Russians guided through linguistic jungle

September 10, 1999


Russian is a notoriously difficult language to learn and even natives often stumble over the grammatical complexities of declensions and conjugations.

Grammars and dictionaries do not always cover obscure or modern usages, causing headaches for government, law firms and ordinary Russians.

Yulia Safonova and her colleagues at the Russian Language Institute in central Moscow are there to ease the pain. Russians or foreigners who want advice on the correct grammatical use of the language, word history or dialect variations can call a hotline for immediate advice.

The service, which has been offered at the institute for more than 40 years, apart from a break of several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is free of charge unless detailed written answers from a team of researchers are called for.

"So far this year we have had some 50 serious inquiries by post for which a reply the equal of a learned scientific paper must be drafted. These we charge for. But telephone queries, which come in at the rate of more than 50 a day, are all free," said Professor Safonova, who also lectures in modern Russian at the State Academy of Slavonic Culture in Moscow.

Russia's federal programme on the Russian language - a special commission set up by President Boris Yeltsin to safeguard linguistic standards - donates 12,000 roubles (Pounds 300) a year to help fund the team of five researchers who work on the telephones in addition to their normal work of compiling dictionaries. Plans to establish a charging system for telephone inquiries were abandoned last year after Russia's financial crisis sent the economy into a downward spiral.

Professor Safonova, who comes from a Urals Cossack family, is glad the scheme came to nothing.

"Russian is the official language of the Russian Federation and now I firmly believe the service should be free," she said, as the telephone rang constantly with people needing to know the correct way to use a phrase or conjugate a verb.

"Cossack women traditionally are not guardians, but keepers. I prefer to think that we are conserving the Russian language, rather than protecting it."

She hesitated to define which public figures in Russia exemplify the best and worst

treatment of the language, but said that neither former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev nor President Yeltsin seem to have been taught the art of public speaking.

But Alexander Lebed, the tough former general and now governor of Siberia's vast Krasnoyarsk Krai (territory), speaks very well, she said.

"The most important thing is not what they say but what they do," she said. "But language is a very subtle structure. It not only unites or divides people, but is the very blood of life."

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