Russian Language Gets a State-Mandated Fix

Coffee used to be masculine. From Tuesday, it can be masculine or neuter.

The change is spelled out in a Science and Education Ministry decree that came into force Tuesday, capping what some linguists perceive as a series of attempts by the government to establish a monopoly on “correct Russian.”

The decree reduces the number of officially recommended dictionaries with the “rules of contemporary Russian language” to four, all published in 2008 by a single publishing house, AST-Press.

The approved dictionaries anchor widely used simplifications to the generally difficult Russian grammar. “Kofe,” formerly a masculine noun, can now be either masculine or neuter. The martial art “karatye” is now spelled “karate.”

Linguists said the decision is arbitrary.

“The ministry technically does not have the authority to edit the Russian language because this right has always been reserved to linguistic institutes in either Moscow or St. Petersburg,” said Yury Prokhorov, rector of the Pushkin State Institute of the Russian Language in Moscow.

Some linguists complained that the Science and Education Ministry prepared the decree without consulting them, giving just a day’s notice before it came into force Tuesday. The decree was approved June 8.

A spokesman at the Science and Education Ministry said the ministry did indeed consult with experts and the decree merely upheld their conclusions. When asked to identify the experts, he e-mailed The Moscow Times a list of contact numbers, including for Prokhorov.

Prokhorov said that the ministry’s decision caught him off guard. “I didn’t know anything about this decree,” he told The Moscow Times. “I only heard about it on television.”

AST-Press is using the ministry decree to market its dictionaries. The publishing house’s PR and marketing director, Konstantin Derevyanko, said by telephone that AST-Press would launch a campaign titled “Dictionaries of the 21st Century” on Wednesday to “separate high-quality dictionaries from low-quality ones.” He said the campaign was prepared jointly with the Vinogradov Institute of the Russian Language at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Institute officials were unavailable for comment.

The campaign promoting the use of “correct Russian” is also likely to place the spotlight on politicians. The Communications Ministry is preparing a bill that levies fines on politicians who make grammatical mistakes in the mass media.

President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, praised the Russian language on his latest video blog, which celebrates the start of the school year Tuesday.

“Apart from being the official language of the Russian Federation, it has become a symbol of communication, trust and equality,” he said. “Honor and love the Russian language!”