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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Linguists Leap to Defense of Mother Tongue

Two dozen of Russia's most eminent linguists, pedagogues and writers convened this week in the White House to devise a strategy for staving off an insidious attack on the country's most precious treasure: the Russian language.


"We are not used to defending ourselves," Vice Premier Vladimir Kinelyov told the first session of President Yeltsin's Council on the Russian Language, which he chairs. "The English and others have long propagated their languages. They protect their interests, and now we have to protect ours -- and we must do so actively."


Patriotism, nostalgia and wounded pride were the dominant tones of the three-hour meeting on Tuesday, as speaker after speaker rose to the defense of the embattled mother tongue.


Primarily, they were concerned that popular use of the language -- poor grammar, swearing and the like -- was degrading. But they were also concerned about the declining status of Russian as an international language, largely in the face of English.


But after the Soviet policy of Russification which subjugated the more than 100 languages of the U.S.S.R. to Russian, in many cases all but destroying them, talk of promoting Russian, especially abroad, is necessarily problematic.


"In working on government policy on the state language, we will proceed from the principle that all languages spoken in Russia have equal rights," said Council member Vladimir Shadrikov. "From this it follows that there is no thought of returning to the idea of Russification, but when ethnic Russians make up 80 percent of the population, it is natural that the state language be that of the majority."


But the sensitivity of such issues did not preclude some levity from the meeting, a few moments of which came, ironically, at the expense of two of the most august Council members, both deans at Moscow State University.


When Marina Remneva, dean of the philological faculty, called for improved standards of teaching Russian, she used the verb, obuchat', which requires the subject taught to be expressed in the dative case. Remneva used the accusative. Before she could retract her mistake she was riddled with corrections.


Yasen Zasursky, dean of the journalism faculty, fared recently, if only because the Russian literary language itself was standardized quite recently. The late Natalya Podolskaya, a famous linguist, identified four stages in the development of modern Russian.


The first three she associated with the revolutionary work of three writers: Mikhailo Lomonosov, Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


The fourth and current stage, which Podolskaya lamented in an article called "Don't Kill the Russian Language" printed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta earlier this month, is characterized not by development but by a precipitous decline into "non-standard vocabulary, and simply gutter talk, and swear words."


Yeltsin, apparently recognizing the threat, issued a decree last December founding the Council, a consultative body charged with drawing up a federal language policy by May 15. He confirmed the seriousness of his intent by installing a deputy prime minister at its head, and promising to bankroll its work from the newly created Presidential Fund.


Yevgeny Chelyshev, the Council's deputy chairman, prevailed on his colleagues to pursue a "minimum program" of linguistic defense and renewal because of the government's financial crisis.


Nevertheless, he said, "We will require significant funding merely to publish textbooks and to re-issue the classics of Russian literature."


The Council will ask for 280 million rubles ($59,570) from the presidential fund to tide it over until the language program is ready in late spring.


Its initial projects in 1996 are expected to cost some 10 billion rubles ($2.12 million).


Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has already taken up the standard of purer Russian: He has issued decrees requiring product information to be provided in Russian, and has twice lashed out against foreign-language advertising that adorns many billboards on Moscow's streets.