Staunton, April 15 – One measure of the seriousness of any development is how deeply it affects not only the behavior of the people but also the language they use to describe what is going on. By that measure, Yevgeny Basovskaya says, the coronavirus pandemic, which has had a “radical” impact on the language Russians speak, is an especially serious one.
The specialist on public speech at Moscow’s State University of the Humanities says that the impact begins with the word coronavirus, which includes the letter “a” in the middle of it in complete violation of Russian orthographic rules. It should by rights be an “o” but it isn’t and so feels alien for that reason alone (mk.ru/social/2020/04/15/koronavirus-radikalno-podeystvoval-na-yazyk.html).
Then, there is the increasingly widespread use of the word pandemic. “Even the uneducated recognize this word,” but to recognize it is not to understand it. Basovskaya recalls than in 2008, people on the street told her that default meant there were no matches in the stores. Now, many Russians probably think that pandemic means there is no buckwheat.
The word “distancing” (udalyonka), of course, has been formed according to the same rules that lead Russians to speak about elektrichka for a local train or sotisalka for public benefits. But it has also been given a popular connotation that puts it at a distance from government orders for “self-isolation” (samoizolyatsiya), a truly bureaucratic term.
Unfortunately, the latter word is now so widely used that there is a great danger that some Russian pupil in the future will write sentences like “in 1824, A.S. Pushkin found himself in self-isolation in the village of Mikhalovskoye.” That will be horrific, but there may be little that can be done to prevent it.
But the pandemic has not only brought new words to the fore; it has given new shades of meaning to words Russians have long used. “Italy” no longer means only a place of beauty; it is now a place of mass suffering. And those who speak of it again in the former sense will never be able to completely escape the latter.
“Mask” is another ordinary word that has also been changed. Its connotation if not its denotation will always lead Russians back to the present time when Russians have put on masks lest they attract the unwelcome attention of the police. As a result, the word “mask” is likely to remain “not so much a symbol of hygiene as a mark of unfreedom.”
The word “delivery” (dostavka) also is acquiring an anything but neutral meaning as well, the linguistics specialist says.
“Do you know when the crisis will end?” Basovskaya asks rhetorically. “No, not on the day when we’ll be permitted to run to the park or move about on the metro. It will end when its traces in the language become entirely unnoticed, when the word ‘pandemic’ returns to medical textbooks, ‘masks’ to children’s games … and ‘delivery’ will not have any emotional shadings.”
And it will really be over when a puppy named “Virus” grows up and becomes a healthy dog, and when he isn’t associated with rules governing how many meters from his home his owners are allowed to walk him. Right now, that seems a very long time in the future indeed.