Nyet to tainting mother tongue

May 3, 2002

Russian politicians and officials are to be issued with a guide to the proper use of the Russian language in a drive, headed by top university experts, to maintain standards.

The pamphlet, A Dictionary of Improper Use , will cover the 200 words that civil servants and political leaders most often misuse, mispronounce or neglect in favour of fashionable foreign imports.

Its authors, who include Ludmila Verbitskaya, rector of St Petersburg University, claim Russia's economic and social woes since the collapse of communism have been accompanied by a steep decline in standards of written and spoken Russian.

The rot set in during perestroika - the period of late Soviet reforms - and has accelerated ever since, they say.

Publishing the dictionary is part of a wider campaign by philologists and educationists, who are also supporting one of three different bills on making Russian the state language of the Russian Federation, due to go before the Duma (parliament) this month.

Yevgeny Yurkov, an expert on Russian language and literature at St Petersburg University, said that the "organic" adoption of foreign words and phrases, where they enriched the language by contributing meanings not covered by existing words, should be welcomed. But the use of fashionable foreign words, jargon or slang for the sake of looking more "beautiful or brighter" should be resisted.

"Those members of the mass media or political elite who appear on television or in newspapers and magazines are not always well educated, and their culture of speech does not always correspond to the norms of educated Russians," Dr Yurkov, head of Russian as a foreign language and methodology of teaching at St Petersburg University, said.

"People in power should not use foreign words to look beautiful or brighter than they are - it is not culturally good."

Influential public figures who misuse Russian were not the only ones to blame. Declining educational standards in some parts of Russia and the tendency of officials and teachers in national republics to use local language rather than Russian was part of the problem, he added.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, and Viktor Chernomyrdin, a Russian prime minister during Boris Yeltsin's presidency, both strayed from correct grammar. But Vladimir Putin, Russia's president and a Petersburg university graduate, did not abuse the Russian language, said Dr Yurkov.

"Putin has very good and correct Russian language. It's not always very vivid, but that's a problem common to many politicians."

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