13:02 GMT +324 May 2017


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    By Vitaly Kostomarov, Member of the Russian Academy of Education, president of the A.S.Pushkin Institute of Russian Language and Literature

    People often ask me what I think of President Vladimir Putin's style of speaking. No doubt he speaks a grammatical language - it is beyond compare if we take even many previous leaders of the country. He has a pleasant-sounding St Petersburg intonation, while his style and manner of speaking reveal a big stock of words, thinking rich in images, and a sense of humour. It is a different thing that the president allows himself to use sharp and occasionally shocking expressions that are not sufficiently acceptable in public, but I think he does this deliberately and at the right time. It seems to me all Putin's departures from the literary norm are internally motivated. And in general our great linguist Academician L.Shcherba said that there are no authors who strictly follow language rules.

    Elitist personalities do, of course, hold tremendous sway over the minds and exercise an undoubted influence on the formation of language culture. One cannot but recall fondly remembered Academician Dmitry Likhachov, a historian and a philologist who spoke perfect Russian. There is even an expression "Likhachov language", i.e. a speech pattern of the "highest quality". Yet this outstanding man lived through the tragedy of imprisonment in a Stalinist camp, and knew Russian criminal jargon, which he brilliantly described in a scientific paper, but never used.

    In Russia, for some reason, people like to make fun of Viktor Chernomyrdin, one-time prime minister and now Russia's ambassador to Ukraine - they say he is at odds with his Russian. And nevertheless the ex-premier's original way of speaking is perfectly understood by everyone, and many of his expressions have become part of the vernacular. (For example, "We tried our best, you know the rest"). Chernomyrdin's phenomenon as a speaker is his individual style: he does not chop his speech into sentences, but speaks in "periods". In the history of the Russian language, we know some instances of such elocution. For example, the great scientist Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765) wrote in periods and brilliantly so, in my view.

    Today one often hears people say, "The Russian language is deteriorating". This is not true. What is deteriorating is contemporary Russians' skill in using it. This is true. The young generation, unfortunately, is keen to resort to newly coined words, jargon and informal expressions that shock their elders. Sometimes in the metro, on a bus or in a shop, one occasionally hears such things that my linguistic training makes me spoil for a fistfight. But that is my own idiosyncrasy. I am an academic and have to reckon with the inner workings of the language, to identify, analyse and sum up what takes place in it. The influence of people on the life of the language and on its control need not be exaggerated. Language is connected with society's life, and what can be done if yesterday's words unacceptable are today part of the Russian semantic structure and our mentality!

    One foreigner decided to please me and said, "Mr Kostomarov, ever since Russia has become a democratic country, the prestige of the Russian language in the world has grown". I nodded politely, but could not refrain from remarking, "As it happens, it has been doing so since the 11th century, when French monarchs, as they were enthroned, began to swear on the Slavonic Bible". The man, who was from Paris, raised his eyebrows in surprise. Then I reminded him that the well-educated Princess Anna, the daughter of the ancient Russian Prince Yaroslav the Wise, married the unlettered French King Henry I in 1049. When her husband died early, Anna succeeded him on the throne and made an oath to France on the Slavonic Bible. The princess had brought that sacred book with her from her homeland, as part of her dowry.

    In our time, the prestige of the Russian language is attested to by its membership of the World Languages Club. This linguistic club includes the six languages that are seen in most countries as the most significant. True, Russian still lags behind its "peers" in such an important aspect as attraction. English is studied by approximately 150 million people in the world, French and German 80 million, and Russian, 10 million. Many are scared off by the myth about the "difficulties" of the Russian language, but it is neither more complex nor simpler than its cousins, and in general it is not linguistically proper to speak about "difficult" and "easy" languages, since all languages in the world have developed in about the same way.

    The number of foreigners studying Russian fell sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by around three times, due to the fact that Russian ceased to be a compulsory school subject throughout the entire former "socialist camp". Instead it changed its quality: the ideology underlying its teaching was discarded, and political motivation made way for practical considerations. In today's Poland, for example, Russian is taught no less than during the socialist times.

    The French believe that studying Russian is like "mental gymnastics". The point is that the French and English languages are over-analytical. London is indifferent to this, while Paris is concerned. Mental abilities are best developed by a language that clearly states logical links, such as Latin. But France has preferred this "dead" language to "living" Russian which by virtue of its grammatical structure, like Latin, helps to develop logical thinking.

    The Russian language is great by all counts. It has a tremendous vocabulary (more than 150,000 words), clear and precise grammar, and euphonious sounds. It is the language of great literature, and not only of fiction, but also of scientific and technical. For example, the well-known American chessplayer Robert Fischer was very particular about Russian, which he studied to read the colossal amount of chess literature encoded in Cyrillic script. A curious comment on the Russian language has been left by 19th German writer Warnhagen von Ense, who translated Alexander Pushkin: "In the wealth of its vocabulary, Russian surpasses the Roman languages, and in the richness of forms, the Germanic ones, and can match strength-for-strength most different tongues. The Russian language is capable of progressive development whose boundaries are beyond prevision".

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