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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Speaking Russian Can Be Dangerous to Health

I think one of the functions of a language column such as this is to inform readers of trends and developments in the field of linguistics. That is why I read with great interest a recent article in a St. Petersburg newspaper about the work of Nina Golubyova, a local linguist and teacher.

Linguistics is a divided field, split by a distinction similar to the one between astronomy and astrology. Proper linguistics is the study of the development and functioning of language, just as astronomy is the study of the development and functioning of the cosmos. Many "linguists," however, are more interested in how language "influences" people and their destinies. Naturally, these "linguists" are much more amusing than the other kind, just as astrologers are more amusing than, say, Carl Sagan.

Golubyova's theory of language is called yasnoslyshaniye, or "clear-hearing," presumably because it has something to do with the influence of sounds. Her theory begins with the observation that certain Russian politicians have become ill in office. Golubyova hypothesizes that they were being "avenged" by the velikii, moguchii russkii yazyk (the great, powerful Russian language). Russian, Golubyova warns, mstit kazhdomu, kto govorit odno i delayet drugoye (avenges everyone who says one thing and does another).

If further experimentation bears out this theory, it would have some major ramifications. Perhaps President Yeltsin will not need to undergo bypass surgery, but could instead treat his heart condition by, say, speaking only French. (Golubyova's theory, unfortunately, says nothing about the role that French may be playing in making French politicians sick.) In fact, if Russian does indeed prove to be so powerful that it destroys those who speak it, the only solution may be to outlaw this dangerous weapon altogether. It could mean the end of this column as we know it.

The heart of yasnoslyshaniye is the idea that Russian is zhivoye sushchestvo, obladayushcheye kolossal'noi energiei (a living organism possessing colossal energy), and that this energy is released by vibratsii (vibrations) contained within the sounds of words. For example, Golubyova points out that administratori (administrators) and administratsii (administrations) are inherently evil things because they contain within them the word ad, or "hell."

Other examples that Golubyova gives are less self-evident. She argues that the common name "Anatoly" is a talisman of misfortune. The fact that it ends with a short i for some reason condemns everyone with this name to have a neustoichivii kharakter (unstable character). Men called Anatoly are fated to be unstable liars leading lives of failure.

Golubyova's theory will face its ultimate test soon, when Yeltsin goes under anesthesia and Russia is left at the mercy of Anatoly Chubais, head of the presidential administratsiya.