Russian lawmakers try to stomp out foreign slang

Aroza by any other name ... may soon be banned in Russia. Concerned that an invasion of foreign slang, including an estimated 10,000 English words, is corrupting the Russian language, the State Duma is considering a legislative crackdown.

A bill drafted by the majority United Russia Party aims to corral the roaming Russian language and purge it of sloppy, obscene, and alien elements that have been picked up during the loose years since the Soviet Union's collapse. It would set terms for punishing offenders who work in the media, in schools, and in government offices. Fines and administrative penalties are proposed for the most part, but serious offenders could have their broadcast or publishing licenses revoked.

"You may say that other problems, like the economy, seem more important than this," says Mikhail Fyodorov, an adviser to the Duma's Cultural Commission and one of the bill's authors. "But we are convinced that it is crucial to restore respect for the state language in Russia."

Nationalists, backed by some linguists and language specialists, have been warning for years that the Russian language – which was carefully supervised and pruned in Soviet times – is evolving out of control and could be inundated by the wave of foreign borrowings. Experts have even given the phenomenon an appropriately English label: nyu spik (newspeak).

Often these lexical interlopers describe something fundamentally new to Russia, such as business, banking, democratic politics, and the Internet. Words like kompyuter, mobilny telefon, fax, konsultant, broker, sponsor, diler, chizburger, and kornfleiks have no equivalents in standard Russian.

Nor, ironically, do some words employed every day by Duma deputies, such as parlament, prezident, spiker, impichment, elektorat, and konsensus.

Supporters of the law complain that no effort has been made to adapt older and grammatically harmonious Russian words to meet new purposes. And they become furious at the increasingly popular usage of English words where perfectly good Russian equivalents exist. For example, many sportscasters now say golkiper rather than the familiar Russian word vratar, for goalie. Street signs in downtown Moscow refer to parking, though the traditional word is stoyanka. Even criminals have taken to saying killer, while the Russian language has always had its own word for a murderer, ubitsa.

"It's one thing to borrow words that express economic and cultural changes, but this aggressive Americanization is something quite different," says Yevgeny Chelishev, a member of the Kremlin's official Language Council, which was created by President Vladimir Putin two years ago. "Measures are long overdue."

But some experts say the proposed law is just a futile finger in the dike. "Russian has been changing for centuries, as a product of our contacts with the world," says Vitaly Kostomarov, president of the Pushkin Institute, a leading language school. "In the modern, globalized world, the language must develop even faster. The only way to halt the process would be to impose complete isolation. Who wants that?"

The Russian language is under attack from without and also from within, says the bill's main author, United Russia deputy Alexei Alexeyev. There are more than 100 native languages spoken by the peoples of the Russian Federation, and in some of the larger ethnic republics attempts have been made to replace Russian as the official language, he says.

In the oil-rich and mainly Muslim republic of Tatarstan, local authorities even tried recently to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin script.

"We need a law to regulate language use," Mr. Alexeyev says. "Russian is the state language, and therefore must be the language of official discourse in this country. It's also necessary to ensure that children ... receive sufficient instruction in the state language."

Alexeyev says the standards to be imposed in Russia are similar to those in France, where the Académie française monitors changes in national speech patterns, dishes out penalties, and issues verdicts on vocabulary and grammar.

The Russian bill will probably be passed into law by the end of this year, Mr. Fyodorov says. In addition to imposing fines and other penalties on those whose tongues slip the wrong way, the Language Council would also produce special dictionaries and lists of prohibited words.

Journalists and TV performers would be carefully tracked.

"When a large TV station makes a serious language mistake, millions of viewers are affected," Fyodorov says. "The situation with radio and children's TV programming is particularly dreadful. Even worse than the use of foreign words is some of the inappropriate slang being used."

Critics say the exercise has the potential to veer into political abuse, such as further clampdowns on Russia's already beleaguered independent media.

The Putin years have seen a concerted Kremlin effort to restore order to society following the perceived excesses of the early post-Soviet years, and the bill appears to be part of that trend, notes Leonid Krisin, deputy director of the official Institute of Russian Language in Moscow.

"It is a bit worrisome," he says. "How can you make a language follow orders? Language changes along with society, and the best way to ensure that spoken Russian reflects a free and dynamic society is probably to leave it alone."

The replacements

Here are some of the English-based words most commonly used in Russia, along with the Russian counterparts that are threatened with extinction:

stop (imperative, as in a stop sign) = ostanovityes

forward (position in football, hockey) = napadayushchy

offis = kabinyet

supermarket = universam

show = predstavleniye

player (as in record, tape, or CD player) = proigryvatel

boyfrend = drug

girlfrend = podruga

loozer (person who's a habitual failure) = nyeudachnik

Pi-aR (public relations) = svyazi s obshchestvyenostyu Here are some of the English-based words most commonly used in Russia, along with the Russian counterparts that are threatened with extinction:

stop (imperative, as in a stop sign) = ostanovityes

forward (position in football, hockey) = napadayushchy

offis = kabinyet

supermarket = universam

show = predstavleniye

player (as in record, tape, or CD player) = proigryvatel

boyfrend = drug

girlfrend = podruga

loozer (person who's a habitual failure) = nyeudachnik

Pi-aR (public relations) = svyazi s obshchestvyenostyu

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