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).
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.