high middle unrounded ‘barred i’ as in ‘jist’ (unstressed ‘just’) or ‘roses’.

  30. Why would the unpalatalized i stand out as an Asian import?
    “ы” is pronounced unrounded and further back in the mouth than the unpalatalized i in the other Slavic languages (including Ukrainian and Polish). It’s not just Russians who think the vowel sounds “Tatar” – Ukrainian nationalists make claims for the “superiority” of Ukrainian for the same reason.

  31. Apart from native Slavic words, ы is found in some loans from Turkic languages (башлык, ярлык, кумыс). Zhirinovsky majored in Turkish at the MGU’s College of Oriental Languages (now Institute of Asia and Africa). If he wished to give an example of an “Asiatic” language rich in ы-like sounds, why did he name Mongolian rather than Turkish with its dotless “ı”? He might have mentioned the ı to у shift in some loans, like фундук from fındık.

    (BTW a Russian nationalist with a Polish/Ukrainian name is not unnatural, so to say, if his nationalism is of an imperial variety.)

    As a child, I was more sensitive to the sound and color of words and yes, ы tended to make some ugly – дырка or кадык or бобыль… although пустырь, постылый or рында were OK. Voznesensky’s скрымтымным is on the scary side. I still see ы as dark brown with an aubergine tinge, a bit like rotting tuna flesh. I wonder if modern Russian pronunciation is indeed barbaric compared with the way educated Petersburgers spoke 100 years ago.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Filler text to escape the spam trap. More filler text to escape the spam trap. Yet more…

    ||:||:||:Мы супер-удмурты-ы!!!:||:||:||

    It’s not just the Tatars…!

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