Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump, Putin and the Internet are Transforming the Russian Language

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – How great a long-term impact Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and the Internet will have on Russia remains to be seen, but the three in varying degrees and in varying ways are already changing the Russian language in ways that merit attention because the way people use words both reflects and shapes how they think and behave.

            Kseniya Turkova who keeps track of language issues for the Snob portal has written before about the linguistic games Russians have been playing with Trump’s name (, but this week she focuses on the impact he is having on the Russian language itself (

            Given what Russian television critic Elena Rykovtseva as described as the Russian media’s decision to “feed” Russians morning, noon and night with stories about Trump, Turkova says, it isn’t surprising that Trumpisms are penetrating the language. They’re even being tracked at the hashtag #trampologia.

            This week the main Trump language question, however, was one he didn’t initiate directly but rather provoked by his installation as president.  Russians are troubled, the language specialist says, on how would should spell “inauguration” in Russia and exactly what its various verbal forms mean.

            One language site on the day of Trump’s inauguration offered a test for those visited it. The site asked its readers how many errors were in the word otingurirovali. The correct answer was two: the misspelling left out the letter У and inserted the letter И instead of the letter Ы. The correct spelling, transliterated should be otynaugurirovali as ugly as that sounds.

            In the same column this week, Turkova points to what she says is Putin’s latest contribution to the Russian language which he has earlier enriched by his use of vulgarisms and criminal underworld slang.  This time, she says, he offered a euphemism, describing prostitutes who supposedly cavorted with Trump, as “girls of lessened social responsibility.”

            Russian reaction to this was fast and furious, with perhaps the most widespread comment being that “the girls” involved showed not “lessened” social responsibility but rather a “heightened” one if you looked at things from a different angle.  But the media is delighted to have yet another euphemism for prostitute: they’ve had difficulty coming up with anything new in that sector recently.

            Finally, the impact of the Internet on Russian, which has already having a greater influence on the language that either Trump or Putin could hope for, is now being tracked in a new study soon to be published of a “Dictionary of the Language of” (

            Aleksandr Piperski, one of the compilers, tells Ekho Moskvy that it is “practically impossible” to draw a clear border between Russian conversational speech and Internet language because the Internet has become so ubiquitous. Terms from the Internet, and often from its English portion, are rapidly making their way into everyday Russian.

            But something more interesting is happening, he suggests. Brilliant turns of phrase, which Russians call “winged words,” are now coming fast and furious and disappearing almost as quickly as they appear in the first place. That represents a major change from the pre-Internet past where they arose rarely but lasted for a long time.

            Another thing the Internet is doing is degrading spelling and even definitions in the real world. Because there are no clear rules for spelling on the web, Russians see and often copy mistaken spellings and usages that are from a formal point of view wrong. If they see it on the Internet, they are inclined to believe it must be true.

            Asked who makes up the audience for his dictionary, Piperski suggests that the largest component of it will be the mothers and fathers of web surfers who spend so much time on line that they now speak a language with which their parents are not familiar.   The new dictionary should help this older generation make the necessary translations.

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