Did Putin forget his Russian?
26th April 2023
Putin does not know Russian. His law of February 28th on ‘The administrative language of the Russian Federation’ reveals a fundamental problem in the Kremlin. He has signed a law which limits the use of foreign words, words which are not part of the ‘Russian literary language’.
Russian is full of foreign words. Indeed, the law itself has at least 150 foreign origin words out of the total 864 words. That is 17 percent of the document is culturally illegal. The main foreign word repeated in the document of Federatsiya. It has become a Russian word, but it is originally Latin, and then it entered into Russian via French. Many words in the document have such a path: federalnyi, informatsiya, kommissiya, kvalifikatsiya, lingvistichevkoy, literaturnyi, natsionalnyi, netsensurnyi, norma, normativnich, ofitsialnyi, redaktsiya, registratsiya, territoriya. Many of these words are easy to recognise since they are similar to English ones. Some words instead originate from Greek and either come via French or German or Church Slavonic into Russian: analog, grammatika, organ, sfera, sistema, tehnicheskoi, tekhnologiya, telegramma, tip. There are also words which come either from French or German: resurs, punkt.
Putin has signed a law and demonstrated that he has not understood what two giants of Russian literature did and explained. The first, Pushkin, is credited with importing into Russian words from other Slavic languages, namely South Slavic languages (Russian is an East Slavic language together with Ukrainian!). The clearest case is the word for city in Russian is gorod. In compounds, Russian uses the South Slavic (not Russian) form ‘grad’: Leningrad, Stalingrad, Volgograd. One notable exception is Novgorod which has the correct and ancient Old Russian form. The name Vladimir is the southern form of Volodymyr, still found in Ukrainian. Indeed, Pushkin introduced numerous foreign south Slavic words into literary Russian. Ukrainian did not; that is one of the differences between the languages.
The second author is the chief witness to this revolution was Griboyedov in his ‘Woe from Wit’ of 1823. One of the characters of the comedy Famusov is against linguistic innovations. An example of this is the term sudarynya employed in the first scene. This was an old-fashioned term which was replaced by madame. The main character of the play, Chatski, reveals why Putin’s law on language purity is bizarre (act 3 scene 22):
Воскреснемъ ли когда отъ чужевластья модъ?
615 Чтобъ умный, бодрый нашъ народъ
Хотя по языку насъ не считалъ за нѣмцевъ.
„Какъ европейское поставить въ параллель
Съ національнымъ — странно что-то!
„Ну, какъ перевести мадамъ и мадмуазель?
620 „Ужли сударыня!!“ — забормоталъ мнѣ кто-то...
Вообразите, тутъ у всѣхъ
На мой же счетъ поднялся смѣхъ.
„Сударыня! ха! ха! ха! ха! прекрасно!
„Сударыня! ха! ха! ха! ха! ужасно!!“
Will we emerge from foreign fashion?
In order that our clever and happy people,
At least in our language, do not consider us Germans.
How to put something European in another way
using national expressions? It is something strange.
Now, how does one translate madame and mademoiselle?
There is sudarynya already, someone started to mutter to me.
Imagine here: among everyone
Laughter arose at my expense.
Sudarynya! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Lovely!
Sudarynya! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Terrible!
The law signed by Putin reasonably excludes those words which have no equivalent in Russian. The term employed is izklyuchat (‘exclude’) which is a calque of French exclure or German ausschliessen also a calque from Latin excludo. Many of the words which are not foreign loanwords are calques from Greek due to the importation of words from Church Slavonic, a language modelled on Greek word formations but using Slavic roots.
One more detail: the alphabet used in Russian is also foreign. It is a Greek alphabet adapted to Old Bulgarian and/or Church Slavonic.
If one removed the foreign elements from the law Putin has signed, very little would be left, and it would not be applicable.
As Griboyedov brilliantly said: how does one put something European in national terms? Not with a law which does not solve the problem, but which makes it emerge. The first word which should be banned by this law is the Russian президент—‘president’—which is borrowed from French and ultimately Latin.