Friday, November 30, 2018

Ё – the Letter that has Divided Russia but Could Unite It – Marks 235th Anniversary

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 29 – Russian society like all others is divided on a variety of issues, but one of the most intriguing is the split that has been produced by the letter Ё which was introduced on November 29, 1783, by Princess Dashkova to replace the diphthong “IO,” translator Yekaterina Rakitina says.

            According to one version of the story, she writes in a Vzlyad commentary, the scholars assembled in her residence decided upon this change after drinking Moёt & Chandon champagne.  But that is unlikely. Instead, Rakitina says, the umlauted letter appeared since the princess knew the German and Swedish alphabets (

                The new letter immediately attracted supporters and opponents. Derzhavin and Karamzin were among the former, while Sumarokov and Trediakovsky ranked among the latter.  The Soviets did not dispense with the letter, but “they didn’t make its use obligatory either” – and then has led to more controversy.

            “The government standard which exists to this day,” the translator says, reads as follows: “the letter Ё is employed in the following cases: 1. when it is necessary to prevent an incorrect reading and understanding of a word … 2. when it is necessary to indicate the pronunciation of a little-known word … [and] 3. In special texts” and dictionaries. Otherwise it isn’t necessary.

            That has opened a divide, Rakitina continues.  Some publications, like Nauka i zhizn always use it, while “the majority follow the standard or don’t use it at all.” Because Russians are free to choose in almost all cases, the letter has become a source of controversy, a demonstration of the fact that people will always find things to differ on.

            Indeed, she says, “it has long been known that the more insignificant the occasion, the more irreconcilable is the fight over it.” 

            But that is only one way to look at the letter Ё.  It can symbolize some important things, she says, like “the freedom of choice” individuals should have on most things, something on which Russians can differ but which in the end is “the most Russian of letters” and thus something that nonetheless links them together.

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