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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

I Take My Coffee Neuter

Кофе — м. и ср. р.: coffee (masculine and neuter)

Yikes! If you had any doubts about the love and passion Russians have for their native language, the last 48 hours should have set you straight.

The prelude to public outrage began quietly enough several years ago. A governmental decree stated that a commission would review new Russian dictionaries, grammars and other reference books. Then, the Education and Science Ministry would issue a list of publications considered normative, which should be used as a guide in writing official or public texts.

This snooze of a decree didn’t get much attention. And the list of approved books probably wouldn’t have gotten a second glance if the media, naturally wanting to grab some readers, hadn’t come up with some jokey, provocative headlines: Кофе стал среднего рода (Coffee became a neuter noun); С 1 сентября русские будут кушать йогурт с ударением на “у” и пить кофе среднего рода (Starting Sept. 1, Russians are going to eat yoghurt with the stress on “u” and drink neuter coffee); Чиновники узаконили безграмотность (Bureaucrats have legalized illiteracy).

That sure got everyone’s attention.

Then journalists seem to have flipped through the approved dictionaries looking for examples of “new” normative usage. They noticed that the word кофе (coffee) had a slightly different grammatical notation. In the past it read: м. и ср. р. (разг.) (masculine and neuter [colloquial]). Now four little letters — разг. (colloquial) — were gone, indicating that кофе could be declined as either a masculine or neuter noun.

They also noted that several words now had two acceptable pronunciations: по средАм and по срЕдам (on Wednesdays); дОговою and договОю (contract); йОгурт and йогУрт (yoghurt). This would be great news for us foreigners, who always have trouble with stress — if we were writing documents for the Russian government, that is. I don’t know about anyone else in the expat community, but the Kremlin doesn’t ask me to proof its Russian-language texts or mark the stress for oral delivery.

These might seem like relatively minor changes reflecting current usage, but Russians went ballistic. Most of the comments were along the lines of: Следующий шаг — узаконить мат! (The next step is legitimizing obscenity!) No one has actually seen the dictionaries, but everyone is sure their beloved language is about to be destroyed by demon bureaucrats. The web site Gramota.ru, one of my favorite Internet haunts, had to remind readers in bold letters that languages don’t remain the same over the ages: Если в языке ничего не меняется, значит язык этот мёртв (If nothing in a language changes, it means that the language is dead).

Of course, after you’ve had certain pronunciations and grammatical forms drummed into your head for 30 years or more, it’s hard to accept alternatives that were once considered “colloquial” (read: lowbrow). And I must admit to feeling a bit wistful about кофе, which has been a kind of rite of passage for foreigners learning Russian. Memorizing the neuter endings and then finding out that кафе (cafe) was neuter but кофе was masculine nearly sent me back to French. But that lovely moment in a кафе when I asked a waiter for два чая и один кофе (two teas and a coffee) without even thinking about it was as sweet as the first strawberry in June. I flattered myself that the waiter mistook me for a native (yeah, right!). All those years of flashcards and midnight study were instantly redeemed.

All over a cup of чёрный кофе (black coffee).

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