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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Legislating the Language Russians Speak

Next time President Vladimir Putin wants to talk about "snuffing" someone in an outhouse or to chat in English with his friend George W. Bush, he may find himself violating federal law.

A bill establishing Russian as the official state language, due to be considered by the State Duma in the critical second reading this week, bans the use of language that is "vernacular, disdainful or foul" and mandates the use of Russian in all official contacts, even with foreigners.

The proposed legislation also prohibits foreign words that have commonly accepted Russian equivalents.

Asked whether this would mean that soccer-loving bureaucrats would be punished for using the popular term "goalkeeper" instead of the Slavic analogue vratar, the bill's main author, Duma Deputy Alexei Alexeyev, replied: "Let's not exaggerate."

"If we throw out all foreign words, we'll be left with half a language," Alexeyev said Wednesday, pointing to such borrowings as "president," "telephone" and the Latin "P" used to designate parking areas.

The bill, he said, was simply meant to establish a state language, try to keep it clean and foster the spread of Russian abroad, for example by improving training for teachers of Russian as a foreign language.

The legislation does not spell out any types of enforcement or punishment, but Alexeyev said he hoped separate amendments would be introduced for that.

Critics of the bill have scorned it as ineffective, saying that it tries to cover too much ground -- some of it ideological rather than legislative.

"This is not a law that is needed; this is yet another attempt to find a national idea," said Professor Maxim Kronhaus, director of the Linguistics Institute at the Russian State Humanities University.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian language has absorbed dozens of Western words, like "manager," "speaker" and "bodybuilding," many of which have mutated in meaning or been Russified, like kompyuterschik. But Kronhaus said that banning such expressions was absurd because "our language is rapidly changing" and would naturally retain or reject foreign borrowings and freshly hatched slang.

He also pointed out that parts of the bill did not look much like serious legislation.

According to Article 1, Russian as the official state language would "enhance mutual understanding" and "foster the spread and mutual enrichment of the spiritual culture" of the country's many ethnic groups.

Kronhaus said that a law defining a state language was necessary insofar as it could establish certain legal guarantees, such as ensuring accurate translations of official documents or court hearings -- which the current bill does.

But the proposed legislation is too amorphous in defining the areas where the new rules apply, he said.

In addition to official contacts by federal, regional and municipal government bodies, the rules for using Russian as the state language also apply to all "activities" of private and nongovernmental organizations.

Likewise, the bill covers advertising, although the new regulations would not be applicable to brand names or trademarks, nor would they affect "functional" signs such as exit markers or stop signs.

As far as the rules for media, the latest version of the bill is significantly less restrictive than the version passed in a first reading in June. Now, journalists and television personalities will be able to use "vernacular, disdainful or foul" language and foreign words if they are "an inalienable part of an artistic concept."

Deputy Alexeyev said the bill's authors had taken into account national language legislation passed in countries like China and France, but would not push for the kind of sanctions, like fines, established in other places.

That may be a good thing for the president.

Last year, Putin addressed the Bundestag in his impressive German.

Earlier this week, when Putin met with media executives and agreed to veto legislation placing new restrictions on journalists, he surprised observers by using the decisively un-Russian neologism zavetirovat, instead of the more familiar nalozhit veto.

Asked whether the language bill would mean Putin would be punished, Alexeyev smiled and said, "Fortunately, liability has not been spelled out yet."