May 20, 2019

Russian Grammar Wars

Russian Grammar Wars

In St. Petersburg, just like your (masculine gender) coffee, you can take your grammar to go.

Since 2011, advertisements with the headline “Let’s speak like Petersburgians” have become familiar to anyone riding the metro in Russia’s cultural capital. The campaign was started by linguist Ludmila Verbitskaya, president of St. Petersburg State University. Verbitskaya’s mission: to eradicate mispronunciations, incorrect verb conjugations, and other public health hazards. 

The campaign has become so iconic that it has become the butt of several parodies. One man thought the examples in the posters were too negative, and proposed replacing them with fun, uniquely Petersburg words like “эрмитажить” (“to Hermitage” – the famous Winter Palace and art museum in St. Petersburg), meaning to stand in a long line, and “рубинштейнить” (“to Rubenstein” – the name of the “main restaurant street of Russia”), meaning to hang out in trendy places. 

A kind-hearted parody from 2018 implores citizens to help one another under the heading “Let’s act like Petersburgians.” A less kind-hearted one ("Let's Get Injured Like Petersburgers") from this past winter criticizes local authorities’ snow removal efforts with phrases such as: “Incorrect: walk out into the entranceway [подъезд, the standard Russian word] of a comfortable European city. Correct: Don’t leave the room, because the entranceway [парадная, the Petersburg dialect word] is buried in snow.” 

Let's receive trauma like petersburgians campaign
The critical ad (left) next to the original grammar campaign (right). / Sergei Zvezda on TJournal

So, why “like Petersburgians,” instead of “like Russians”? Because, according to Marina Shatilova (a Petersburg native going back several generations and self-described “grammar Nazi,” who holds a doctoral degree in teaching Russian as a foreign language and has been working in the field over 30 years), the city used to have a special relationship to language, but not anymore. An influx of migration to the city since the fall of the Soviet Union has led to more “provincial speech.” But back before all of that, residents of the cultural capital used to differentiate themselves from everyone else by taking particular care to speak correctly.

Shatilova mentions a particularly well-known example: the debate over whether кофе (coffee) is a masculine or neuter word. According to the rules of Russian grammar, when a word ends in “e,” it is neuter. However, the word used to have an additional letter at the end, “й,” which would make it masculine, and the gender has stuck, even though the spelling changed. She says that in St. Petersburg using coffee as if it were neuter was like “a stamp on your forehead.” Shatilova recalls how, when her mother saw it written as a neuter word on a sign for a cafeteria that she passed frequently, she “suffered” and almost submitted a formal complaint. But now, she adds, both forms have been normalized as officially correct – but it is still a matter of debate, which is better at least.

Wonder what all the fuss is about? Let’s get concrete. Here are ten contentious issues plaguing the Russian language, according to the “like Petersburgians” devotees.

  1. How to spell the word “email.” Everyone more or less agrees that officially you should use the Russian word “электронная почта” (electronic mail), or just use alternative phrases like “letter” or “message,” and just assume people will understand that you don’t mean those old fashioned things with stamps and envelopes. Yet if you want to render “email” in Cyrillic, however, there is no consensus. On the one hand, the Russian Orthographic Dictionary has fixed it as имейл. Some argue that эмейл is most logical, since the first letter, stands for “electronic,” which in Russian begins neither with и nor е but э. To add further confusion, Russia’s most popular search engine, Yandex, has just 35 million results for имейл, 138 million for эмейл, but 140 million for емейл, demonstrating that this spelling likely wins the popular use contest. 
  2. What is the case agreement for the preposition relating to the word for agreement (согласно)? Officially, the dative case: согласно чему. Yet Russians very frequently use the genitive case: согласно чего. 
  3. Russians insistently try to move stress toward the beginnings of words. While forms like дОговор (agreement) and по срЕдам (on Wednesdays) have been normalized as variants on договОр and по средАм, the word звонить (to call) has not been so lucky. Despite the popular stress shift звОнишь, linguists still insist that звонИшь is the only correct form.
  4. Speaking of verb conjugations, for some reason the perfective first person future tense form of the word победить (to win) does not exist, as in it is impossible to say precisely“I will win.” Yet this has not stopped some Russians from trying to make logical forms like победю, побежду, побежу. 
  5. When offering someone a seat, you will almost always hear the word присаживайтесь. Yet many argue that this prefixed form of the word садитесь is incorrect, because при- adds the meaning of “just a little bit,” and the official meaning of the word присаживаться is to sit for not long, or to sort of perch on the edge of your seat, making it an inappropriate way to offer that someone get comfortable. Садитесь is more correct – but is rarely actually used, except in formal contexts. 
  6. Вызов (challenge) is another case where the dictionary definition of the word does not match its usage. Technically, the meaning is strictly a call-to-duel type of challenge, and the word is etymologically formed from the prefix вы (out) and root зов (call). Therefore, it doesn’t mean “challenge” in the sense of “difficulty to overcome.” Nevertheless, Shalitova says that the lack of a direct equivalent for “challenge” has led to lazy translators using вызов incorrectly. Since an enormous amount of media and advertising is translated from English, вызов has started to acquire a new meaning in Russian. 
  7. Linguists around the world debate when words that originate on the internet can be considered real words, and Russian is no exception. While one site claims that diminutives, or cutesy forms of words, like человечек (person), вкусняшка (tasty things) and денежка (money) don’t exist, other sites list their entire declension charts, as if they are fully worthy words. 
  8. If you need multiple doctors, don’t go reading nineteenth century literature to find out what to call them (collectively). The previous plural form докторы, even though it follows the normal rules of Russian plural formation, is no longer considered correct. Instead, it should be доктора – formed irregularly as it is for other words like профессора (professors), учителя (teachers), паспорта (passports) and адреса (addresses). 
  9. It has become popular use say the reflexive form извиняюсь (I excuse myself) rather than the standard imperative form извините (excuse me). There are people, however, who consider извиняюсь at best an uneducated colloquialism and at worse rude, because it implies that you don’t actually care what the other person thinks, as long as you excuse yourself.
  10. Russian uses capital letters far less often than does English. While American school teachers try to get their students to capitalize proper nouns, Russian teachers fight the opposite battle. One such word is “president,”  even when used as a title, as in “the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin” (which should be capitalized in English in this usage). The educational site Мел (chalk) assures us that Vladimir Vladimirovich won’t be offended that if you don’t capitalize his job title, as long as you are using Russian grammar correctly. (But don’t dare drop the case of that p in English!)

While on the topic of Russian leaders, check out our 1996 article about Gorbachev’s bad grammar from the archives. 

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