Avva recently had a couple of entries that provoked typical firestorms of criticism, in which self-appointed defenders of the purity of the great and mighty Russian language took severe issue with his acceptance of “incorrect” usage as simply products of normal linguistic development that hadn’t yet been accorded social acceptance. What particularly struck me was this entry (in Russian), in which he pointed out a disingenuous ploy routinely used by the self-appointed defenders in which they loudly deprecate not the actual usage they disapprove of, which might not sound that bad to the fence-sitters, but an exaggeration of it which is guaranteed to offend the ear. Thus the verb zvonit’ ‘to ring; to call (on the telephone)’ is officially end-stressed in all its forms: zvoNYU, zvoNISH, zvoNIT, and so on. Now, there is a common pattern of conjugation in which the first-person singular has end stress but the rest have stem stress: eg, tsenit’ ‘to value’: tseNYU, TSEnish’, TSEnit. For some speakers, this pattern has attracted zvonit’, so that they say ZVOnit ‘he/she rings.’ Tsk, tsk! But, as I say, this doesn’t automatically sound that bad, since it fits a common pattern (which is why it’s said in the first place). So the self-appointed defenders instead make fun of a stem-stressed infinitive ZVOnit’ (palatalized final t), used by few if any speakers. This sort of intellectual dishonesty is not restricted to Russian-speakers or to discussions about language.

Incidentally, I was saddened to see that among the hundreds of comments, none (that I noticed) supported his view, or showed any awareness of the rudiments of linguistic science (for instance, the idea that language is contained in the minds of its users, not the pages of dictionaries and grammars). I’m used to fighting this battle, which I’ve done more than once on MetaFilter, but I’m also used to having people chime in and support my arguments. I can only hope the science of language begins making inroads among the speakers of the great and mighty Russian language.

Speaking of which, I can’t resist sending you to this hilarious Duma report on a meeting that devolved into a discussion of bad language:

The deputy Alexander Fedulov did nothing bad, but only once swore in the boardroom. For that he was denied the right to speak, and was being discussed in mass-media for a week. The Duma philologists set to the organization of round table with mind and scope. They invited leading experts from Institute of the Russian language and faculty of journalism of Moscow State University. And not to yell them get puffed up from the rendered honor, they also invited Barrie Alibasov with Detzl. There were also the author of « Encyclopedias of Russian bad language » Alexander Plutser-Sarno, and one of the developers of the law « On state language of the Russian Federation », the deputy of the fraction “The Unity” Alexey Alekseev. Due to the law, as it is known, bad language, at least in public sphere, is forbidden.

It appeared, that the Russian language had been attacked by insidious foreigners, and therefore it might be good to replace foreign words by primordially Russian. It was offered to use mutiny instead of revolution, community instead of communism, whore instead of prostitute, fuse for some reason instead of condom. After that, Vladimir Volfovich without a shadow of constraint deepened into definition of the word “her” [Wiktionary] which turned out to come from the German “Herr”, that means “sir”. The audience which predominantly consisted of students-philologists, was already squealing with enthusiastic laughter. The speech was proceeded with a joke about the riches of the Russian language. « It is for relaxation », -Vladimir Volfovich explained. Then he passed to the analysis of other abusive words and expressions. « I say It to encourage the speakers not limit themselves while speaking out ». At these words the director of the Institute of the Russian language Vladimir Vinogradov blushed and showed no desire to speak out during the round table. The raper Detzl turned out to be one more supporter of language freedom. « Hm-hm, – he began, – it is not necessary to forbid anything, any child will understand, when it is possible to swear, and when it is not. And let deputies be engaged in more serious problems ». The philologist Vladimir Krysin started to protect the honor of scientists. He told the deputies, that the language is not adjusted by laws, and it is time for them to liquidate total linguistic illiteracy. But the deputies who received the mandate for free expressions from the chairman of round table Girinovskiy, decided not to surrender. The member of the fraction of Union of Right Forces Andrey Wolf said that « bad language is very tasty », and therefore it is necessary to legalize it immediately. « And then I shall swear from tribunes of the State Duma with great pleasure », – he said with hope.

Why can’t Congress have debates like this?

Addendum. A quote from Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden which seems somehow relevant here:

…at this period in his life [Dostoyevsky] had been writing a particularly prolific amount about the Slavonic Question, emphasizing the God-given role of the Russian people whose vocation it was to free the rest of Europe, the basis of this chosen destiny being, in his opinion, the special, unique nature of the Russian national mentality and character which, amongst other things, was demonstrated in the use of unprintable words, pronounced in various ways and with various shades of meaning, which were employed by the common people not, of course, to insult others or abuse them, but to express the subtle, profound, and even saintly feelings buried in the soul of every genuine Russian.

Update (June 2024). I have replaced some of the links with archived ones and others with Wikipedia entries (and added a couple of links).


  1. I love the zvOnit usage. My host dad talks like that, and it makes me happier than probably it should every time I hear it.
    I wish I could use more of the Krasnodar forms I learned in my own speech. I blogged about this at some point, I think. I love the Kuban’/Ukraine h in place of g and so on. Alas, my profs would probably try to keep me from getting a degree in Russian if I talked like that at Russian Table. 🙁

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