As I mentioned in a recent entry, I just bought Kornei Chukovsky’s Zhivoi kak zhizn’: o russkom yazyke (Alive as life: on the Russian language), and I am so pleased by his opening paragraphs on language change that I am going to translate them here.

Anatolii Fedorovich Koni [1844-1927], Honorary Academician and famous lawyer, was, as is well known, the kindliest of men. He gladly forgave those around him all sorts of mistakes and weaknesses. But woe betide anyone who, while conversing with him, distorted or disfigured the Russian language. Koni fell upon such a person with impassioned detestation.

His passion delighted me. And yet in his struggle for the purity of the language he often went too far. He insisted, for example, that the word obyazatel’no [‘obligatorily, without fail,’ from the verb obyazat’ ‘to oblige’] meant only ‘obligingly, courteously.’ But that meaning of the word has long since died out. Now, both in living speech and in literature, the word obyazatel’no has come to mean nepremenno [‘without fail, certainly’]. And that aroused the indignation of Academician Koni.

“Just imagine,” he would say, clutching at his heart, “today I was walking along Spasskaya and I heard: ‘On obyzatel’no nab’et tebe mordu!‘ [‘He’s definitely gonna smash your face in!’] How do you like that? One man tells another that someone is going to thrash him in a courteous manner!”

“But the word obyazatel’no doesn’t mean ‘courteous’ any more,” I tried to object, but Anatolii Fedorovich insisted on his point of view.

Meanwhile, in the entire Soviet Union you won’t find anyone for whom obyazatel’no means ‘courteous.’ Nowadays not everyone will understand what Aksakov meant when he said of a provincial doctor: “In his relations with us he acted obyazatel’no.” But no one will be puzzled by, for instance, this couplet of Isakovskii’s:

I kuda tebe zhelaetsya,
Obyazatel’no doidesh.

[‘And wherever you want to go, you’ll obyazatel’no get there.’]

Much is explained by the fact that Koni was by then old. He acted like most old men: he insisted on the norms of Russian speech as they existed in the time of his childhood and youth. Old men almost always think their children and grandchildren (especially the grandchildren) are disfiguring proper Russian speech.

I can easily imagine the grey-haired elder who in 1803 or 1805 angrily pounded his fist on the table when his grandchildren started chatting about razvitii uma i kharaktera [‘development of mind and character’].
“Where did you come upon that intolerable razvitiye uma? You should say prozyabenie [‘growth (of vegetation)].”…

A new epoch arrived. The former youths became fathers and grandfathers. And it was their turn to be indignant about the words that young people were bringing into use: darovityi [‘gifted’], otchetlivyi [‘distinct, intelligible’], golosovanie [‘voting, suffrage’], chelovechnyi [‘humane’], obshchestvennost’ [‘(the) public, public opinion’], khlyshch [‘fop’]. Now it seems to us that these words have existed in Russia from time out of mind and that we could never have done without them, but in the ’30s and ’40s of the last century they were novelty words with which the zealots of the purity of the language could not for a long time make their peace.

He continues with more examples, and I may translate more of it later. Meanwhile, let me just say that his combination of awareness of the inevitability of change (and the comedy of young innovators turning into old prescriptivists) with resentment of the changes occurring in his own day is very close to my heart.


  1. Reminds me exactly of the “hopefully” controversy.

  2. Benjamin Brooks says

    How old is that book?

  3. Even though my knowledge of Russian is intermediate, I have heard the word in question frequently. I have always taken it to mean something along the lines of definitely or certainly.

  4. Benjamin: I have the second edition, of 1963.
    Toby: That’s definitely what it means.

  5. Tatyana Tolstaya starts her 2018 talk «Язык норм» [The language of norms] with a long discussion of this book, which is one of her favorites (she reads it every few years).

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