I’m continuing the translation I began in a recent entry of Kornei Chukovsky’s comments on changes in Russian and generational reaction to them.

If the youth of those days [the 1840s] happened to use in conversation words unknown to earlier generations such as fakt [fact], rezul’tat [result], erunda [nonsense], solidarnost’ [solidarity; joint responsibility], the representatives of those earlier generations declared that Russian speech suffered no small loss from such an influx of highly vulgar words.

“Where did this fakt come from?” asked the indignant Faddei Bulgarin in 1847. “What sort of word is that? A corruption.”

Yakov Grot at the end of the [18]60s declared the newly appeared word vdokhnovlyat’ [to inspire] “disgraceful.”

Even such a word as nauchnyi [scientific] had to overcome considerable opposition from old-fashioned purists before it entered our speech as of right. Let us recall how struck Gogol was by the word in 1851. Until then he had never heard of it.

Old men demanded that the word uchenyi [learned] be used instead: a learned book, a learned treatise. The word “scientific” seemed to them inadmissably vulgar…

Of course, the old men were wrong. [All these words] are now felt, by young and old alike, as perfectly regular, rooted words that no one could do without!

…I have been put into a quandary by new forms such as [end-stressed] vyborá (in place of vybory ‘elections’ [stressed on the first syllable]), dogovorá (in place of dogovóry ‘agreements; treaties’), lektorá (in place of léktory ‘lecturers’). I heard in them something devil-may-care, reckless, wild, rakish. In vain I told myself that the Russian literary language had long since legitimized such forms.

“Two hundred years ago,” I told myself, “Lomonosov was already saying that Russians prefer the ending –a to the ‘boring’ –i.”

(He gives examples of words that changed endings in succeeding generations, for instance tom ‘volume’:)

If Chekhov, for example, had heard the word tomá, he would have thought the French composer Ambroise Thomas was being discussed…

Each time, I came to the conclusion that it was useless to protest against these forms. I could get as agitated as I liked, but it was impossible not to see that here was a centuries-long, unstoppable process of the replacement of final unstressed –i by the strongly stressed ending –á.

…[In language] everything moves, everything flows, everything changes. And only the most naive purists maintain that language is something immovable, eternally congealed—not a turbulent stream, but a stagnant lake.

This seems to me an exemplary attitude towards language change on the part of someone sensitive to the nuances of usage and attached to the forms he grew up with, but aware of the necessity and inevitability of change. A man after my own heart.


  1. I think I have to read this.
    The book is available here for any other Russian speakers who are inspired by Hat’s translations to read the original.

  2. I’m glad to see it’s online. (But I see they haven’t managed to get the accents on the words in the glossary, which renders much of it useless.)

  3. They’re in boldface, no?

  4. So they are! But they weren’t in the browser I was using when I made that comment. Stupid browser.

  5. If Chekhov, for example, had heard the word tomá, he would have thought the French composer Ambroise Thomas was being discussed…
    Just couldn’t help reciting Samuil Marshak’s wonderful translation which rhymes томá & весьма 🙂
    Мы в восторге от мистера Лира,
    Исписал он стихами тома.
    Для одних он – ворчун и придира,
    А другим он приятен весьма.
    Десять пальцев, два глаза, два уха,
    Подарила природа ему.
    Не лишен он известного слуха
    И в гостях не поет потому.
    Книг у Лира на полках немало.
    Он привез их из множества стран.
    Пьет вино он с наклейкой “Марсала”,
    И совсем не бывает он пьян.
    Есть у Лира знакомые разные.
    Кот его называется Фосс.
    Тело автора – шарообразное,
    И совсем нет под шляпой волос.
    Если ходит он, тростью стуча,
    В белоснежном плаще за границей,
    Все мальчишки кричат: “Англичанин
    В халате бежал из больницы!”
    Он рыдает, бродя в одиночку
    По горам, среди каменных глыб,
    Покупает в аптеке примочку,
    А в ларьке – марципановых рыб.
    По-испански не пишет он, дети,
    И не любит он пить рыбий жир…
    Как приятно нам знать, что на свете
    Есть такой человек – мистер Лир!

  6. If I lived in the 1840’s I would’ve used “fakt” just to spite Bulgarin!
    Here’s an interesting story about censorship, tsar and Bulgarin also in the year 1847

Speak Your Mind