I ran across a scanned image of a Russian schoolbook page and started to read it when I was stopped cold by the second line:

2. Запишите 2-ой абзац текста, подчёркивая все орфограммы.
[2. Write out the second paragraph of the text, underlining all orfogrammy.]

What the hell is an orfogramma? It wasn’t in my Oxford dictionary, so I went to the big gun, the three-volume New Great Russian-English Dictionary, and there it was… defined as “orthogram.” This sort of thing really bothers me (I’ve posted about a similar situation here). There is no such word in English as “orthogram.” It’s not in the OED, it’s not in the big Webster’s, it’s not online—if you google it, you get a bunch of French pages (for some reason) and a stray Egyptological page claiming that an orthogram is “a sign in the script which is to indicate a dual or plural form.” That may or may not be a technical term in Egyptology, but it’s clearly not relevant here. So I went to my handy Russkii yazyk: entsyklopediya [Russian language: encyclopedia] and found a whole article about орфограммы, which I will summarize for you thus: an orfogramma is a point of uncertainty in the spelling of a word, a place where you can’t tell from the sound alone how to write it. Classic examples are final consonants (since all final consonants are devoiced: pyad’ ‘span’ and pyat’ ‘five’ sound the same) and unstressed vowels (golova ‘head’ could equally well be written galava to represent the standard pronunciation); writing words with small or capital letters would also fall under this rubric. So the line I quoted means ‘underline all letters whose spelling requires the application of orthographic rules.’ I sympathize with bilingual lexicographers; it’s not easy to deal with a situation like this. But it’s a dereliction of duty to say “орфограмма? orthogram!” and go on to the next word, not bothering your head about whether your “definition” is of any help to the users of the dictionary.

Update. Andrew Dunbar posted a request at Wiktionary, and already there’s an article with the following definitions:

1. A spelling that is in accordance with orthographic rules, usually etymological or historical rather than phonetic.
2. A consistently reproducible way to represent phonomorphological features of a given language in writing, such -ого for the Russian masculine genitive singular of adjectives, instead of the phonetic spelling -ава: нового (nóvəvə).

I hesitate to dispute a native speaker about the definition of a word I was unacquainted with until the other day, but “a spelling” to me implies the spelling of an entire word, whereas (if I understand correctly) an орфограмма is a particular point in a word where the spelling requires the application of special rules. I will be happy to be corrected.


  1. There are swathes of English vocabulary mostly, if not only used by people with some French–“quotidian,” “milliard” and “précis” are three words that spring to mind–and the thought that people bilingual in Russian might have their own little sub-vocabulary–of standard English–on similar principles, seems like something from a parallel universe.
    (Where instead of being conquered by integrated Vikings from Normandy, it was the integrated Vikings of Kievian Rus’ who, after a mercenary expedition to support Harold, usurped him, and imposed East Slavic as the language of court and administration. It could work, I think!)

  2. What a wonderful word! This has made my day.

  3. I suppose though that in English “letter which must be determined by orthographic rules rather than sound alone” is almost synonymous with “letter”.

  4. ” orfogramma ” I’m glad ye dothe explain , ’cause I tort it be a bloke I doth Know saying in such dulcet tones “Awfulgrammar”

  5. You made me pull out my old dusty textbook of Russian for 5 and 6 grades (1977).
    1. The word “orfogrammy” appears for the 1st time on p. 3 without definition, so it obviously was introduced earlier, perhaps in 4th grade.
    2. There is an appendix containing lists of studied “orfogrammy” (72) and “punktogrammy” (6). Here, they look synonymous with “rules of orthography” and “of punctuation” respectively.
    3. It seems to me that the notions of “orfogramma” and “punktogramma” combine the ideas of a rule and of its application.
    4. I can’t remember these terms being used beyond school.

  6. What’s funny about all this – is that the text given there is given as an example of how difficult it is to read a text that is not written according to the ‘orthography’ rules. Actually, a whole group of people (called padonki – the misspelling is deliberate) are using this style to communicate quite successfully – namely, they misspell as many words as they can as a stylistic measure.
    Now if you wondered why is the image has ‘albanski’ in its name – there’s a reason to that as well – and it comes from the Russian language livejournal lore: once upon a time one poor american sob insulted some Russian speakers by insisting that they write English – and not this strange language he doesn’t understand – as LJ is an English speaking service. He’d better poke at a hornest nest: quickly a ‘flash mob’ was put together, and hundreds of people came to the sob’s journal to explain that the strange language is Albanian and he’d better learn it. Naturally, padonki were in the avantguard of this mob, and they embraced ‘albanian’ as an alternative name to their dialect.

  7. Orthogram returns French pages because they’re about the rules of “orthographe” (spelling) and “grammaire” (grammar) – so we get a juxtaposition of the two (ortho-gram). However, this as a term defies the rules and conventions of both French spelling and grammar… which of course are polemic in and of themselves.
    I know this has nothing to do with Russian, but it’s too funny not to point out (even to a random person on the web).

  8. Orfogramma puzzled me for a minute — then I vaguely recalled it was something from my school days, and now I’m ready to bet it popped up almost daily in our Russian classes. Thus, it’s hard not to hate it.

  9. Oh — wait a moment, LH — slona-to ya in ne primetil! The image is of a page from a Russian textbook with one paragraph rewritten na yazyke padonkaff, in the padonki dialect that every Russian LJ user should be familiar with.

  10. Wow, I’m glad I posted about that — I got great responses! (And special thanks to Karen for explaining the French thing, because it really bothered me that “orthogram” was so un-French.)
    I didn’t know about padonki and albanski, but I’ve read enough Russian LJ prose to have been amused by the “difficult” paragraph not written according to the rules!
    Matt: That made me laugh.

  11. …as well as “Я плакаль” stamped in the lower right corner of the scan.
    LH, here’s the advantage of padonki dialect: instead of your whole post you could just say ниасилил!

  12. I thought подонки were what Zhdanov accused Akhmatova and Zoshchenko of being.

  13. Right, but that’s with correct spelling.

  14. ‘Orfogramma’ is a funny term because it sounds very scientific (thanks to its pseudo-Greek origin), but is only ever used by schoolteachers trying to bore children to death to get a day off.

  15. I’m thinking “spelling difficulty” would probably be the simplest translation.

  16. Andrew Dunbar says

    Often when reading Languagehat, I copy and paste strange and interesting terms discussed in various languages to Wiktionary’s request pages. Already we have a nice entry with two senses for “орфограмма” thanks to our excellent contributor of Russian and quite a few other languages.
    I hope that wasn’t too shameless a plug! (-:

  17. Are you kidding? That warrants an update to the post. Thanks, Andrew!

  18. Andrew Dunbar says

    Wiktionary has a talk page for each word so I’ve left a note there that Languagehat is interested and left a link to this thread here. I’ve also notified the contributor who provided the definitions. Hopefully there will now be some cross-polination either here or on the Wiktionary talk page.
    And it would be really lovely if anybody here would like to post requests for weird and wonderful words on Wiktionary, or define some already requested. The requests feature hasn’t quite gotten into full swing yet but I think it has a huge potential.

  19. Stephen Brown says

    I think “spelling” is the proper word here. “A spelling that is in accordance with orthographic rules” could be understood as an entire word, but the spelling problem that a word presents is usually confined to just a letter or two. The masculine genitive ending of adjectives is correctly spelt with ‘-ого’ in most cases … сад is spelt with a ‘д’. Russian uses the spelling ‘вода’ for “water,” while Belarusian writes it ‘вада’. For Russian, the ‘o’ in вода is the correct spelling, but ‘a’ is the spelling in Belarus.

  20. Your definition sounds much more appropriate to me. And I’m a native speaker 🙂 I would say ‘орфограмма’ has two meanings:
    1. A spelling difficulty
    3. A class of spelling difficulties explained by a particular rule.

  21. Looked it up in the Runet. The definition posted in the Wiktionary is translated from the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, which once again shows its tenedency to boldly bullshit its readers. Some online dictionaries define it as “the right spelling according to a particular rule fo orthography”.

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