Tag Archives: Stalin

Russian leaders have tinkered with their alphabet for centuries, but with the letter ё, they have a fight on their hands

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from Alina Simone.

The most controversial letter in the Russian alphabet is the letter ё, or yo.

Fans of the letter call themselves Yoficators. They even have a theme song set to the music of Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoy. Why does a letter have a fan club? Because some people think yo has got to go.

Yo’s shaky status has to do with it being a relatively late addition to the Russian alphabet, dropped in at the end of the 1700s. As Yaroslav Gorbachov, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Chicago, tells me, “(yo) really never took off as an independent letter. It has always remained sort of the shady companion of the letter ye.”

Yo is really the Cyrillic letter ye, which looks just like the English letter e, only with a diacritic — that is, two dots — on top. Confused? Well, trust me, you’re even more confused when natives casually omit those two dots, turning a name like “Gorbachov” into “ Gorbachev.”

But Russians have only gotten lazy about dotting their yos since the 1950s. Before that, both the letter yo and the essentially non-Western nature of the alphabet, had a powerful backer: Josef Stalin.

In 1930, Stalin signed an edict that protected yo.

“It was a secret document, it was not to be published,” says Professor Gorbachov. Stalin’s intention was to get Russians to stop Latinizing the script. ”He also decreed that yo be put to use every time it’s there in the pronunciation.”

For the three percent of Russians whose names contain yo, not having Stalin around anymore to enforce a standard protocol is causing massive bureaucratic headaches. People have been denied passports and had their citizenship revoked, they’ve been unable to legally divorce and prove their children are theirs — all because of ye/yo discrepancies on official documents. But unlike Stalin, Russia’s current strongman is remaining silent on the issue.

“I don’t think Putin is behind this. He probably doesn’t care about the alphabet would be my guess.” Gorbachov instead blames the problem on “super-eager local bureaucrats who want to be holier than the pope.”

Of course, getting rid of yo would bring Russian one step closer to the English alphabet. East vs. West — the linguistic tug of war has been going on for centuries. Russia’s dual impulse to be embraced by the West while remaining distinctly Slavic is literally etched into the alphabet. Starting with legendary font-designer, Peter the Great.

“He was out to Westernize the country,” says Gorbachov. “[Peter the Great] had realized how far behind Russia had fallen in terms of education, in terms of technology, and all these things. And he literally sat down and picked out characters that looked more Roman than Cyrillic in the Cyrillic alphabet.”

The Russian alphabet was adapted from Greek, a radically different language, leaving a lot of extra wood to chop. But when Peter axed redundant letters, he was denounced as the anti-Christ by religious conservatives, who accused him of changing the very meaning of the Bible.

Another even more controversial modernization proposed by the last czar actually took decades to implement, finally rammed through by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It incensed language snoots — you know, the kind of people who view linguistic misdemeanors as crimes against humanity. They felt Russian was being reduced to the 20th century equivalent of chatspeak.

The monument to 'yo' in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

The monument to ‘yo’ in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

In 2005, the city of Ulyanovsk — birthplace of that most famous of Bolsheviks, Lenin himself — unveiled a monument to yo in honor of the local historian who first popularized the rogue letter. But that monument triggered protests, too, which brings us to the other reason Russians love yo.

“My guess is that the letter is so popular because a very obscene word begins with this letter,” says Gorbachov. “And Russians, we like krepkaya slova, you know — a curse word. So people are amused by having this letter around. There may be other reasons, but that’s probably the principal reason.”

Given that Vladimir Putin recently passed a law banning the use of curse words in Russian films, plays and print media, one can only wonder; will yo end up a victim of modernity or propriety?

Or maybe Russia will end up keeping yo, and keeping it weird.


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Turkish, Stalin, and just say non!

The avidly pro-Western Georgian government has just torn down a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. Many people think of Stalin as Russian, but he was Georgian, much to the embarrassment of many Georgians today. There’s an exception: Georgians who live in Gori adore the former Soviet leader; for them it’s a case of local boy made good bad and all of that. As it happens, I visited Gori in 2005, and filed a story from there on Stalinphilia and the language of denial.

The newest star of Germany’s national soccer team is an ethnic Turk. And the  popularity of Mesut Özil is one of the reasons why Turkish has become just a little more accepted in Germany today. There are other reasons: the emergence of a small middle class, as well as  the rise of writers, filmakers and politicians (our report from Cyrus Farivar includes comments from Cem Özdemir, Germany’s first member of parliament of Turkish descent). Turkish in Germany remains nowhere near as prominent as Spanish is in the United States. It’s the exception rather than the rule to find a German corporation marketing a product to ethnic Turks in Turkish. Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Germany to offer Turkish as a language of instruction in high schools.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by promising more bilingual education. Related articles: a blanket ban on foreign languages at one German school, and the influence of Turkish and Arabic on urban, spoken German.

World Cup notes:  this World Cup is breaking TV viewing records from China to Chile. A story here on U.S. TV ratings, which are especially impressive on the Spanish-language Univision channel. The Argentina-Mexico game was the most-watched  Spanish-language telecast in U.S. history, with nearly 10 million viewers. Combined with English-language coverage, that game attracted nearly 14 million viewers — impressive for a contest that did not feature the United States. In contast, a combined 19  million watched the U.S.-Ghana game.

And there’s a nice video montage from BBC Mundo here of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

Finally,  British politician Chris Bryant has called French a “useless” language to learn. He suggested that children should instead learn Chinese or Arabic. After he made those comments, the BBC hauled him into a studio to defend himself, and to debate the issue with a German diplomat. (Late replacement for a French diplomat? Peut-être.)



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