Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Three New Moves on the Russian Federation’s Language Chessboard

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 2 – Russia’s many languages are constantly in kaleidoscopic motion, with some gaining, others losing, and still others transformed. During the past week alone, some Duma deputies tried to ban Russians’ use of foreign words, German enthusiasts sought to reverse the demise of their language in Russia, and Karelian scholars moved to overcome dialect divides.

LDPR Wants Russians to Stop Using Foreign Loan Words

            The language issue that attracted the most attention this week was an unsuccessful effort by Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR Party to have the Duma pass legislation that would ban the use of foreign loan words by Russians and especially Russian officials and impose fines and even confiscate the property of those who violated it.

            This is only the latest of a series of such efforts by the LDPR, and opponents succeeded because they pointed out that the LDPR isn’t opposed to all foreign loan words just those which have entered Russian in recent years from English and having to do with high tech or public activities (

            Opponents also pointed out that the LDPR needed to be more careful with its proposals: the party’s last proposal of this kind, they noted, had a minimum of 20 grammatical errors.  And they noted that if the party was really interested in restoring Russian traditions, it would need to promote a knowledge of French which was nearly universal among Russian elites before 1917.

            But this is clearly an idea that will not die even if it did not win approval this time around.  Just as with Turks during and after the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, many Russians see the exclusion of foreign loan words as a form of national self-assertion, especially against the increasing inroads of English terminology.

Activists Want Russian Germans to Speak German

            German language enthusiasts are upset by the loss of German-language use among Russian Germans and also by the even more rapid decline in the use of the various dialects most Russian Germans spoke until only a generation ago, and they are trying to do something about both (

            According to one set of surveys, 88.9 percent of Russian Germans said German was their native language in 1990, but only 21.8 percent did so in 2010, only 20 years later.  And most Russian Germans who spoke a distinct dialect in the past now speak standard German if they speak it at all (
            To try to counter these trends, the International Union of German Culture has organized courses for ethnic German adults and children to encourage them to learn and use German. In addition, independent activists are organizing smaller groups who want to recover their Hesse or Pfaltz dialects.
Karelian Scholars Want to End Dialect Divisions and Link to Finno-Ugric World.

Linguistic specialists in Petrozavodsk are working to fuse the three dialects of Karelian into a single literary language by drawing on the lexical resources of Estonian and Finnish, a project expected to take ten to fifteen years but one that gives its promoters hope that Karelian, which is now spoken by about 35,000 people, will survive along with its speakers.

            In an interview to “Vedomosti Karelii,” Irma Mullonen, director of the Institute of Language, Literature, and History of the Karelian Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said experts have concluded that the Karelians lack the resources to support three dialects (

            Consequently, they have decided to form a common literary language which will combine elements of Karelian, Livve and Lude dialects into a single literary language and to modernize its lexical structure by drawing on words used in Estonian and Finnish, two other Finno-Ugric languages.

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