Context (Moscow Times)
December 14-20, 2007
The Russian language has nothing to fear from the flood of slang and foreign words it is currently struggling with.
By Victor Sonkin
Commentators often proclaim that the Russian language is in a sorry state and launch various campaigns and initiatives intended to slow down its demise. At the recent Non/Fiction book fair, Maxim Krongauz, a professor of linguistics at the Russian State University for the Humanities, and a columnist at Vedomosti presented a book with the telling title, "Russian Language on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
Krongauz warns readers in a footnote that he wrote the book from the point of view of a concerned member of the public, not in his capacity as an academic. The position of an enlightened linguist, he says, would be that the Russian language has nothing to fear from the flood of slang and foreign words it is currently struggling with -- in the long run, it will "digest" everything and regain its balance. Having said that, Krongauz sets aside his moderate attitude and joins the indignant chorus of complainers.
The general consensus seems to be that there are several things wrong with Russian at the moment. One of these is the stampede of new, mostly foreign words needed to describe concepts that didn't exist in Soviet times. Unfortunately this process sometimes goes too far and regular Russian words are replaced by foreign terms.
Prestigious companies in fashionable business centers consider it uncouth to have janitors -- so they hire staff who are given the job title of klining menedzher.
Another phenomenon is the creeping of Internet slang into newspapers and everyday speech. One such word, preved, a corruption of the usual privet, or hi, is now used even by people who have little to do with the Internet subculture.
Krongauz provides insightful comments on the differences between Russian and Western patterns of communication and the recent changes in Russia. Although I remember grim Soviet stores, I had forgotten that saying "Hello" to a salesperson used to be absolutely out of the question.
Krongauz describes the experience of his friend who returned to the Soviet Union after living in the West and tried to use her new "polite" habits. The best she could hope for in reply was a brusque: "Girl, don't hold up the line!" Conversational etiquette has certainly changed in Russia -- and it's not hard to see that it has changed for the better.
Many other changes to the language are also for the better; many others will be short-lived. Some changes, such as the gradual dissolution of Russian case system, repugnant as it is for us, are part of a general linguistic trend that we cannot really fight.
It's a relief that Krongauz, despite his well-founded concerns, is after all an enlightened linguist who acknowledges that our language is not in any real danger.