The Future of Languages: Russian

From Moscow Cameron Sawyer writes: "Randy Black's story about Gaidar rings true. When I knew Gaidar in the early '90's, I'm afraid my Russian was not good enough to appreciate his eloquence, but in general Russians are finely attuned to the quality and "cultural level" of one's speech, and they make microscopically fine distinctions among themselves based on this. Russian is an extraordinarily complicated language, and no one without any exception speaks it without any mistakes. In this, Russian is quite different from both German and English where a fairly large part of the population speaks more or less without mistakes, as a result of which few educated adults in English- or German-speaking countries devote much time to improving their own native languages. In Russia, however, people struggle with the Russian language their whole lives, and argue about fine points of grammar and diction among themselves incessantly. They take courses in Russian throughout their school and university years (the basic school curriculum requires Russian language and grammar every year through high school graduation). There are many radio and television programs devoted to the Russian language, like "We Speak Russian!" on Echo of Moscow, and "Let's Speak Correctly!", and so forth. And so the general level of language ability, and particularly, the love of language for its own sake, is very high in Russia. Despite, this, however, Russian, like English, is infected with banalities from the speech of teenagers -- particularly the use of empty filler words like "tipa" [sort of], "tak zkazat'" [so to speak], and so forth -- much like "well" and "like" in our own language. 

Communist leaders were not notable for being masters of language. Gorbachev's Russian was rather lowbrow and this cost him a great deal of respect (on the other hand, he was the first General Secretary to talk "like a human being" -- meaning with some actual sincerity). The Russians like to say that if you can't say something clearly then most likely the thought itself is not clear -- and sure enough, Gorbachev's speeches were rambling, boring, and obfuscatory. Putin, a lawyer and KGB agent from the St. Petersburg intelligentsia, has a superb Russian which is a pleasure to hear. Is it an accident that Putin's high degree of skill in using the language is accompanied by a tendency to give speeches which are clear, logical, concise, and highly persuasive? Unfortunately, from time to time he puts on a folksy belligerence in his speech which is totally out of place and false-sounding, as when four years ago he promised to seek out Chechen bandits wherever they might be, and blow them up "even in their outhouses". Similarly, last Saturday evening he gave a big speech on television concerning the Beslan atrocities. He was shaken with real emotion, but made another amazingly awful attempt at folksiness -- saying that the attacks were motivated by some people trying to "tear off a juicy piece of Russia" -- which left everyone shaking their heads".

RH: In English and German there used to be the same concern for good language. However, now the cult of good speech is regarded as elitist, which is a damning word, although sports (boxing, football, Olympic Games) are as elitist as could be.

September 8, 2004


Ronald Hilton -