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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Limits of Legislating on Language

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Yuzabilnost saita: the user-friendliness of a web site.

I have been thoroughly enjoying the debate in the State Duma and the press on the new language law, particularly concerning the use of "non-standard" language (nenormativnaya leksika). I don't believe obscene language can be "banned" -- as the new legislation tries to do -- if only because sometimes only "non-standard" language can adequately describe Russian reality.

Just the other day one of my co-workers asked me, "kak tebe dvizheniye v Moskve?" (How do you like driving in Moscow?) and I replied, "esli ty khochesh uslyshat, kak ya khorosho materyus po-russki, ya tebe otvechu"(If you want to hear how well I can swear in Russian, I'll answer). Besides, although Americans love to regulate human behavior with laws more than just about anyone else on the planet, it seems to me that if your mother didn't teach you when you can use "non-standard language" (e.g. in the car with a co-worker) and when you cannot (e.g. from the podium at a government meeting) you're not likely to learn it from the legal code.

But, lover of the Russian language that I am, I do sympathize with attempts to keep Russian Russian. Why use kreativnaya gruppa (creative team) when there is an exact native Russian equivalent -- tvorcheskaya gruppa? Do you really need to say kontent-analiz instead of analiz soderzhaniya? To me, "ya provela analiz soderzhaniya teleperedach" means "I did a content-analysis of TV shows," while "ya provela kontent-analiz teleperedach" means "I did a fancy, Western-style content analysis of TV shows, which indicates how hip and well-traveled I am." Russians call this vypendrivaniye or vypendryozh. I call it blowing hot air.

On the other hand, most foreign phrases that have entered the language are used either because the word doesn't exist in Russian or because the Russian word or phrase has unwanted connotations.

Take the word manager -- upravlenets. "Naznachili Ivana Ivanovicha direktorom. Neplokhoi variant -- on khoroshy upravlenets" means "They appointed Ivan Ivanovich director. Not a bad choice -- he's a good manager." But if you choose the word upravlenets, you're more likely to convey the sense of "old-style director" -- a man in his mid-fifties, who ran a cement factory in Soviet times and knew how to wrangle budget money. But if you say, "on khoroshy menedzher," the connotation is more "new, Western-style manager" -- the kind of guy who can read a spread-sheet and knows something about marketing and rational use of personnel.

Other economic terms like marketing, franchaizing or master-liz have entered the language as transliterations because they simply didn't exist in Russian, and it's easier to borrow the word than use a sentence-long explanation.

The one area where the battle is completely lost is the world of computers and the Internet. No one is ever going to call their computer vychislitelnaya mashina, not only because it's too long and cumbersome, but also because these days you use your computer for just about everything but calculating (vychisleniye). Kibord, veb-sait, onlain, chat, (and the verb chatatsya), optsii... . You can forget trying to find Russian equivalents.

Recently, computer folks have started to refer to yuzabilnost saita -- user-friendliness of sites. There is a way to say this in standard Russian: If baby-friendly hospitals are bolnitsy dobrozhelatelnogo otnosheniya k rebyonku, you could call it sait dobrozhelatelnogo otnosheniya k polzovatelyu, or maybe udobny dlya polzovaniya sait -- but I wouldn't bet it will catch on.

Russian web-surfers who think that "R U OK?" is good, standard English are not going to futz around with compound sentences. And besides, they didn't just transliterate the word, they Russified it with a good old Russian suffix. Their mothers should be proud.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.