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World Perspective | CULTURE

Russia Turns Back a Page to Save Language

State-funded council throws book at foreign words. Some fear Soviet-style censorship.

August 24, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Yevgeny P. Chelyshev's life and work is the study of Russia's rich literary language, the language of Aleksandr Pushkin. Every June 6 he joins other devotees by a statue in Moscow's Pushkin Square to remember the 19th century poet's birthday.

Towering over the busy square from the wall of an office building is a new billboard that makes Chelyshev cringe. In huge, blue letters of the Latin alphabet, it reads: SAMSUNG.

"The miraculous world of Pushkin's poetry is incompatible with a gigantic sign promising happiness to Muscovites who buy an imported television set," he said, fuming. "How is it possible that Pushkin is surrounded by foreign advertising?"

The language of Pushkin is under assault on many fronts. It has been stretched and reshaped over the last decade by an estimated 10,000 foreign words, most of them English, producing an idiom that academics call nyu spik (new speak). It is butchered daily by the errant grammar and diction of VIPs, TV anchors and novelists.

Beyond Russia's borders, it is withering under nationalist policies in other former Soviet republics, whose leaders are closing Russian schools, dropping the Cyrillic alphabet and changing the Russified names of cities and streets to the originals of their own native tongues.

Chelyshev and 36 other academics, writers and politicians are moving to salvage the Russian language with a plan for government action that alarms many in the media here as a potential step back toward Soviet-style censorship.

Appointed by President Boris N. Yeltsin to form a Russian Language Council, the purists won approval for their proposal on Pushkin's birthday this year and published it two weeks ago.

It calls for $157 million in federal spending over the next four years to rewrite Soviet-era textbooks, upgrade dictionaries, train teachers, rescue Russian schools in neighboring republics and promote Russian literary classics.

The most controversial step calls for a "code of speech behavior" for the mass media and advertising agencies, to be drawn up and enforced by a Federal Language Service. The code would list taboo words and expressions, Chelyshev said, and violators would be fined.

Russia is not the only nation trying to protect its language; the Academie Francaise has been at it for more than 350 years. In China, major cities have launched campaigns or legislation to stamp out commercial names deemed politically "unhealthy" or harmful to "socialist ethics." But the linguistic invasion here has been as swift and anarchic as the post-Soviet social changes that nyu spik reflects.

"One thing is a natural borrowing and gradual absorption of foreign words, but the aggressive Americanization of our language is another thing," Chelyshev said in an interview in his office at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He also railed against "a flood of jargon and obscenities" in the media and the spread of slang from Russia's criminal underworld into everyday speech.

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"Why do we substitute the word mer [mayor] for the traditional Russian gorodskoi golova?" he asked. "Should we really replace our word izbirateli [voters] with elektorat? And our use of the English word 'killer' instead of its Russian analog, ubiytsa, undermines the negative social attitude toward such a person. . . . In Russian today, 'killer' is just a profession."

Russian media executives say they welcome new guidelines on language.

"But to impose fines . . . this reminds me of the 'thought police' of George Orwell's '1984,' " said Alexei K. Pushkov, spokesman for Russian Public Television.

Some government officials also oppose linguistic censorship and question whether it would really be imposed.

"Foreign words can refresh our language," Deputy Culture Minister Mikhail Y. Svidkoi said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Americanspeak

Here are some new Russian words that purists object to because they supplant traditional words with English language adaptations.

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OLD RUSSIAN WORD OR PHRASE ENGLISH NEW RUSSIAN pokhischen kidnapping kidnepping telokhranitel bodyguard bodigard (same pronunciation) ya uletel i'm high (on drugs) detsil (like "that's all") sredstva massovoi mass media mahs mediya sredstva massovoi vstupleniye prezidenta inauguration inauguratsiya v dolzhnost otresheniye prezidenta impeachment impichment ot dolzhnost zshchita interesov lobbying lobbirovaniye vystavka show shou (same pronounciation)

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