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.”
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.
While on the topic of Russian leaders, check out our 1996 article about Gorbachev’s bad grammar from the archives.
Excuse my Russian
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567