Avva has a debate going about Russian orthography. It began with a remark, in a post of his about Pope Gregory’s bull Inter gravissimus (which proclaimed the year 2000 a leap year), that he was writing the Russian adjective for ‘leap’ (in “leap year”) vysokosnyi rather than the standard spelling visokosnyi because that was how he pronounced it. This caused quite a hullabulloo. People accused him of willful flouting of the rules, even of illiteracy. He responded with three long and closely reasoned analyses of the Russian writing system, based not on the simplistic “write as you pronounce” principle but on the phonemic principle, which in this case forced him, precisely, to write the word as he pronounced it. My initial reaction was like that of his opponents: write it the way it is in the dictionary; what’s the problem? But in the end he convinced me with his arguments and analogies. What struck me is how hopeless it would be to reproduce the argument in English, where writing is so far from pronunciation (though not as far as many think) that to introduce even the minor correctives he argues for would be to risk letting the sea wash away the dikes and flood the land. Russian is, as it were, above sea level; it can afford to get a little wet.

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