No Pushkin without Yat.

I’ve finally started reading The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900-1930 by Gerald Janecek, which Noetica gave me a few years ago, and I’ve come across an instance of mass peevery that made me wriggle with delight. Janecek is discussing the history of orthographic reform in Russia in the period leading up to the October Revolution (the Bolsheviks implemented the reform, but it had already been passed by the Provisional Government); the basics — mainly replacing the letters ѣ (yat’), ѳ (fita), and і (dotted i) by the homophonous е, ф, and и and eliminating ъ (the hard sign) at the end of words — had been decided on by 1904, but war, revolution, and more war held up the process. In the meantime, debate was vigorous:

On one side stood most of the teachers and linguists, and on the other stood the traditionalists, some of whom claimed that the orthographic reforms would drive a wedge between the people and their heritage. Among the opponents of the reform stood some major literary figures, such as the Symbolists Vyacheslav Ivanov, Bryusov, and Blok. Their objections are particularly relevant to our study as they focus on the look of words. The opinion of Vyacheslav Ivanov (1905): “The danger that threatens on this path is graphic amorphousness or formlessness which not only, as a consequence of the weakening of the hieroglyphic [emphasis added] element, is aesthetically unpleasant and psychologically unnatural, but also can facilitate general apathy toward language” (Eskova 1966, 87). Bryusov: “However, both ѣ and ъ play one important role that is ordinarily forgotten about: an aesthetic role. By means of some sort of ‘natural selection’ Russian words have acquired in their shapes the most beautiful of attainable forms. The word весть printed with a simple е (instead of вѣсть) loses its beauty of shape, as will be the case with words printed without ъ” (Eskova 1966, 87). This despite the fact that the letters ѣ and е were no longer distinguished phonetically, and ъ, indicating the hardness of the preceding consonant, was in most cases entirely superfluous.

[…] Yet it is striking that three of the leading Symbolists—Russia’s first group of avant-garde Modernists—should oppose modernization of the orthography; it is even more striking that they, as sonically oriented writers, should do so because it would change nothing but the way a word looks. Among them only Bely had shown any Interest in the graphic side of literature beyond a certain aestheticism, and he was among the first to accept the orthographic reforms when they were finally implemented. John Malmstad notes: “Unlike Blok, who remained loyal to the old orthography to the end of his life, Bely showed no preference for the old. He began almost immediately to publish his verse in the new orthography and in his own personal writing after the changes employed the new orthography” […].

Lev Tolstoy was against the reform because, although it might simplify writing, it would “lengthen the process of reading: after all we only write by letters, but we read . . . by the general look of words. We take in a word all at once with a glance, not breaking it into syllables; . . . every word had its special physiognomy . . .” […]

Other voices in opposition were more extreme. Apollo, the Acmeist journal, published an article by Valerian Chudovsky, “In Favor of the Letter ѣ,” in which the author made the threatened letter a “symbol of mortally wounded philological tradition, of linguistic heritage.” The reform, a product of “rotten politics,” threatened to undermine Russian culture and children’s faith in their elders: “Language is a religion: orthography is its sacred liturgy. Like the heavens above the earth, there must be given to children in their education a feeling of spiritual expanses not created by us.” He went so far as to say that “there is no path to Pushkin without ѣ, for he lives on the Olympus of the accumulation through the ages, of the unbrokenness of heritage whose symbol and key is the letter ѣ” (Chudovsky 1917, v-viii).

(Dmitrii Bykov’s novel Orfografiya features this reform; I wrote about it here, here, and here.)

Addendum. I can’t resist adding this delicious paragraph:

Another upshot of the reforms was somewhat amusing. Evidently some overly zealous revolutionary sailors went into various printing offices and destroyed the supplies of the now obsolete letters, including all the ъs, not having noticed that they were still needed in some words as separators […]. As a result, for more than a decade until the ъs could be resupplied, many printers were obliged to substitute apostrophes for them […]. When the ъs were reintroduced, there was a brief outcry of “counterrevolution” because that letter had become a symbol of the old regime.

Comments

  1. yvy tyvy says:

    So, if I understand correctly, Tolstoy was saying that the new orthography would make words all look the same/more similar (by eliminating letters)?

    An acquaintance of mine once went on and on about the absurdity of reforming Romanian orthography by eliminating the superfluous letter â, and in one “argument” mentioned French. “You wouldn’t write est as é!” I pointed out that Italian did just that and seemed to be doing just fine, and he then proceeded to continue his tirade without addressing my point at all. He also mentioned that the modern orthography is “spiritually closer” to the orthography used by the great poets of the 19th century — despite the fact that Romanian orthography back then was extremely different. I didn’t mention Cyrillic, but then that would really have rustled his feathers.

  2. Elessorn says:

    Hieroglyphic!

    Question: it’s a little unclear–is he lumping Tolstoy in with the other liturgists? It seems he’s basically prechanelling modern notions of how we read by word shape rather than phonetically, no? Maybe there was juicier stuff after the ellipsis…

  3. marie-lucie says:

    yvy tyvy : “You wouldn’t write est as é!”

    You might if you were a Southerner or a young Northerner, but in any case you need the t which shows up orally in various contexts. But et could be confused with the preposition pronounced é, so eliminating the middle s would require èt. (I am not recommending either change, but I am not a decider).

  4. yvy tyvy says:

    Also: the general impression I got from his rant was that orthography is a God-given gift that dropped from the heavens one day and must never, ever be changed.

  5. So, if I understand correctly, Tolstoy was saying that the new orthography would make words all look the same/more similar (by eliminating letters)?

    Your guess is as good as mine, but yes, that seems to be what he’s saying. (It’s amusing to note that the title of his most famous novel, Война и мир [War and Peace], has just such a word in it, and in fact the silly urban legend has grown up in post-Soviet Russia that the title was actually Война и мір ‘war and the world’ but the words got mixed up after the reform.)

    he then proceeded to continue his tirade without addressing my point at all

    Typical peevery; it’s not about facts, it’s about strongly held emotional beliefs.

    is he lumping Tolstoy in with the other liturgists?

    Not as a liturgist per se, I guess, just as an objector.

  6. What was really a religion was yat itself, and its liturgy were all those mnemonics used to remember when to write it. “I before e except after c” has nothing on those.

  7. “We take in a word all at once with a glance, not breaking it into syllables; … every word had its special physiognomy.”

    This is one of the first principles of modern typography, and guides typeface design as well as typographic layout. I didn’t know it went back as early as Tolstoy. Of course it’s not unusual for poets to be aware of what scientists would officially discover much later.

  8. When Russia got back a measure of free speech at the end of 1980s, there was some interest in old orthography, but it was mainly in sticking ъ at the end of words. This way we’ve got Коммерсантъ (Commersant) newspaper abbreviated as Ъ. Of course, it would be quite difficult for most people to make sense of ѣ. If Wikipedia is right, letter ѵ (izhitsa) was never formally abolished, it just was so obvious that it should be abolished that people simply assumed that it was. And of course, it’s a good place to insert an old school saying: фита да ижица – розга к жопе ближится (fita and izhitsa, birch rod nears the butt).

  9. За букву ѣ ought to be here, but someone tore off the first few pages (numbered with Roman numerals before page 1) of the copy they scanned. Supposedly also on some sketchy Russian file sharing sites listed here, but probably just the same PDF.

  10. Chudovsky’s earlier (№ 5, 1912) essay with the observation

    Въ стихахъ Анны Ахматовой очень много ‚японского‘ искусства.

    is there in a more or less legible scan.

  11. Keeping ѣ would have made it easier for Russians to learn Ukrainian and Polish. On the other hand, modern Russian has too many spelling rules even without the once-dreaded ѣ.

  12. SFReader says:

    These days a staggering amount of pre-revolutionary Russian literature and historical documents has been scanned and made available online for free.

    The result is much greater exposure to old orthography among younger Russians than in previous generations.

    An impression I get is that those who read a lot of 19th century scanned ebooks reading simply stop noticing differences in orthography.

  13. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    I can see how keeping ѣ could be considered desirable from the standpoint of readability (contemporary Cyrillic has few letters with ascenders/descenders and ѣ stands out helping make some words less fence-like) but the final ъ’s were really useless, imo (even confusing because they look similar to ь). But as has been pointed out, people tend to develop an almost religious attachment to whatever absurdities and historical leftovers their current orthography makes them live with.

  14. Ian Press says:

    Totally agree with the last two commentators. Many folk do find modern Russian cyrillic boring and rather tiring to read. I suppose there’s a lot more to it and I hold myself back from going on about it all. I happen to find reading Danish and Estonian really hard. Somehow the words don’t look ‘real’; in Estonian it may be because Finnish is more familiar to me and the grammatical structures underlying it are more salient, whereas in the case of Estonian, for me, they aren’t. Danish is a mystery – I know it far better than Swedish, but can read Swedish far more easily. Familiarity will perhaps breed acceptance and skill.

  15. Actually, there was one more letter eliminated by the reform: ижица (ѵ), related to the Greek upsilon. To be fair, it had only been preserved in few church-related words like мѵро (myrrh), сѵнодъ (synod), or ѵссопъ (hyssop).

    On the other hand, a phonological difference between e and ѣ has apparently survived at least up to the early 20th century in some regional accents, in the South and South-West. Vassily Shulgin (who grew up in Kiev) recalled being shocked, when he had first come to St.Petersburg to start his political career (that, by the way, eventually led him to be the Duma deputy to personally accept the abdication of Nicholas II), to hear His Majesty pronounce the two in the same way.

  16. Eli Nelson says:

    @Y:

    This is one of the first principles of modern typography, and guides typeface design as well as typographic layout. I didn’t know it went back as early as Tolstoy. Of course it’s not unusual for poets to be aware of what scientists would officially discover much later.

    I know this idea is widespread, but I had the impression that it is not in fact based on science any more today than in Tolstoy’s time. It seems in fact to be false to say that we don’t break up words into parts when reading. Even if it takes longer, we can still read words that we have never seen before. This shows that even if there is some “hieroglyphic” element to reading, it is certainly not the only part; we also have to have a “phonological” system of reading. Now, one hypothesis might be that we only use the phonological system when reading unfamiliar words, and that for words we already know the “hieroglyphic” reading system takes over completely. However, I believe there is experimental evidence against this hypothesis: even for familiar words, words with phonologically regular spellings can be read aloud more quickly than words with irregular spellings. In addition, the “hieroglyphic” reading system is often described as relating to word shape, but there is significant evidence against this idea (parallel letter recognition may be more important than overall word shape). I am not an expert on this topic, but articles I found interesting were Wikipedia’s “Dual-route hypothesis to reading aloud” and Kevin Larson’s The Science of Word Recognition.”

  17. They do use a lot a Russian Slavonic-like fonts for “hieroglyphic” purposes these days. Makes me cringe and remember Nazi’s short-lived infatuation with Gothic fonts every time.

    Re: using apostrophe instead of hard sign … I’m sure I saw it was being done much more recently, perhaps in typewritten notes. Makes me wonder if some typewriters simply didn’t have the hard sign key? (They didn’t have an apostrophe either, it would have been a comma shifted one notch up)

  18. Re: using apostrophe instead of hard sign … I’m sure I saw it was being done much more recently

    … and is still being done in Ukrainian and Belorussian where ъ has apparently been banished for good

    Also don’t miss a picture of apostrophe in masonry

  19. January First-of-May says:

    But et could be confused with the preposition pronounced é, so eliminating the middle s would require èt.

    It should really be êt, as in the original verb être (historically *estre, IIRC).
    But, of course, there’s no real reason not to keep est.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    The vague association many non-Germans (such as myself in my younger years) have between those “gothic” typefaces and the more … problematic aspects of modern German history is particularly unfortunate given that it was the Nazis who eventually decisively resolved the long-running intra-German typeface dispute against the gothic side: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiqua%E2%80%93Fraktur_dispute. I guess I can’t quite guess what the political valences of intra-Cyrillic font controversies might be. All options other than wholesale romanization (as has historically happened to some languages previously written in Cyrillic) seem equally non-Western, so I can’t predict which variant would be best for someone who wanted to out-Slavophil his factional rivals.

  21. Jeffry House says:

    I learned Russian in the 1960s, so when I see a yat I reach for my gat. Well, maybe not, but I do find it hugely discomfiting and alienating. Three yats and I’m likely to put the text down forever.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    January First-of-May: It should really be êt, as in the original verb être (historically *estre, IIRC).

    You are absolutely right! as also in vous êtes.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Gothic typefaces

    Although less legible than Roman, printed Gothic is not too bad, compared to cursive Gothic which makes e, n, m practically undistinguishable from each other inside a word.

  24. The vague association many non-Germans (such as myself in my younger years) have between those “gothic” typefaces and the more … problematic aspects of modern German history is particularly unfortunate given that it was the Nazis who eventually decisively resolved the long-running intra-German typeface dispute against the gothic side

    which is why I mentioned “short-lived infatuation”. The hieroglyphic merits of Fraktur are undeniable, and IMHO it places the great German schrift dispute right alongside the Russian Yat battles of opinions.

    Old Slavonic-style Russian fonts share both some blackletter-font aesthetic appeal and an “ideological” appeal to the political reactionaries and legacy-keeping nationalists.

  25. By the way, I was once told that Baudelaire (if memory serves) deplored the contemporary French pronounciation that didn’t distinguish between o and ô, saying it would made French poetry impossible. Could anyone comment?

  26. marie-lucie says:

    D.P. Baudelaire (if memory serves) deplored the contemporary French pronounciation that didn’t distinguish between o and ô

    French pronunciation has been “going downhill” for quite a while! First there was the increasing mix between French natives migrating from different regions towards the capital, plus nowadays the influx of persons from various other countries, plus the influence first from radio, then from TV, all of which has made Paris speech (now influencing the whole nation) increasingly homogenized, especially in the reduction in the number of vowels, their changing position, and even the number of consonants. Perhaps Baudelaire was referring to the speech of other writers coming from outside Paris. My father’s people were all from Paris or the surrounding communities, and they, like their parents, relatives, children and grandchildren (the latter including me) certainly made the difference, in both quality and quantity, as in notre ‘our’ and nôtre ‘ours’. Similarly for the difference between a and â, (and, with slighly different conditioning, é or è, and ê).

    Southern French (in the former Occitan-speaking zone) has always ignored these differences, and current Standard French is on its way to do so too (some textbooks do not even mention them). In my own pronunciation which is closer to the “Old Parisian” of my father’s family and of the region where I spent most of my youth (Southern Normandy), I make all these differences without having to think about them, but since I have spent my adult life in English Canada my French speech now sounds quite old-fashioned.

    As to Baudelaire’s opinion of the influence on French poetry, of course poetry would still be possible, but the number of vowel rhymes would be more limited, and for people who maintained the differences, poetry by authors who did not have them would sound terrible, seeming to ignore basic rhyming rules. (Similarly, some older English verse does not sound right in terms of classical rules because some formerly rhyming words may not be so nowadays: think of Blake’s tiger’s “eye” and “symmetrye”, which used to rhyme).

  27. Eli Nelson says:

    I learned French recently as a second-language speaker. The version of French I was taught has no distinctive vowel length (there is purely phonetic lengthening in some contexts, such as before /vʁ/), but the distinction in quality between /o/ and /ɔ/ in the last syllable is only neutralized (to /o/) when no phonetic consonant follows the vowel. So I would pronounce sot “foolish” /so/, to rhyme with tôt “early” /to/. But I would not rhyme notre “our” /nɔtʁ/ and nôtre /notʁ/. The contrast between /e/ and /ɛ/ in the last syllable is distributed in the exact opposite way: it only exists when no phonetic consonant follows the vowel (as in “born” /ne/ vs. nais “am born”), and is neutralized (to /ɛ/) when the syllable is closed.

    From what I understand, in older varieties of French, words like sot were pronouced with /ɔ/ (and of course, words like tôt and fête were pronounced with long vowels). I don’t know if the long /oː/ found in words like tôt ever contrasted with a short open /o/ (for example, I don’t remember if words spelled with “au,” that I would pronounce as /o/, have a long or short vowel in varieties of French with a length distinction).

    I never memorized a full set of rules governing vowel quality in earlier syllables (like in the first syllable of bêtise or médecin); that seems to me to be more complex and variable, with various factors such as neutralization, syllabification, and even vowel harmony playing a role.

  28. minus273 says:

    That’s because nobody bothered to compile rhyme dictionaries on the Chinese model. If only French poets could memorize those dictionaries, they would do as nicely as their colleagues in China, where a genre of poetry should only rhyme as they rhymed in the golden era of the said genre: 6th-century lower Yangtze basin for regular verse, 10th-century China proper for , and so on.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Eli Nelson: You have been learning a fairly conservative variety of French, with some historical notions. As for bêtise and médecin, few people would insist on a difference there. I would not.

  30. Eli Nelson says:

    I know that the South generally doesn’t have distinct /o/ and /ɔ/ or /e/ and /ɛ/ (instead assigning quality by something like the “loi de position”) but I don’t really have a good feel for how these phonemes/allophones are distributed in modern, relatively standard Parisian French. In samples that I’ve heard, word-final /ɛ/ often sounds more like [e] (I can’t tell if the distinction is entirely neutralized, or if the vowels are just brought closer together), but for some reason I got the impression that the distinction between /o/ and /ɔ/ in words like “saute” and “sotte” was more robust.

  31. @Dmitry Pruss: It fascinated me to learn that many Germans thought of Fraktur not just as a distinct typeface, but as a distinct alphabet. For example, this map from 1900 shows a “German” alphabet existing alongside Latin, Greek and Cyrillic (with the Irish uncial script also shown as distinct).

  32. marie-lucie & Eli Nelson: thank you!
    It all seems to imply (not very surprisingly, really) that the issues of pronounciation and spelling shifts, spontaneous or codified, aren’t limited to Russian revolutionary reforms.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Eli: In samples that I’ve heard, word-final /ɛ/ often sounds more like [e] (I can’t tell if the distinction is entirely neutralized, or if the vowels are just brought closer together),

    Both cases occur.

    but for some reason I got the impression that the distinction between /o/ and /ɔ/ in words like “saute” and “sotte” was more robust.

    It is, especially with the spelling difference au and o, but not always with o and ô. For instance, autel ‘altar’ and hôtel are homophonous, but the ô in hôpital is always the same as in hotte ‘hod’ (a kind of basket worn on the back, traditionally used to carry fruit or other things during harvest).

    With the new spelling reform omitting the accent circonflexe in many words, the vowel differences are likely to become even more eroded.

    D.P. the issues of pronounciation and spelling shifts, spontaneous or codified, aren’t limited to Russian revolutionary reforms.

    From what I read here, the Russian reforms were quite mild compared to the recently promulgated French reforms, which have upset lots of people (rightly in most cases, in my opinion). (Another LH post dealt with some of them not too long ago).

  34. Lazar: Fraktur not just as a distinct typeface, but as a distinct alphabet
    That’s an interesting way of putting it. I have sometimes wondered why a 19th-century German scholarly book printed in Fraktur would switch to Antiqua for a word or quoted passage in French, Latin, etc. – but if they are seen as different alphabets rather than merely different typefaces, this switching starts to make more sense.

    I guess it would be somewhat similar to the way that katakana and hiragana were used in premodern Japan (when the familiar modern division of labor between the two syllabaries had not yet developed). Although at some level we might think the two syllabaries were essentially interchangeble (since the respective glyphs can be matched up in a one-to-one correspondence), strong conventions dictated that certain genres of writing such as waka poetry, were expected to use hiragana, while others, such as scholarly works, were more likely to use katakana. Writing out a waka in katakana would have been an intolerable monstrosity, comparable to printing a French poem by Baudelaire in Fraktur.

  35. ISO 15924, the international standard for representing scripts using 4-letter tags, has a concept of “script variants”, forms of a script with a common basis but that are different enough to make mutual intelligibility difficult even in the same language. For Latin there are three: Latin proper (Latn), Gaelic/Insular Latin (Latg), and Fraktur (Latf), for example. These can be used by librarians and bibliographers to distinguish books in Irish in ordinary Latin script from those in Gaelic script, as those used to the former often have trouble reading the latter.

    Other variant sets are post-Petrine Cyrillic (Cyrl) vs. pre-Petrine (Cyrs), simplified Han (Hans) vs. traditional (Hant), Western (Syrj) vs. Eastern (Syrn) vs. Estrangelo (Syre) versions of Syriac script. In some cases a simplified distinction is made, with Arabic divided into Nastaliq (Aran) vs. all others (Arab), because some languages are distinctively associated with Nastaliq, whereas the other script varieties have no such specific associations.

    Of course, there are many borderline cases that go the other way: thus hiragana (Hira) and katakana (Kata) are not variants, nor are square Hebrew (Hebr) and Samaritan/Palaeo-Hebrew (Samr) or any of the other isomorphic 22-character West Semitic abjads. There are also tags for various standard script mixtures: Hang tags pure hangeul, whereas Kore tags mixtures of hangeul with Chinese characters; Jpan represents ordinary Japanese text using hiragana, katakana, and Chinese characters, whereas Hrkt is used for pure hiragana and katakana texts without Chinese characters.

    The existence of script variants is unconnected with how Unicode models the scripts. There is only one set of Syriac characters, and it is font-dependent which style you see; likewise, only a few Gaelic characters are encoded in order to represent their contrastive use in phonetic text, with running text in Irish or Old English encoded using normal Latin characters with a suitable font. Traditional and simplified Chinese characters are encoded separately, except in cases where they are the same.

    One universe away, not only the Holy Roman Empire but also the Scandinavian Realm continue to use Fraktur, in the case of the SR for all the local languages (possibly excepting Chinese in Tsingdav city-state) as well as Standard Riksmål. This means that there are Fraktur versions of þ and ð for Icelandic, if you can imagine such things.

  36. Eastern (Syre) vs. Estrangelo (Syre)

    Something has gone amiss here.

  37. Eastern should be Syrn. The letters of course reflect the now-discouraged labels “Nestorian” for Eastern and “Jacobite” for Western.

  38. marie-lucie: From what I read here, the Russian reforms were quite mild compared to the recently promulgated French reforms

    Can’t agree here (although it might just be the Four Yorkshiremen syndrome speaking). Imagine e.g. replacing all ys with is and all phs with fs, with pillaging printing offices for all circumflexed letters for good measue – not that it were technically possible nowadays.

  39. Eastern should be Syrn.

    Fixed.

  40. @D.P.: But would it be correct to say that the Russian reforms were mostly of a simple and systematic nature – that is “replace character x with character y”? The recent French reforms seem messier in comparison, despite not having so large an effect on the overall look of the language.

  41. Lazar: I believe you could say that but I wouldn’t call it mild.

  42. I agree. No reform is “mild” if it makes previous texts difficult to read (which is not the case in the French example).

  43. Multiplex negatio ferblondiat; I can’t folloe your negations. But any chainge can make texts more difficult to read for some peeple.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    DMT: printing a French poem by Baudelaire in Fraktur.

    It would just make it look like a medieval poem.

    D.P. Imagine e.g. replacing all ys with is and all phs with fs, with pillaging printing offices for all circumflexed letters for good measue

    Replacing all ph’s with f’s would make the words seem written by a 6 year old. Replacing all y’s with i’s would create problems for words like pays ‘country, land’ which is pronounds as if pai-is and other cases where y is not just [i]. Circumflexed letters are being removed in many cases (something I don’t like as it eliminates sound differences I am using).

  45. marie-lucie: Replacing all ph’s with f’s would make the words seem written by a 6 year old.
    So did replacing ѣ with e and i with и, I believe. Sort of proves my point.

    I didn’t mean to say such a reform would be necessary or useful or possible. I just tried to make you feel what a French analogue to the Russian reform could look like.

  46. J.W. Brewer says:

    The old German usage of having running text in fraktur but sticking quoted foreign words in antiqua seems completely parallel to the common usage in English texts of putting quoted foreign words in italics. The distance between italics and “regular” antiqua is smaller than the distance between antiqua and fraktur which in turn is smaller than the distance between katakana and hiragana, but the same contrastive effect can be achieved for the same purpose in each case. So I don’t think that tells you anything about whether people are conceptualizing any particular situation as two different alphabets or two different font-like variants of the same alphabet. FWIW when I finally myself conceptualized katakana as “hiragana in italics” that made the whole Japanese-script situation seem more sensible/logical/orderly to me, even if it’s a flawed analogy.

  47. I can’t folloe your negations.

    Seriously? I’m well aware of the misnegation issue, obviously, but I can’t see that it applies to what I wrote. Surely “No reform is mild if it makes previous texts difficult to read” is straightforward, and it seems to me “which is not the case in the French example” straightforwardly applies to the previous condition: it is not the case in the French example that it makes previous texts difficult to read. But maybe I’m missing something?

  48. Chalk it up to my waking up three hours early this morning with leg cramps. But you seem to be saying that though the French reforms were mild, the Russian reforms were not, since they did make texts difficult to read (in agreement with D.P.) Is that really the case? Did anyone test it at the time, when there were still people brought up on the traditional orthography? It seems clear that the reform was designed to help writers rather than readers, but we are all readers far more and far more often than we are writers, even in this Internet age, never mind in 1918.

  49. John: Clearly, the reform made it (more) difficult for its contemporaries to write new texts and for generations to come, to read old ones. I can’t really think of a way to do otherwise short of burning all the books and reprinting them according to the new rules. Granted, enterprises like this aren’t entirely unheard of either: Qin Shi Huang or the Incas have reportedly tried to destroy all written texts, but they pursued other goals.

  50. But you seem to be saying that though the French reforms were mild, the Russian reforms were not, since they did make texts difficult to read (in agreement with D.P.) Is that really the case?

    Yes, I am, and yes, it is.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    m-l: Replacing all ph’s with f’s would make the words seem written by a 6 year old.

    That’s a feature. Spelling reforms are for the benefit of future generations. For the benefit of the broad population, not the literary class.

    Language evolves. If written language doesn’t keep up, reading and writing inevitably becomes a skill for the learned few. When reforms are making it difficult to read even close-to-contemparary literature, they’re even more important, being ridiculously overdue. Of course, when it comes to reading old literature, much could be achieved by introducing some variation into the new norm.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    JC, LH: I don’t know enough Russian to comment on the Russian reforms, but I don’t think the French reforms are “mild”. Some of them may seem mild but their consequences are not. (I don’t feel like going into details at the moment – I did comment about a former LH post about the topic).

  53. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t mean to say that any reform is a good reform, of course, just that I don’t see backward continuity as desirable at all costs. Backward-looking is a good thing as far as it helps to unite contemporary varieties. But at some point those varieties should be allowed to drift apart.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    Война и мір

    …міръ, surely?

    I know this idea is widespread, but I had the impression that it is not in fact based on science any more today than in Tolstoy’s time. It seems in fact to be false to say that we don’t break up words into parts when reading. Even if it takes longer, we can still read words that we have never seen before.

    In my experience, people who were in fact taught to read by recognizing the shapes of words have enormous trouble reading words they haven’t encountered before – and that’s in German, where it’s fairly straightforward to derive the pronunciation from the spelling.

    Even so, though, that’s not the whole story. If it were, reading unfamiliar fonts would have to be learned from scratch.

    In samples that I’ve heard, word-final /ɛ/ often sounds more like [e] (I can’t tell if the distinction is entirely neutralized, or if the vowels are just brought closer together)

    For many people it’s completely neutralized, so that monnaie ends in [e] – or indeed [eç] utterance-finally. There are even those who pronounce gauche with [ɔ].

    It fascinated me to learn that many Germans thought of Fraktur not just as a distinct typeface, but as a distinct alphabet.

    This extended to their handwritten versions: my grandpa was taught to write Latin in Lateinschrift, and that name for “cursive” was still used in the next generation (I sporadically encountered it in the late 1980s and early 90s) after the contrast with Kurrentschrift had fallen away.

    the ô in hôpital is always the same as in hotte

    I really don’t think so; many people use [e] and [o] in open syllables, no matter how unstressed. Case in point: I didn’t even know anyone rendered pays as pai-is – it’s pé-is for me ([peˈi] rather than [pɛˈi]).

  55. …міръ, surely?

    Oops, yes, although I believe there were people who wanted to keep the і in this word even after the reform for disambiguation.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    David: people who were in fact taught to read by recognizing the shapes of words have enormous trouble reading words they haven’t encountered before

    The method you are referring to was called “Whole words” or in French “la méthode globale” (which I often heard my mother – a primary teacher – mention when I was a child). The rationale for this method is that most adult, fluent readers usually do recognize words by their overall shapes, so the theory was that this should be what children should be taught to do. This ignored the fact that the adults in question had learned to read (through teaching or by themselves) starting with very short words, noticing regularities in minimal pairs (cat, mat, sat, etc) and little by little increasing their reading vocabulary. Indeed what happened with the so-called method was that children were largely guessing and had not learned a real method for analyzing words.

    monnaie ends in [e] – or indeed [eç] utterance-finally.

    I remember discussing monnaie here quite some time ago. I think that the final [eç] is not an allophone or allomorph of written -aie but a reformation from related forms in -y- (monnayer ‘to turn s. into cash, faux-monnayeur ‘money-forger’). Same with la paie ‘the pay (salary)’ which is often spoken (and written) la paye with final spoken [j] (or [ç] if you prefer), corresponding to the verb payer ‘to pay’ in which verb forms can similarly alternate (je paie/paye, etc). The forms ending in [j]/[ç] analogically are less standard than the ones ending in the stem-vowel, but they are very widespread. In the case of la paie/paye, the form with y avoids the homophony with la paix ‘peace’.

    I didn’t even know anyone rendered pays as pai-is – it’s pé-is for me ([peˈi] rather than [pɛˈi]).

    Sorry, my mistake: indeed the only pronunciation I know is [peˈi]. But cases of written y between vowels correspond to an earlier sequence with two i’s: pai-ier, voi-iage, and most others.

    There are even those who pronounce gauche with [ɔ].

    These people are probably Southerners or under strong Southern influence, like the Marseillais I cited above, whose daughter had a tennis “cotch” (with [ɔ]).

    As for hôpital, I don’t recall anyone pronouncing the ô in this word as in hôte (‘host’ – as opposed to guest) or hôtel. It is not impossible in some areas though.

  57. D.P.: My copy-editor’s reflexes would be twitching if I had to read fotograf and fonology for the rest of my life, but I don’t think it would actually slow down my reading drastically. Even if all instanses of c (outside ch</i) were replased with k or s as appropriate, I think I kould kope. It sertainly wouldn’t bother me if sychiatrists dropped phantasy in favor of fantasy, which literary kritiks already use in a different sense. If anything, it would be harder to remember not to write in the old konventions than to make sense of the new ones.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    The method you are referring to was “Whole words” […] Indeed what happened with the so-called method was that children were largely guessing and had not learned a real method for analyzing words.

    Yes.

    I think that the final [eç] is not an allophone or allomorph of written -aie but a reformation from related forms in -y-

    It’s neither: the people who do this also add [ç] behind every utterance that ends in [i] or [y] – it’s a prepausal devoicing of the vowel itself. I think many do that without extending it to [e].

  59. SFReader says:

    Well, Russian script reform could be described as mild in comparison with Turkish or Mongolian reforms (which did away with old scripts altogether and switched to Latin or Cyrillic instead)

    As a result – new generations can’t read old texts at all. Not a single word! It could be all Chinese for all they care

  60. SFReader says:

    Peter the Great’s script reform was similarly catastrophic, I believe.

    Modern Russians can read pre-revolutionary books, perhaps a little slower, but they definitely can’t read any pre-Petrine books. They would recognize a few letters like, say, an Anglo would recognize some similar letters in Cyrillic text, but they would have to learn to read from scratch (I heard that students need several semesters of study at philology departments of Russian universities to acquire the skill)

  61. marie-lucie says:

    David: monnaye etc

    I am not familiar with the development you are describing, but it might be too new for me since I don’t hang around much with young French people. I will have to listen carefully next time I go to France.

    However, it may have started as I described, and now is being extended to other vowel-final contexts. But I lack the data necessary to discuss it further.

  62. Eli Nelson says:

    @SFReader: if it takes several semesters for Russian native speakers to learn how to read books written before the time of Peter the Great, the students must be learning much more than just another writing system. It does not take this long just to learn a different alphabet (for example, I’d expect someone familiar with the Latin alphabet to be able to learn the Cyrillic alphabet well enough to sound out words in less than two weeks of study).

    The texts may also be difficult to read due to archaic vocabulary or grammar. But these factors would still apply even if there had been no spelling/script reforms in the intervening centuries.

  63. SFReader: very true on all points. There were also the head-spinning 20th century transformations of the writing systems for Azerbaijani and Central Asian (Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kirghiz….) languages – along the lines of Araibc to Latin to Cyrillic and possibly back again to Latin, all inside of less than a century.

    At least the old Russian Empire, the gaol of nations though it was, didn’t try to meddle in the way these nations wrote.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    Modern Russians can read pre-revolutionary books, perhaps a little slower, but they definitely can’t read any pre-Petrine books.

    To which extent are such books in Russian, as opposed to “Church Slavonic (Russian redaction)”?

    At least the old Russian Empire, the gaol of nations though it was, didn’t try to meddle in the way these nations wrote.

    There were the two cases of Polish and Lithuanian, which were briefly ordered to be written in Cyrillic to counteract nationalist uprisings. That experiment backfired spectacularly and was quickly aborted.

  65. David: I stand corrected, thank you! Although it’s worth noting the “quickly aborted” part which wouldn’t probably work in the USSR: they tended to be more persistent even in their most spectacularly backfiring experiments.

    I wonder why they insisted on shifting the Moldovan to Cyrillic script while leaving the Baltic languages alone.

  66. Well, part of their motivation in the former case was to convince everyone of the existence of a separate language and ethnicity. There may also have been the memory of the old Romanian Cyrillic orthography, although that was different from what Moldovan uses.

    In the Baltics I suspect there was a confluence of factors – their recent history as functioning nation-states, their comparatively high level of development, the lack of need for forced ethnic distinction – that prevented the use of Cyrillic.

  67. SFReader says:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Vesti-1631.jpg

    The first Russian newspaper “Vesti-Kuranty”, first issue for 1631.

    It’s definitely in Russian, not Church Slavonic (its content being entirely translations of Western press).

    I wonder how many Russians are able to read a single word of that.

  68. Daniel N. says:

    Another similar script was completely reformed: Serbian Cyrillic, decades earlier. Yat was also thrown out.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serbian_Cyrillic_alphabet#Karad.C5.BEi.C4.87.27s_reform

  69. The first Russian newspaper “Vesti-Kuranty”, first issue for 1631.

    It’s definitely in Russian, not Church Slavonic (its content being entirely translations of Western press).

    Thanks very much for that; I wonder when the first book printed in Russian was?

    I wonder how many Russians are able to read a single word of that.

    I certainly couldn’t!

  70. My mother took a six-week course in reading 18C German handwriting, and she was a native speaker and reader/writer.

  71. Vesti-Kuranty was a handwritten journal of selected translations from the European press prepared for the czar and his foreign office. It’s in Muscovite bureaucratese, much closer to Russian than to Old Church Slavonic (OCS). But it was not published and very few people read it. Almost all books printed in Russia in pre-Petrine times were in OCS, with one-two exceptions (perhaps – such as the book on military arts printed under Czar Alexei).

    In other words, the loss from the switch from OCS Cyrillic to Peter’s “civil alphabet” was minimal. Outside the clerical estate, literacy was confined to a very narrow circle. The new alphabet was much easier to learn and read. OCS Cyrillic with its titlos, extra letter and diacritics no longer was a good fit for Russian. On the other hand, around 1700 the body of literature in Russian was essentially limited to the paperwork of the Moscow government. Peter probably realized that the clergy would still have to be competent in OCS so he could rely on the learned monks to retype the archives in the new script if necessary.

    Actually, there exists one pre-Petrine masterpiece written partly in Russian and partly in OCS as the author, a priest, was in essence bilingual: The Life of Protopresbyter Avvakum (that’s got to be Habakkuk). Avvakum’s Russian is down to earth, expressive and effective, in contrast to Vesti-Kuranty. For obvious reasons the Life only made it into print in 1861. To get a feel of how Avvakum combines Russian and OCS, here’s an extract in modern Russian script:

    И моляся, поехал в дом к нему, Евфимию. Егда ж привезоша мя на двор, выбежала жена ево Неонила и ухватала меня под руку, а сама говорит: “поди-тко, государь наш батюшко, поди-тко, свет наш кормилец!” И я сопротив того: “чюдно! давеча был блядин сын, а топерва – батюшко! Большо у Христа тово остра шелепуга та: скоро повинился муж твой!” Ввела меня в горницу. Вскочил с перины Евфимей, пал пред ногама моима, вопит неизреченно: “прости, государь, согрешил пред богом и пред тобою!” А сам дрожит весь. И я ему сопротиво: “хощеши ли впредь цел быти?” Он же, лежа, отвеща: “ей, честный отче!” И я рек: “востани! бог простит тя!” Он же, наказан гораздо, не мог сам востати. И я поднял и положил его на постелю, и исповедал, и маслом священным помазал, и бысть здрав. Так Христос изволил.

    The original can be found here.

  72. Right, I’ve long loved The Life of Avvakum, and of course I’m aware that “Almost all books printed in Russia in pre-Petrine times were in OCS,” but the operative word is “almost.” The first novel printed in Russian was Fyodor Emin’s Nepostoyannaya fortuna (1763), and the first book of any kind I’m aware of was Lomonosov’s Ritorika (1748), but now I’m wondering if there were earlier ones. Even if the first book was a boring manual, I’d like to know about it.

  73. Tredyakovsky’s Езда в остров любви was printed in 1730. It’s a translation of Voyage de l’isle d’amour by Paul Tallemant the Younger (1663).

    The military manual is this: Учение и хитрость ратного строения пехотных людей. Translated from German and published in 1647. (From Wallhausen’s Kriegskunst zu Fuß?)

  74. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am confused as to whether the Slavonic-style fonts that Dmitry P. says are in vogue in certain modern reactionary circles are the same as the pre-Petrine fonts that others have claimed are largely illegible to modern readers without specialized training – although I guess part of the confusion is that it’s not clear to what extent the difficulty in reading pre-Petrine books is because they’re not actually written in Russian versus being written in a hard-to-decode variant script.

  75. Rodger C says:

    In my experience, people who were in fact taught to read by recognizing the shapes of words have enormous trouble reading words they haven’t encountered before

    A phenomenon I often note among my students, who will look at a five-syllable word, gape for a second, then mumble something with two syllables.

  76. January First-of-May says:

    The first printed Russian book was the Apostol of Ivan Fedorov in 1564. (No idea if it was in actual contemporary Russian, or in Old Church Slavonic, though; they would not yet have been as different back then, anyway, especially for the more religious topics.)

    The 1564 book (images are easily found online, e.g. on Wikipedia) and the linked 1647 one (which is actually an early 20th century edition in a fairly modern font, but has some images of the original for comparison) have very similar fonts, apparently based on the 16th century semiuncial (полуустав).
    IMHO, the letters themselves are not especially unintelligible (indeed, a very similar font is used to this day in prayer books), and the main problems are the very archaic language (as should be expected) and the sheer amount of abbreviations (where several letters are deleted from a word, hinted at by having one of these letters appear above the line).
    I agree that the font is a lot more different from the modern (and thus a lot less intelligible) than, say, the font(s) used in 16th century French books (I’ve seen some on Google Books while doing a bit of amateur genealogical research – and not only could I easily read the text, but I actually understood most of it, even though my French is fairly bad… outside of the occasional quotations of even older texts, anyway, which I couldn’t make anything of).

    The 1631 “newspaper”, however, is essentially handwriting, i.e. cursive – and is thus just as unintelligible as any cursive would be after it stops being regularly taught (plus more because of the unfamiliar language).

    EDIT: Can’t recall seeing any non-OCS modern texts printed in this “semiuncial” font, admittedly.

  77. OK, now I’m wondering what was the first book printed in Russian that wasn’t a translation.

  78. what was the first book printed in Russian that wasn’t a translation.

    Probably textbooks? Here are the scans of a facsimile reprint of a 1565 “Chasovnik”. It mostly consists of prayers, of course, but it may have a uniquely Russian part? (Correction: no, I may have been wrong, the canonic forms, while used as reading textbooks, consist of prayers only). The early (XVII c) books also include treatises on religion, government, and war (although the latter may be a translation)

  79. Doesn’t sound like the primer is in Russian, but that’s a fascinating article for its look at Englishmen in 17th-century Russia (including an image of John Hebdon’s fluent Russian inscription in a copy of the later primer!).

  80. No, Slavonic Primer is a series of Greek translations as well. The only little bit of the text which isn’t from the prayer books is a short publisher’s afterword.

  81. David Marjanović says:

    The first Russian newspaper “Vesti-Kuranty”, first issue for 1631.

    Wow, that’s calligraphy. I can’t recognize most of the letters.

  82. SFReader says:

    You can see the problem. Seventeenth century Russia left millions of documents preserved in Russian archives. And they are all like that – written in illegible cursive handwriting and years of practice are needed to acquire skills to decipher it.

    Only a handful of scholars in Russia have the skills to read them.

    That’s the first thing students discover about pre-Petrine history – unlike the medieval Russian history with its paucity of written sources, the historian of 17th century is drowning in documents which he can’t possibly read in a thousand lifetimes.

    There are numerous consequences. From genealogical point of view, it is pretty clear that almost every adult who lived in Russia in 17th century had his name documented somewhere (in multiple documents). Unfortunately the lack of specialists who can read 17th century documents in the archives leads to enormous costs of genealogical research so Russians today don’t know their 17-18th century ancestors.

  83. it is pretty clear that almost every adult who lived in Russia in 17th century had his name documented somewhere (in multiple documents).
    The lack of surnames (outside of the higher classes) makes this kind of documentation largely useless for the genealogy purposes anyway?
    The earliest Russian documents I had to read in the course of genealogy research dates back to the 1830s, and the handwriting looks more contemporary, but uppercase letter shapes can be wildly dissimilar. In any case the outcomes were entirely driven by the penmanship. Great scribes were eminently decipherable and horrible scribes a total challenge…

  84. SFReader says:

    -The lack of surnames (outside of the higher classes) makes this kind of documentation largely useless for the genealogy purposes anyway?

    Not necessarily. All classes used patronymics and if you have an uninterrupted series of documents (for example tax census records) dating from adoption of surnames back to 17th century, you can make a reasonably good guess who begat whom…

    A genealogy of Russian President Vladimir Putin (of very humble origins – all his ancestors were serfs before 1861) is a good example.

    http://www.vgd.ru/PUTIN/putin1.htm

    His earliest documented ancestor is a bobyl (a loner, lacking family locally) peasant Yakim Nikitin who lived in a village of Bordino in Tver district circa 1627.

    Similar genealogical tree can be constructed for every Russian of peasant origins and it will go back to 17th century (in rare cases, mainly in the North, even earlier)

  85. Tver’ may be a special case, and peasants may be better documented that townsmen because villages in noblemen’s possession were smaller? I know that some of my family locations (like Nevel’, now in Pskov Region, formerly in Vitebsk Gubernia) have virtually no surviving records even as late as in XIX c. after the wholesale destruction of WWII, and others (like former Podolia Gubernia) have archives dating back only to late XVIII c. yet massively damaged or partly destroyed (in the infamous Kamenets-Podolsky Archive fire). One branch of my ancestors are actually from Russia’s North where the probability of *survival* of the documents is higher (but Arkhangel archive is legendary for its obstruction of research, and there is a long road from mere record survival to accessibility). Luckily the Arkhangel ancestors moved to Yaroslavl’ around the turn of the XX c., and the accessibility of parish records there is better. If you are a Russian Federation resident then you can actually access the parish records online. Yet not all of these books survived, and Yaroslavl was a major city, making searches very difficult. I hope to start my search on Monday, wish me luck 🙂 If I am able to figure out the Arkhangel village of the parents of great-grandma Pelageya, I’d be elated.

  86. SFReader says:

    17th century Russia underwent transformation to bureaucratic state which insisted on having records of everyone present in the country regardless of class, age or gender (Western European countries had similar transformation much earlier – as early as 13-14th centuries in case of England and France. )

    It’s true that not all records survived to present day, especially in regions subject to devastation of WWII. But the situation is vastly different from, say, 15-16th century Russia when the emerging Russian state had no capacity to keep extensive records.

    So if your ancestors weren’t recorded at all back in 16th century, then you are totally out of luck – the information simply isn’t there and you will never know.

  87. SFReader says:

    And now something completely different.

    http://www.aroundspb.ru/uploads/book1500/piscovye_knigi_izhorskoy_zemli.pdf

    This is a book of census records for 1618-1623 in Izhora land (Ingria, Ingermanland), a Russian province (located in neighbourhoods of modern Saint Petersburg) which was occupied by Sweden in 17th century.

    Very unique kind of document – a census of a Russian speaking province undertaken by Swedish government on the basis of Russian bureaucratic models. And in Swedish, of course.

    Makes for very fascinating reading full of gems like

    Ifwanko Pafwelof S. med sine Söhner
    Åndreiko Ifwanof S. med sin Sohn Åfanaska
    Feodorko Sacharief Tenhoinen S. med sine bröder Griska och Waska

  88. marie-lucie says:

    In France before the Revolution most of this type of information was kept by parishes. Unfortunately many of these records were destroyed during the Revolution. Other important sources are the records kept by notaires (the word refers to a type of lawyer handling property), dealing with marriage contracts (formerly more important than wedding ceremonies) and inheritance. The two types of records are complementary: while the parish recorded all baptisms, marriages and deaths, regardless of class, the notaires did not deal with the poorest people, who had no need of their services (and often did not bother to get married, since they had no property to pass on to any children).

Speak Your Mind

*